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In the book The Shepherd’s Life, author James Rebanks writes, “There is nothing like the feeling of freedom and space that you get when you are working with the flock and the dogs in the fells. I escape the nonsense that tries to consume me down below. My life has a purpose, an earthy sensible meaning.”
In a recent discussion of faculty scholarship, Jason Lief (fellow blogger here on The Twelve) made the comment that many young people struggle with their identity because our current world requires significant effort to connect the corporeality of the physical with an abstract reality. Jason gave the example of a vinyl record vs. music in a cloud. What is the difference between the two mediums? And what are the implications for the separation of identity from the corporeality of the physical? I keep chewing over these ideas.
I think James and Jason are on to something. Rebanks emphasizes the physical reality of shepherding work. He provides a connective thread between what he does, daily and by season, with his father’s work as a shepherd, his grandfather’s work as a shepherd, and the long line of shepherds from the part of northern England that have continued their work, deeply connected with the landscape, for more than a thousand years. On a side-note, Rebanks’ book about sheep avoids the overused tropes of sheep as dumb (and comparable to Christ’s followers). The book is enlightening and well written, but why is it a New York Times bestselling book? I suspect the answer has to do with audience – a modern world that is hungry for an “authentic” life lived in intimate contact with nature. For many of us in industrialized countries or with enough wealth to insulate, we are disconnected with the landscape and the world of muck, mire, and blood that comes with care for animals (or, let’s be honest, to a much lesser degree, parenting). Wealth can be defined many ways, but when people acquire a certain amount of ‘wealth,’ what are the tasks they most readily pay others to perform? Childcare, cleaning, hunting/growing/preparing food, maintenance of technology – in other words, the work that encourages physical contact with the physical world.
The popularity of Rebanks narrative of a sheep farmer’s life holds the interest of so many because he has a physical and tangible connection with his work, his sheep, and the land. And yet Rebanks makes no mention of religion. I cannot know for sure as I have only read this one book by Rebanks, but I suspect his religion is his work. See the way he talks about his calling as a shepherd:
“This is an ancient, hard-earned, local kind of freedom that was stolen from people elsewhere. The kind of freedom that the nineteenth-century peasant poet John Clare wrote about. He lamented the changes in the Northamptonshire landscape he loved because of enclosure. He saw the disconnection that was being created between people like him and the land, something that has only gotten worse with each passing year since then. Across most of England, over the past couple of centuries, common land has been enclosed, until only islands of it have been left, in poor or mountainous places like ours where something older remains. Ours is a rooted and local kind of freedom tied to working common land, the freedom of the commoner, a community-based relationship with land. By remaining in a place, working on it, and paying my dues, I am entitled to a share of its commonwealth.
Working up these mountains is as good as it gets, at least as long as you are not freezing or sodden (though even then you feel alive in ways that I don’t in modern life behind glass). There is a thrill in the timelessness up there; I have always liked the feeling of carrying on something bigger than me, something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time. To work there is a humbling thing, the opposite of conquering a mountain if you like; it liberates you from any illusion of self-importance. I am only one of the current graziers on our fell (and one of the smaller and more recently established ones at that), a small link in a very long chain. Perhaps no one will care that I owned the sheep that grazed part of these mountains in a hundred years’ time. They won’t know my name. But that doesn’t matter. If they stand on that fell and do the things we do, they will owe me a tiny unspoken debt for once keeping part of it going, just as I owe all those who came before a debt for getting it this far.”
Did you see the search for a corporeal reality and sense of religious connection with the land and his calling in Rebanks’ words? And the satisfaction of “carrying on something bigger than me”? This disconnection from the land and the physicality of the landscape has significant consequences. The question is, what can we do about it?