Shear beauty... in The Shepherd's Life
This modern-day shepherd's tale of the highs and lows of life on the mountains is devoid of self-pity
'This is my life. I want no other.' That is how shepherd James Rebanks concludes his compelling chronicle of a year in the life of a fell (mountain) community in the Lake District of north-west of England, an hour's drive from the Irish Sea.
Autobiography, family history and community life are woven into a raw, authentic and exhilarating narrative that echoes the splendid Blasket Island books penned by Tomás Ó Criomhthain and Muiris Ó Súilleabháin.
The real stars of the book, however, are the Herdwick sheep, native to the Lake District fells and bred for centuries to suit this landscape, its harsh climate and its way of farming. The reader is taken through every aspect of sheep farming: breeding, herding, gathering, feeding, lambing, bonding, bathing, shearing, trimming, medicating, castrating, and even a backward glance at the withering effects of a foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. "Landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a million little unseen jobs."
Writing movingly about the death of an old ewe, he observes that his people are not sentimental, they share their lives with their sheep. They care about them. He recalls the exact spot where the seven-year-old ewe was born, under a fallen tree out of the wind and rain.
There is nothing rosy or romantic about the landscape portrayed in this book; the author does not wander "lonely as a cloud", as did Wordsworth. Cold and wet weather can start as early as October and lasts until almost May - a whole eight months tend to feel like winter. Like many Irish farmers, Rebanks has a part-time job to make ends meet; he runs a sustainable-tourism consultancy.
Self-pity, however, is entirely absent as Rebanks delights in the life of a fell farmer. He liberally sprinkles the narrative with sentences of stunning beauty. Sheep released on to the fells "… fleet away like the shadows of clouds across the lower slopes of the mountains".
Interwoven into this woolly weft are coruscating comments about issues such as modern over-reliance on industrial commodity food products and "the choice we face not being whether we farm, but how we farm". Yet he is full of hope. Like Wordsworth, he believes his way of life represents something of wider benefit that others can enjoy, experience and learn about.
He left school at 16, just about literate; he could write in capital letters but not cursively. He started to read books inherited from his grandfather, and began to help his sisters with their homework. Shades here of the way the Monaghan poet Patrick Kavanagh taught himself by reading his siblings' textbooks.
At 21 he enrolled in an adult education centre, and progressed from there to Oxford to read history.
Three years ago he began to post pictures of his sheep and his life as a shepherd on Twitter (@herdy shepherd1). Today, 60,000 Twitter followers from all over the world check out what he, his dogs and his sheep are up to on a daily basis. Even Floss, one of his sheepdogs, has its own hashtag.
The book is a captivating look into a way of life that most of us only glimpse as we drive through the countryside or perhaps as we climb or walk there.
Redmond writes: "If I had only a few days left on Earth, I would spend one of them inspecting Herdwick tups (rams)." After reading this book you will never see or think about sheep in the same way again.
The Shepherd's Life: A Tale of the Lake District
Allen Lane, hdbk, 320 pages
Available with free P&P on www.kennys.ie