Book review: The Shepherd's Life - by Herdwick Shepherd of Twitter fame

James Rebanks' seasonal diary of rural life in northwest England mixes romance and realism

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 12:07am
UPDATED : Sunday, 23 August, 2015, 12:07am


James Rebanks began tweeting anonymously a couple of years ago (as the "Herdwick Shepherd") about day-to-day life in the land of Wordsworth, thinking that maybe a couple of people might be interested in seeing a sheep-filled photo or two of what he does and where he does it. He was wrong.

Today, almost 70,000 followers from all over the world are watching the seasons unfold with him, his handsome sheep and his tireless collies in Britain's Lake District, that brilliant green corner of the world that time (but not tourists) forgot.

Rebanks' The Shepherd's Life unfolds as a seasonal diary, as he guides us through the cycle of a typical shepherding year while also reflecting on the tough and honourable nature of his people, who have lived and worked in the appropriately named Eden Valley for the past 600-plus years.

The book is a bit romantic and a lot realistic, with what one reviewer aptly called "mud and blood" (nature can be cruel, too, and the author is the first to admit it).

It's the sort of book that takes you to a place you have a hard time letting go of. There you are, sitting in front of a computer at work doing the bidding of the modern world, when suddenly your imagination conjures before you the head of a gorgeous Herdwick sheep snacking on long, swaying grasses on the side of a fell (yeah, you start talking in the lingo, too) or out in the spring fields helping to lamb a ewe. I guess you could call that counting sheep during the daytime hours.

But at the heart of it is this: as a youth, Rebanks, now 40, recognised the precise juncture when the children at school were being herded into one of two futures, those who would study and those who would farm. Even then, this gifted farmer/poet knew what an honour living on the land was, and he fought for the privilege of that future.

What's most moving about The Shepherd's Life is the admiration you feel for his self-knowledge, his reverence for the animals and his heritage, his certainty of his place in the world and his generosity in sharing it.

The Shepherd's Life  by James Rebanks  (Flatiron Books)

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