E.M. Forster famously said, “How do I know what I think until I see what I say.” Writers love this line because it gives weight to the effort of writing.
I’d like to shift Forster’s thought for a moment because I picked up a book recently that’s given me a new way of thinking, so I’d say, “How do I know what I think until I see what I read.”
I spotted the book at my local library and really have no idea what attracted me to it, but now it’s one I’ll have in my personal library along with a handful of other books that have influenced my life. It’s one that I’ll carry around the way people carry sacred texts, so I can read a few lines for comfort and balance whenever the need is upon me.
The title, The Shepherd’s Life, may sound like a sacred text to some or perhaps a book on some idyllic pastime, but the subtitle says otherwise: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape.
Let me be clear. I know nothing about sheep or shepherding – or at least didn’t until now – aside from seeing flocks in fields or on farm roads now and then, and once or twice as a child feeding wooly lambs from long-necked bottles with rubber nipples attached.
The author of the book, James Rebanks, grew up in English sheep country, more particularly in the Lake District, the world of Beatrix Potter and William Wordsworth, and descended from a long line of farmers and shepherds.
He eventually left the farm for a few years and went to Oxford – a story in itself – and the book is something of a memoir crossed with an excursion into history and philosophy with a good measure of poetry, passion, geology, and the recounting of some of the things we’ve lost in our modern lives even while strong traditions linger.
It’s by no means a sentimental lament for lost times, just the clear observations of a man rooted in one world and now living in another.
The Shepherd’s Life is a beautiful telling of family stories, hard work, passing seasons, life and loss. I couldn’t put it down.
Then today James Rebanks crossed paths with Salman Rushdie and my previous post about changes in our personal weather when I read this from his description of working the farm in bitter winter weather:
“There’s no such thing as bad weather, only bad clothes. That’s what they say.”
It occurred to me that when our personal weather changes, we’re going to want the metaphorical clothes to match it. When our personal weather changes, we’re not in the same place, not the same people we were the day before, and the clothes, the life, we wore yesterday will need adjusting.
Only a fool would go out in new weather wearing the same old things that worked for yesterday’s weather.
Oh, and Rebanks has – like Miss Fidditch – a few simple rules. Miss Fidditch says about writing 1. Get the words down and 2. Fix them. About shepherding James Rebanks says:
- It’s not about you, it’s about the sheep and the land.
- You can’t win sometimes.
- Shut up, and go and do the work.
I can think of all kinds of occasions when these rules work just fine.
Comfort. Balance. Perspective. The shepherd’s life.