Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Counting Sheep

In October I was sitting in a Glasgow pub (Wetherspoon) waiting for a plate of fish and chips to arrive, when I noticed that the young man seated at the next table was adjusting his camera to capture a long exposure of the rain-soaked urban street scene through the window.  We started talking about the weddings, family portraits and corporate shoots that he did as everyday jobs, and then the conversation turned to his real passion, nature photography.  I expressed my admiration for N.B. nature photographer Freeman Patterson and he quickly Googled that name.  Using his smart phone to display a few examples, the young man introduced me to work he found amazing: the Lake District photos of Ian Lawson. The series records flocks of Herdwick sheep, border collies and shepherds that inhabit a rugged and beautiful landscape of valleys and fells in Cumbria.   These photos stuck in my mind as other-worldly images, conveying the atmosphere and texture of a distinctive place.
One of Ian Lawson's photos of Herdwick sheep

Back home a few days later I picked up a book from the Cap-Pele library entitled "The Shepherd's Life: Modern dispatches from an Ancient Landscape" by James Rebanks.  The cover photo of sheep in the field reminded me of the Lawson photos I had seen during my trip.



  I was delighted to find out that the author/shepherd hails from the same enchanted area of northern England, namely Matterdale Valley in the Eden district of Cumbria, where he tends a flock of Herdwick sheep.  Rebanks takes pride in maintaining a farming practice that has been in use for at least six centuries by his ancestors and their neighbours.

Though the farm equipment and living conditions have been updated in the last two generations,  James Rebanks writes about a way of life that is firmly connected to the past.  A close relationship with his grandfather is central to the book, forming a pattern that the younger shepherd follows as he matures, and in turn passes on to his children as they grow up.  The old man taught him many lessons which define core values in his family: Grandfather was the wise shepherd guiding a flock.

Be fair to other people
Grandfather will not cheat another farmer to get a bargain.  When he buys sheep he negotiates a fair price, knowing that his reputation will be respected and that he will be welcomed back by the seller next year.

Know when to act, and when to hold back
Grandfather kept close watch over ewes at birthing time, but intervened only when it was necessary.  He knew when help was crucial and when it was okay to observe and let nature take its course.

Take care with your work
At age eight, James is taught by his grandfather how to build a stone wall.  Each stone is assessed for suitability of size and shape before being added to the construction.  Craftsmanship is important.

Choose carefully
The decisions made by the shepherd today may have long term consequences for the well-being of the flock.  Don't be swayed by a whim or fashion when selecting a ram.

Delay Gratification
Christmas presents are not opened until all of the sheep have been fed, and the shepherd has consumed his breakfast.  The animals and the people who tend them always come first.

"The Shepherd's Life" introduces a whole new vocabulary to the reader who is not familiar with livestock.  The word "heft" has always been related to lifting or measuring weight in my dictionary, but Rebanks gives us the northern England usage for the word.

heft - verb: trans.  of a farm animal , especially a flock of sheep  To become accustomed and attached to an area of upland pasture.
Apparently this usage derives from the Old Norse "hefo" meaning "tradition."

The book is at heart a meditation on "heft" with emphasis on the value of continuity, deep respect for nature and confidence in an authentic identity that resists change.  As the shepherd describes his life's work, there is no doubt about his personal attachment to the upland pasture and his occupation.

"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, in a hundred years' time, no one will care that I owned the sheep that grazed part of these mountains.  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 that came before a debt for getting it this far."

  Here is an interview from the Guardian with James Rebanks that includes a video of his fine sheep.