A Celebration of the Human-Nature and Human-Animal Bond

(Thanks to the photographers at  Pixabay.com for the lovely pictures of the Lake District scenery and some of its animal inhabitants.)

Author James Rebanks opens his beautifully written book, The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape, with poet William Wordsworth’s highly romanticized description of England’s Lakes District where Rebanks lives. That poetic and bucolic portrayal of the area, in turn, launched what became a steady stream of good-weather tourists. The author then follows Wordsworth with the definition of hefted , a verb used in northern England and Scotland that refers to an upland area to which a farm animal—and especially sheep—have become attached.

Hefted. To become attached to the land. To want to cling to it tenaciously no matter what. That mental image was about as far removed from that carried by Wordsworth-nurtured tourists holidaying in the region as one could imagine.

After reading Wordsworth’s references to this “perfect Republic of Shepherds” with neither Knights nor Esquires nor high-born Noblemen populated by “humble sons of the hills”, and what it meant to be hefted, it shouldn’t have surprised me to then encounter young James Rebanks seething with palpable rage as only a 13-year-old boy listening to a perceived clueless adult in a school assembly can seethe.

By then students already had been sorted into wheat and chaff groups in a manner familiar to many past and, sadly, some present American students. The stated or implicit message was clear: There were those who were college or university-bound. And the rest. Regardless of any teacher’s exact words, what young Rebanks heard was yet another disparagement of the life and land that had been his family’s for hundreds of years. No wonder he felt angry and hated school with a passion!

Despite being among the chosen ones who went on to get the expected higher degrees myself, reading Rebanks’s description of his feelings brought back memories of former classmates who also felt like educational outcasts. Granted we lived in a highly industrialized area, but Rebanks spoke of a more universal phenomenon. All of my classmates shared his sentiments when he wrote, Plenty of us were bright enough, but we had no intention of displaying it in school. That would have been dangerous.” Better to have the system believe you stupid than feel obligated to get an education to prepare you to do something you had no desire to do.

As the book progresses through the seasons, the magnitude of the author’s attachment to the land becomes clear. Dispatches about the triumphs and disappointments bestowed by the land, animals, people, weather, seasons, history, and encroaching modernity weave a rich but complex picture of what it means to be hefted as a person, family, and community as well as an animal or flock to this ancient land.

The more I read, the more I realized that the author described all the different factors that constitute the human-nature bond and its subset, the human-animal one in its purest form. None of the excess emotionalism or hyperbole often attached to the bond by the mainstream media marred his account. Nor was his presentation simplistic. An infinite number of components representing the best and worst of multiple species, the season, weather, births, deaths, and countless other variables constantly impacting each other formed this bond. All of them struggling to maintain homeostasis, to maintain balance in their own ways. All honed over hundreds of years of living with to the point of becoming part of the land and all its inhabitants. How else could they have survived when foot and mouth disease resulted in the slaughter of the sheep, cattle, and other livestock with whom they’d shared so much?

Lest you think the author is some modern day grumpy Thoreau who yearns for the good old days and eschews modern ways, he’s not.  He has a wonderful sense of humor and a practical sensibility. As he matured he recognized that, if he wanted to stay on the farm, he’d need a source of outside income to support this desire. Fortunately, and despite a combination of schoolboy anger and rebellion at what he perceived as a relentless attack on everything he valued that led some educators to write him off, not all of them did. Ultimately a combination of events took him to Oxford. While he went to class, his wife filled their tiny apartment with home-baked goods that she sold to generate income to help pay for his education.

But always his heart was at farm. While other students may have considered Oxford a full-time academic and social experience, he scheduled his classes to allow him maximum time to work at the farm. Thus began a dual existence that persists.

Today, Rebanks “outside” work involves traveling the globe, doing research, writing and consulting on matters related to ensuring a sustainable future for the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (USESCO) World Heritage Sites. Although this superficially may appear about as opposite to his life as a Lakes District’s shepherd as one could imagine, it isn’t. He knows from firsthand experience that even the most culturally and environmentally rich areas cannot retreat and hope to survive on their own. He also knows from his research on the  socio-economic potential of World Heritage Sites that striking a balance between notoriety and the tourism and related services and infrastructures it generates while maintaining the integrity of a fragile geographic location and its culture requires great care and planning.

I thought about  Rebanks and his more public life against the backdrop of The Shepherd’s Life with its  modern dispatches from an ancient landscape spanning a calendar year and generations of memories of multifaceted life. As I did, a  seemingly unrelated memory involving the  brilliant mathematician and song writer Tom Lehrer came to mind. When a reporter asked Lehrer if he considered his successful musical career as moonlighting, he said he preferred to think of his work at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as “daylighting”. I suspect that Rebanks might feel the same way about his life at the farm and the research, writing, and travel that supports it. Both now make up his life, but it’s the land and all its connections that define who he is at heart.

Happy is the person who possesses such a strong sense of place as well as self in the natural world, and knows such a place when they see it.



Leave a Reply