Late January. Lake District, England. Are the shepherds starting to worry if there’s enough hay left to see them through the winter? Did the snow on Friday cause any damage to the farm or take the lives of any sheep? The harsh winter months are a testing time for shepherds and sheep. This is part of the cycle of life of a Lake District shepherd which I never knew before I read this book. Sheep are everything to them. The whole year’s activities and events on the calendar weave around the needs of the sheep.
… one of the great forgotten silent majority of people who lived, worked, loved and died without leaving much written trace that they were ever there… Landscapes like ours were created by, and survive through, the efforts of nobodies…
And he starts to describe an ordinary working day with the shepherd community on the hill. The sentences are short, simple and practical when he describes the tasks and exchange between people, showing how ordinary and task-oriented every moves and words are. But the descriptions of nature are vivid, romantic and dramatic. When he says, “fingers of pink and orange light are now creeping over the fell sides”, I see a glorious sunrise. The two types of writing blend seamlessly, making the ordinary life and hard work breathtakingly beautiful.
Everywhere is noise.
Clap and wave hands.
Ewes call for their lambs.
Lambs call back.
The men drive the sheep away home. They fleet away like the shadows of clouds blown across the lower slopes of the mountains.
I love the words, especially a lot of the vivid verbs. He paints pictures with his words like magic – better than real pictures. His words come to life.
The book talks about how special sheep are, especially Lake District’s very own Herdwick sheep. It talks about how sheepdogs live and work alongside shepherds, as co-workers not pets, doing awe-inspiring jobs. It talks about the shepherds’ community, though living far apart from each other, is tightly woven throughout Lake District, the Pennines and even whole of the UK. It talks about their worldview, their “code of honour”, and their way of doing business. When he tells stories of his present, they’re almost always linked with memories from the past, as if to say, this is a historical landscape, “I am walking in the footsteps of my ancestors, and living a life they lived” – I am who I am because of our history and I’m very proud of it.
The author talks about how the world outside changed over his lifetime and how it affected the life inside. He talks about his family members and his school years, some stories moving, some hilarious; about how his life was changed unexpectedly by books and lovingly by a girl, who could see the best in him and for whom he wanted to be a better person. It also talks about “lunatic” people who “would climb a fell for its own sake” – A child’s organic understanding of the farming landscape of the Lake District and the unsettling realisation of its image from the “outsiders”.
The relationship between the shepherd and his sheep is fascinating. The shepherds look after the sheep like their own children. The distance he goes to take care of the sheep amazes me. There is a story about him rescuing the sheep in a winter storm coming home soaked and half-frozen. There is another story about stacking hay (food for sheep in winter) on a mid-summer’s day and getting sick and dehydrated. The shepherds know the sheep like their own children. I was really surprised when I learnt they know each sheep individually – in which market it was bought or under which tree on their farm it was born, who its parents are, its strengths and weaknesses, its character and temperament. In my eyes, they all look the same! Jesus said “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep…”. It’s such a comfort and privilege knowing the king and creator of heaven and earth knows me personally like this.
I think he can write such brilliant story about shepherds in the Lake District not only because this is his own people, his family and ancestors, and he loves the people, the landscape, the sheep, the dogs and the work; but more importantly, he left it for a while and is able to see it from an outsider’s perspective like an observer. It’s a combination of the love and insight of a shepherd himself, and the connection with the world and the likes of me.
This is my life. I want no other.