I usually think about shepherds only once a year, around Christmas, when our crèche migrates from the backyard shed to a place beneath the tree, and we reconnect with the tiny figures of herdsmen making their way toward Bethlehem.
But some weeks ago, with the thermometer hovering near 100 and the chill of yuletide too far away to even imagine, I ducked into a movie theater with my wife and saw, in the depths of summer, sheep and their tenders ambling across the screen, peaceful as clouds in an open sky.
We were there to see “Far From the Madding Crowd,” the new adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel of the same name about farm life in 19th century England. I had written about the movie here a couple of weeks ago, offering it as a crash course in the art of finding the ideal spouse. Bathsheba, the story’s heroine, kisses a couple of frogs before finding the right husband, Gabriel, who proves his steadiness by showing up, on fair days and foul ones, to tend Bathsheba’s sheep.
Gabriel’s shepherding serves as a kind of shorthand for the constancy of his character, since his job requires him to work when everyone else is off the clock. It points to the kind of sacrifices made by farmers everywhere, including the ones in Louisiana who supply our dinner tables.
Shepherding looks pretty easy in those holiday nativity scenes, with the sheep as white as choir robes, as conveniently motionless as the shepherds who stare blankly at nothing in particular, animal husbandry as perpetual daydream.
But James Rebanks tells a different story in “The Shepherd’s Life,” a new memoir about life on his family farm in the Lake District of northern England. Rebanks lives in the sweeping English countryside that shows up in the poetry of William Wordsworth, the children’s tales of Beatrix Potter, or the pleasant scenery of “Masterpiece Theatre.” From the sheep farm his family has kept for generations, Rebanks sees a steady stream of cars along the highway, a traffic of tourists who’ve come to sample rural life.
He loves this life that others dream about, but he points out, in graceful and often humorous prose, just how much a shepherd’s job demands. The sheep stink and draw flies, and grow too wet on rainy days to be sheared, and the price of wool isn’t always much reward for all the trouble. “Some years we don’t bother to sell wool because the price is so bad, and burn it,” Rebanks tells readers.
He continues this work, he says, because it connects him to something larger. “We are born, live our working lives, and die, passing like the oak leaves that blow across our land in the winter,” Rebanks writes. “We are each tiny parts of something enduring, something that feels solid, real, and true.”
Danny Heitman is on Twitter, @Danny_Heitman.