Last years literary sensation in the UK was a book about sheep.
In the UK it might not be that common that a literary meditation on nature, family, traditions and sheep farming becomes a bestseller. In Norway, however, we like to watch slow television and read books about stacking wood. In that respect, James Rebanks book The Sheperd’s life should have everything it takes to find a large audience in this country, and deservedly so. It’s the most wonderful book I’ve read in a long time.
James Rebanks is a sheep farmer (albeit with a college degree) on a farm in the Lake District, an area of England favoured by writers and romantic poets for centuries. But The Sheperd’s life is not romantic literature; on the contrary, it’s a down to earth tale of daily life on a farm. The book tells us all about shearing wool, drying hay and looking after new-born lamb, but there is also a larger story there; the story of Rebanks own family, the landscape he grew up in and the importance of manual labour.
The Lake District is currently one of England’s most popular tourist destinations, with over 15 million visitors each year. It is also home to a large number of farmers. Rebanks describes how he joins visiting relatives as a boy to go hiking in the hills near his home with a map and guidebook. He doesn’t have the right equipment or clothes, as they do, and he doesn’t know the names of the hills they climb. He sees his home in a different light, not quite sure of that that means.
The way in which Rebanks describes the landscape he grew up in is neither nostalgic nor sentimental. If anything, he writes about it with a tone of gratitude. Today Rebanks has become a rather popular figure through social media in England, with over 80.000 Twitter followers. On the other had, he is the perfect counterpoint to our digital society. His book is, if anything, a story about values – about academic ideas on social development compared to the farmer’s ancient traditions. Yes, the farmer evolves and adopts new methods to meet the demands of the marked, and still it’s as if he can somehow make time stop. You could place a Viking in our mountains, writes Rebanks, and he would immediately understand what we do and the basic pattererns of our operations.
Reading The Sheperd’s life is a bit like climbing up a hillside and looking out onto a waste, open landscape. It provides you with a feeling of calm and perspective. It’s not something that is easily passed on as a commodity, but here it is, lingering between the covers of a book.
The Sheperd’s life is out in Norwegian now, published by Press and translated by Hege Mehren.