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A Shepherd’s Life

Paul MacCormack


jacket_med.jpgEvery now and again a book comes along that really connects with people close to you. Originally from an uncle, given to my mother in law, then passed to my son and then my wife, the book by James Rebanks has made the family rounds. As my wife Jill finished reading it, she turned to me in bed and stated, "You have to read this. You will get it. There are so many parallels between his life and yours."


The work tells the story of a forgotten way of life in the Lake District of the northern United Kingdom. James Rebanks comes from a long line of shepherds that have been tending sheep in this area for literally thousands of years.


This book was laid out by seasons and written as more or less as a series of journal entries. With an intimacy that was at times surprising, Rebanks shares the history and deep rooted connections that these folks have with both the land and with each other. Like most things worth doing, shepherding is phenomenally hard work, but by all accounts it transforms those who practice the craft and leaves them tied to both the work and the land in a truly meaningful way.

As I read through this narrative, I couldn't help but be struck by the similarities between the life of a shepherd and that of a greenkeeper. It was as if by living the life of the superintendent, I could completely relate to the lives of these people. By times the similarities were almost eerie.


The Connection to the Land -- The people of the Lake District have a deep sense of rootedness to where they are. The intimacy and depth of knowledge regarding their fells and farms are at times staggering. It is the kind of connection that can only come from spending a great deal of time working the land and understanding its wisdom. As greenkeepers I think we can understand that depth of knowledge. It that sense of connection that only comes from the balance between working the land in a physical way and appreciating it in a deeper, more spiritual way. Tuning into this connection may be the key to returning to a more simplistic, less intrusive version of our craft.


The Connection to Each Other -- The only bonds stronger than that of the land were those that bound their families and community together. Each farm depended on the strength of their families and their workers to see them through. It wasn't always pretty, but in the end the deep respect they had for each other was evident. Greenkeepers are no different in that regard. Our dependence on our family support and the respect and hard work of our crews keeps us grounded and moving forward.


Like most things worth doing, shepherding is incredibly hard work, but by all accounts it transforms those who practice the craft and leaves them tied to both the work and the land in a truly meaningful way...


The Brother/Sisterhood of Shepherds -- This community of people was and is largely misunderstood by most that do not live it. The Lake District is a huge tourist destination in the UK, and most come simply for the scenery and the old world charm. But these shepherds live it, every day. They operate in a world that while governed by modernity, remains quite true to the craft. How many times as a superintendent have you felt misunderstood by those who play the game? How many times have you found a great deal of comfort in the fact that there are other greenkeepers, just like you, slogging it out each day, practicing an age old craft?


The Craft -- These folks take an immense amount of pride in the knowledge and wisdom they have accumulated over the centuries. Breeding sheep that can not only survive, but thrive in these inhospitable fells takes both skill and patience. It takes a lifetime of practice to achieve some semblance of success. There is a great deal of honor and respect that goes with practicing this art. Not so different from managing turf really; those who are patient enough to learn, listen to the land and the plants, try and fail repeatedly, will be the ones at the end of the day that garner the respect of their peers and achieve some measure of success in this game.


The Life -- The level of absorption into the life of a shepherd is full and complete. At times the author blurred the lines between life, and life on the farm. Most times they were as one. Rebanks recalled a stern chastisement from his daughter, telling him that 'all you do is think about sheep'. Unfortunately, as greenkeepers we can relate to that one all too well



Rebanks' writing style gives the reader a deeply personal glimpse into what it means to be a shepherd. It is at times relentless, heartbreaking, and almost mystical. One cannot help but be absorbed into the story of his life and how it continues today. You can even follow him on Twitter, using the handle @herdyshepherd1.


I will leave you with the 3 Rules of Shepherding

  1. It's not about you; it's about the sheep and the land.
  2. Sometimes you can't win.
  3. Shut up, and go do the work.

Thanks so much for reading...

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Spot on Paul. Very enjoyable read and a lot of similarities to our business. Great find and as always well done. Now I have another place I feel I must visit. I will also have a new view of the guy doing the seemingly menial job in a new light. Thank you

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