A recent London Review of Books reviewer suggested of Robert Macfarlane that the landscapes in his books are strangely depopulated. This fits with his penchant for wild places, as the title of an earlier book of his has it, and his intention is to draw the eye (or brain) away from the urban landscape we are familiar with to the natural one we are increasingly blind to. But the reviewer has a point.
That criticism could not be made of James Rebanks, and indeed Rebanks’ intention is somewhat the opposite of Macfarlane’s, even if they share a spirit, and can be both lumped into the species of new nature writers that are spinning out some wonderfully evocative and important prose. Rebanks lives and works in the Lakes District as a sheep farmer – a shepherd – and even tweets on shepherding (imagine!). He wants, in his book The Shepherd’s Life, to refocus on the landscape of this northern part of England, from the typical tourist view, which tends to see the landscape as a place of wild beauty and ignores the farmers (or worse, sees them as intruders in an outdoor photo opportunity), to the working landscape of himself, his family and neighbours and their ancestors, who work and live through not just the district’s beautiful summers but also through its ferocious winters.
Rebanks is not your typical shepherd – local boy fails school, goes back onto farm, discovers books, ends up at Oxford while farming on weekends and now consults for the UN. The book’s narrative has a certain arc that privileges the traditional life over all that other stuff that goes on in the city, and clearly Rebanks downplays his more sophisticated (if that is not too much of a loaded word) doings against the earthy, simple farm life. (A reader may at some point wonder, ‘if he failed school then what is he doing writing this book?’) This is all fine and good, but there is also an element of anti-intellectualism here, and even though Rebanks is an Oxford scholar, he gives the impression of being unimpressed with the intellectual life, which is not as simply practical as sheep farming (itself something of a stereotype. Architecture or medicine, say, have their practical uses and tend to work better after some academic training). It is a worthy thing for Rebanks to defend shepherding as intelligence ‘tuned to a different channel’, but there is always the danger of defence turning to offence.
This is a downside of Rebanks’ bluntness, but otherwise his book is a corrective to the kind of nature writing that carries us off into the uninhabited zones, encouraging the feeling that the world would be better off without human beings (as well it might, but this is a strangely self-loathing utopian dream). Rebanks’ writing has its affinities with the writing of Iain Sinclair, who writes in an urban context but focuses on people and things flying under the radar of modern society, and its definitions of worthy pursuits, success, utility and beauty.