In the third of our Q+A’s with NiddFest authors, comes James Rebanks, whose book ‘The Shepherd’s Life’ has been one of the standout memoirs of this year. Like his book, his answers come from an understanding of the landscape of the Lake District that stretches back through generations of his family – shepherds before him. We are delighted to welcome James to Upper Nidderdale, a fellow sheep farming community. You can hear him talk at NiddFest on Sunday 26 July, 2pm-3pm, Pateley Bridge Memorial Hall.
1. What inspired you to write your latest book?
My latest book is my only book to date – called The Shepherd’s Life. I wrote it because I wanted to tell a story that I don’t think has ever been told before. The story of a family like mine on a Lake District fell farm, doing very traditional farming things, but surrounded by a largely urban and modern society. I realised some years ago that books define how people think about places. I realised that I wanted to put us in to words and help others to see us, respect us, and hopefully care about what we do, not for our own sakes, but because we represent things that deserve to survive. I am quietly militant in my dislike of the world that supermarkets and industrialisation are creating. I, like Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter before me, believe that the old, the traditional, the small-scale, and the customary are important, and their survival benefits everyone in our society not just those who live those things. I think we can make our future what we want it to be, not just accept ‘market forces’ like a bunch of apathetic zombies.
2. What is the relationship between your writing and the natural world?
My book is in some ways a kick back against the idea of nature as something external to mankind, something perfect and romanticised, and to be put on a pedestal. My writing is about farming and shaping the land, changing it, moulding it, fighting the seasons and the harshness of ‘nature’ and toughing it out. My writing is all about peopled landscapes, where men and women work their whole lives, and often engage in a bitter fist fight with the weather, or wildness. I should make clear that I love many wild things – a few nights ago I called two barn owls to me by screeching my lips like a vole. They hung above me flittering like two fat black moths in the grey of the night sky. Beautiful.
But I also experienced a fox killing my lambs a month ago, so I feel like I am sharing a landscape with wild things, and sometimes I would rather they were dead than my lambs. I feel embedded in my landscape, a participant in its dramas, not some morally perfect, but detached presence. The Lake District and the Yorkshire Dales are places of food production, and have unique cultures relating to their sheep and cattle and the work of the land. If we really care about cultural diversity, then we need to take seriously traditional rural working cultures before they are all destroyed and swept away.
3. Do you have a favourite passage of ‘nature writing’ from your own work?
Not any one in particular – but I like the passages in my book about snow and the cruelty of winter on a fell farm.
I also like the opening passages of my book on page 2 where I explain the passing of our lives in this landscape, and how little any one of us matters because we are part of something that endures and remains.
4. Do you have a favourite author whose work celebrates nature, or piece of writing about the natural world?
I love the parable by Jean Giono called The Man Who Planted Trees. I love simple unadorned writing, and storytelling and this is a brilliant example of that. It is just a superb story about an old shepherd who plants trees, for many years until he has changed the world he inhabits, and given it new life. I read it a few times every year. The book offers a kind of hero in the shepherd, who invisibly and without fuss changes the world through his quiet, heroic work.
Some people are confused by simple writing – they think maybe the writer didn’t know any longer words, but I am in the Hemingway camp. The best sentences are the simplest ones. The point of writing is not to make the reader feel smaller than you, to hit them over the head with your cleverness and long words. Mark Twain summed it up best when he wrote a letter to someone and apologised because if he had had more time he would have written a shorter letter. If I had had more time I would have written an even simpler book.
5. Do you have a favourite wild place or natural landscape?
Yes. The valley where we live. Matterdale. It is like the Yorkshire Dales in many ways, only better!
I don’t think it is ‘wild’ or ‘natural’ – just as the Yorkshire Dales is not wild or natural. I happen to love some man-made landscapes, places where centuries (millennia in many cases) of work has shaped what was there previously in to something unique and cultural. Our landscape has a patina rubbed on it over about five thousand years by folk like my family, I don’t regret that patina. Every wall, every gate stoop, every lonnin (lane) and every wall speaks to me of belonging here, because that work was done by my folks, or others like them. There are many places where wilding is a good option and I support it, but not in our most loved cultural landscapes.
6. What is your earliest or fondest memory of being out in nature?
I’m not sure anyone in my family has ever really been ‘out in nature’. It sounds very middle class, urban and romantic. I’m not sure nature exists as a separate thing in our minds. I reckon farmers feel themselves part of nature, more than modern folk with different lives, and because we are never out of it, we can never go in to it either. But anyway, I will stop splitting hairs, I have always been an outside person, and my parents and grandparents were always outside from my earliest memories onwards. One of my earliest memories is of my dad killing turkeys at Christmas, and hanging them with baler twin upside down, still twitching, from the hooks on the farmhouse kitchen ceiling. I can remember seeing the blood congeal on their beaks in blobs of dark red. I can also remember a foal being born in an old hull on my grandfather’s farm, and the mare’s back hooves thudding the cobbled walls as her contractions pained her. The foal came out alive, but died the next day and left my grandfather broken hearted.
7. Do you ever write outside?
I scribble notes all the time outside. My writing is 90% about the outdoors so I have to capture moments, and the things I feel, see, smell and touch. So I take endless notes, as I work outside. I scribble this stuff down on endless scruffy badly organised bits of paper, and then later I turn these in to prose poems, and after that I write them in to prose. I do all my polishing and editing inside, the real work. Writing outside is just for capturing the raw materials for my work.
It is very rare that I am not working when it is daylight, too busy for writing or any other kind of leisure, which is interesting to me because most nature writers are, like Wordsworth and Edward Thomas, idlers – very little nature writing is written by people who work in the countryside. On one level that is OK, it doesn’t stop you writing great prose – but on another level it worries me because it means the ‘nature’ in books is from a quite narrow perspective that is quite unhistorical, and quite untypical or most people’s relationship with the natural world. Most people’s relationship with nature or the land for most of history, and even today in most parts of the world, is as hunters, gatherers, workers, cultivators, shepherds. etc. etc… But there are very few books from these perspectives.
8. What are you working on at the moment?
I’m working on my farm a lot, because my father died in the past few months and I suddenly have less support, and lots more responsibilities. I am also working for UNESCO remotely with some African communities in Zambia, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Lesotho, Malawi and Tanzania – helping them to shape the tourism that affects them rather than simply being swamped by it. But perhaps you really meant, what am I writing at present? The short answer is ‘my next book’. I can’t tell you much about it because it is early doors, but it will be about the things I love and care about.
9. What are your three desert island reads and why?
The Old Man and the Sea, Ernest Hemingway
The finest book ever penned.
I don’t really need the other two choices below.
I would take this and once I had done what I needed to do to survive on the desert island I would read this over and over again, and then I’d just look at the sea, the sun, and the island, and practice writing on the sand until I could capture the island in the most perfect simple words possible. It also reminds me of my grandfather and me when I was young, so it would help me to write my stories whilst on the island, stories from my own life.
The Peregrine, J A Baker
Baker is the best nature writer of them all. So good he ripped up the rules, and created a new kind of language that often barely makes sense, but you still somehow know exactly what it means – creating a kind of super truth that transcends the individual words. If I’m stuck on some bloody island I want to write about the natural world around me, and Baker would give me lots of things to think about, and sentences to play with.
Peeling the Onion, Gunter Grass
Maybe my favourite memoir. I would read this to remind me of cold Northern Europe, and simply because I love the book. I’d like to write a book as great as this someday. And I learn by reading.