A Perfect Spring Read for a “Break” from the World

The transition from winter to spring is never an easy overnight happening. It can be a time of slow adjustments – a waking up of the senses to the soft light and intoxicating freshness of the spring air. It is the only seasonal transition where the body and soul yearn for a restorative break from the previous season’s grip.

Shepherd's Life James RebanksWith a feeling as if the world is in upheaval, spinning away from the light and into the darkness of chaos, confusion and conflict where incompetent leaders have “lay waste [their] powers”, the need for a spring “break” this year of 2016 seems all the more necessary.

“The world is too much with us”, William Wordsworth once wrote in a poem that speaks to the importance of the restorative powers of nature for the body and soul:

“The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers…
…the winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune…”*

An antidote for a time when “we are out of tune”, when all in the world seems to be “howling at all hours” and when our bodies and soul groan their way through the seasonal transitioning, is James Rebanks’ book The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Land (2015), referred to as a “James Herriot for modern times.”

A modern-day shepherd raising a family of shepherds, Rebanks is “the first son of a shepherd, who was the first son of a shepherd himself.” The ancient land that he lives and writes in is the pastoral land of William Wordsworth and Beatrix Potter in England’s northern Lake District, where he takes the reader through “a shepherd’s year, offering a unique account of rural life and a fundamental connection with the land that most of us have lost.”

It is a place where “life is ordered by the seasons and the work they demand”, which hasn’t changed for hundreds of years. And it is a story, Rebanks writes, “of a family and a farm, but it also tells a wider story about the people who get forgotten in the modern world. It is about how we need to open our eyes and see the forgotten people who live in our midst, whose lives are often deeply traditional and rooted in the distant past.”

Helen MacDonald, prize-winning author of H is for Hawk, another book about retreating from the world after the death of her father, refers to it as a “bloody marvelous” book.

Marvelous it is for the rare opportunity it provides the reader to experience the soul soothing tranquility of living and working “in tune” with the natural rhythms of nature’s seasons in a landscape that was, as James Rebanks writes, created by “nobodies”:

“My grandfather was, quite simply, one of the great forgotten silent majority of people who live, work, love, and die without leaving much written trace that they were ever here. He was, and we his descendants remain, essentially nobodies as far as anyone else is concerned. But that’s the point. Landscapes like ours were created by and survive through the efforts of nobodies.”

He continues: “This is a landscape of modest hardworking people. The real history of our landscape should be the history of the nobodies.”

Below are a few more treasures from the book:

“There is no beginning, and there is no end. The sun rises, and falls, each day, and the seasons come and go. The days, months, and years alternate through sunshine, rain, hail, wind, snow, and frost. The leaves fall each autumn and burst forth again each spring. The earth spins through the vastness of space. The grass comes and goes with the warmth of the sun. The farms and the flocks endure, bigger than the life of a single person. We are born, live our working lives, and die, passing like the oak leaves that blow across our land in the winter. We are each tiny parts of something enduring, something that feels solid, real, and true. Our farming way of life has roots deeper than five thousand years into the soil of this landscape.”  (p.15)

A list of things Rebanks’ shepherd grandfather taught him while growing up, learning, and working by his side:

“We don’t give up, even when things are bad.
We pay our debts.
We work hard.
We act decently.
We help our neighbors if they need it.
We do what we say we will do.
We don’t want much attention.
We look after our own.
We are proud of what we do.
We try to be quietly smart.
We take chances sometimes to get on.
We will fail sometimes.
We will be affected by the wider world…
But we hold on to who we are.”


*Full poem:
“The World is Too Much With Us”
by William Wordsworth (1770-1850)

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!
This Sea that bares her bosom to the moon;
The winds that will be howling at all hours,
And are up-gathered now like sleeping flowers,
For this, for everything, we are out of tune;
It moves us not.—Great God!
I’d rather be A pagan suckled in a creed outworn;
So might I, standing on this pleasant lea,
Have glimpses that would make me less forlorn;
Have sight of Proteus rising from the sea;
Or hear old Triton blow his wreathèd horn.