Blood, Proximity, and Things We Learn to Love

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Reading A Shepherd’s Life, in a backyard in the city, learning more about sheep and how to love even the most mundane parts of life.

I’ve never known as much about sheep farming as I do now. I could say it was an accident, that I didn’t know quite what I was getting into when I started reading James Rebanks’s A Shepherd’s Life: A People’s History of the Lake District, but that wouldn’t be technically accurate. I worked hard to get to this book, going to the trouble of locating it in another book (Nick Offerman’s amusing Where the Deer And The Antelope Play), requesting it from the library, waiting several weeks, and walking to the library to retrieve it. Up a huge hill. Don’t let anyone tell you reading isn’t work, friends.

After all of that anticipation, I felt a certain attachment to this book, 250 pages of memoir describing four seasons of life as a sheep farmer in England’s Lake District. The attachment, though, might have been there anyway. I spent a short but meaningful time in the Lake District in college, and I have a fairly significant claim of my own to a life lived in the country, both in the Upper Skagit Valley here in Washington State, and later in wine-rich Southwestern Germany. I was primed to love a book about farming, honestly, even before the machinations of borrowing this publicly-owned gem for myself.

Still, this book and the life it describes are not quite the verdant romp in the fields I’d imagined. I shouldn’t have been surprised that actor Nick Offerman, whose visit to Rebanks’s farm he chronicles in his own book, painted a rather more romantic picture of Rebanks’s farm life than the farmer himself does. He doesn’t pull any punches, depicting in rigid details the constraints of weather, illness, fashion and tourism on their centuries-old way of life in rural England. Alongside this truth, however, his affection for the land and its wooly occupants infuses every chapter. It’s madness, he often says, to keep doing this. But it is who I am, who we are, who we always have been. We are farmers, and this is our home.

A Shepherd’s Life is divided into the four seasons, following the cycle of a year of sheep farming from bringing the flock down from the mountains in late summer, though the sheep fairs of autumn and perilous storms of winter, and finishing with lambing season in the spring. Having visited the Lake District in the spring myself, I thought I knew what the final chapter would be like, expecting a luminous reflection on the hopefulness of this season of beginnings. Instead, I found a chapter about birth. Not rebirth, an abstract concept we attach to second chances and salvation, but actual birth. Messy, incarnate, exhausting, unpredictable, miraculous birth. Rebanks describes a season of running around his farm, visiting and assisting laboring ewes.

In one passage, he describes a procedure by which he takes the skin of a stillborn lamb and saves it to make a coat for an orphaned lamb to wear later, which can help facilitate the adoption of that lamb by a ewe who has lost her own. I’d heard about this before somewhere—probably in a sermon—but never in the no-nonsense detail with which Rebanks describes the process. This is no metaphor; it’s a life-saving device, worth all of the mess. Later, as he describes the great deal of blood that lambing season seems to involve, he declares, in essence, that while some people “put up with” all of the blood, seeing it as a necessary irritation to this way of life they’ve chosen, he actually likes it. It’s part of all of this, he says. Blood is part of this life, and I love this life, so I love the blood, too.

It’s stuck with me, this passage, through the slow weeks of early spring in Seattle. Here in the Northwest, we talk a lot about things that annoy us about living in this part of the world. The traffic, always caused by everyone else driving, not us. Other people, especially people who move here from elsewhere. And of course the weather. But I love it here, so I’ll deal with it, we say.

A Shepherd’s Life, especially the messy reality of lambing season, asked me to think about my life differently. What parts of it do I not just “deal with,” but have I actually grown to love?

On a cold March afternoon, I’m sitting in a wild backyard. Power lines crisscross the sky, and I can hear the voices of the kids at the after-school program across the street, sometimes distinctly enough that I know what game they are playing. Every few minutes, a long line of cars builds up on the busy road beyond the gate, as they wait for the light to change on the even busier road that crosses it up ahead. There is a lot of noise here; kids, planes, cars. My own children, playing with each other and our dog. It’s not quiet, not the village life I idealize when I’m requesting library books about sheep farming. Life here is close, tight, and quick.

But to be honest, that proximity is becoming the “blood” of living in the city, at least for me. Yes, I could look into my neighbor’s living room if I wanted to, just as I could as a kid, when I lived four feet from two different houses. But we’ve become friends with our neighbors, artists who grow inspiring towers of flowers and vegetables in the potholed alley between our houses. I see the same parents, and their same dogs, every day when I drop my daughter off at school. I wear rubber boots and the same fleece jacket more often than not, but we laugh and chat and recognize each other. Slowly, this proximity has become something like community.

It’s not quiet, not a farm in the country. Maybe I’ll get back there someday (though I’m no longer eager to raise sheep, thanks to Mr. Rebanks’s excellent prose), but for now, I’m hoping and learning to do more than survive the noise and density of city life. I am learning, a little more each day, to love them for a what they are, a part of this place that is a part of me.

Some neighbors are so close that they share a garage (though clearly not the paint on the garage).

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