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Lessons in Hard Work from a Shepherd

20 December 2016

Barbara read The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks and was inspired by the intense work ethic of the farming life and the elegant poetic word choices that describe the land and life of the Lake District.

Tags: barbara read, barbara watched, grit, poetry, social media, writing

I fell in love with the idyllic Lake District of England when my mother read Wordsworth and Coleridge to me while I was home sick with the measles my senior year in high school. In 2014 I visited this sacred literary land, and it did not disappoint. Surprisingly, or at least, unexpectedly, I loved looking at sheep in the fields. On the train ride north from London, I would turn to my daughter and say in a high-pitched voice that eventually became a joke, “Sheep! Sheep!”. When we arrived at our bed and breakfast the sheep were next door. This is one of my favorite pictures from our trip:

In his early school years James Rebanks had never heard of the Romantic version of his land that I longed to see and that Wordsworth described in his famous poem Daffodils beginning with the words: “I wandered lonely as a cloud/That floats on high o’er vales and hills…” Looking at the land, walking on the fells (mountains), and thinking it is beautiful is vastly different from the hard work it takes to make it beautiful.

Rebanks knew and loved the unrelenting demands that most tourists rarely understand. Caring for the sheep, harvesting the hay, repairing the stone walls, removing silt and fallen limbs from the becks (streams) is grueling hard work from sun up to sun down with no days off unless you have family, friends or neighbors who will fill in for you. The yearly profit is so small (as little as $13,000) that some family member often has to do outside work to enable them to stay on the farm—work in the mines in older days, run a bed and breakfast, or what Rebanks has done—work part time for UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) and write a best-selling book.

In 1987 he was a 13-year-old, almost juvenile delinquent, who detested school because he wanted to be home working on the farm. In a school assembly, he wanted to tell the teacher, who was extolling the virtue of books about the Lake District and trying to motivate the students to rise above the farm life, that “she didn’t really know this place or its people at all.”

He did pick up an idea in that lecture that would incubate over many years “…if books define places, then writing books was important, and that we needed books by us and about us. But in that assembly in 1987 I was dumb and thirteen, so I just made a farting noise on my hand. Everyone laughed.” By 16 he was following his dream and had dropped out of school. Support for the decision was mixed from home, but as he matured James realized that full-time sheep farming and economic stability might not go hand in hand.

Rebanks  also met the girl who would become his wife. She didn’t understand why he played dumb in front of his friends. “She was smart, and confident about it, and puzzled why I wasn’t. When I was around her, I was able to be just me, and I was tired of being anything else. She believed I could do anything I set my mind to.”

He changed from a high school dropout to an Oxford graduate whose first love is still sheep farming but who can write beautifully and speak with a straightforward honest elegance. It’s hard for me to pick my favorite of his YouTube videos, but this one gives you a sense of his voice, the hard work involved, and how Twitter has changed his life.

The story of his turn around and his clear yet poetic writing style have caused me to read the book three times and daily check the pictures of his sheep, dogs, and land on his @herdyshepherd1 Twitter account. I have a new respect for shepherds this Christmas.

I am envious of Rebank’s physical strength and his dogged determination to do what’s needed. I asked myself if I had ever worked at anything that hard. My answer was—what it took for me to learn to teach a room full of physician leaders. It didn’t require his muscle power, but it did demand mental toughness and time for me to be ready. I got two (almost three) degrees, taught high school English for four years, was an adjunct English professor in five colleges, and took one acting class. Many days I got up at 4:00 am to write and prepare before the children woke up. (I believe and research shows writing can even help you to be happier.)

There is often an enormous amount of hard work behind things that look so beautiful. What is something you love to do that most people don’t understand how hard you’ve had to work to do it?  What calls to you now that demands determination and grit? Who encourages you to be your best, hard-working self and have you thanked them?


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Janet Miller
Dec 20, 2016

This is an inspiring blogpost—thanks Barbara and Allison for the reminder that hard work and the willingness to change and grow are two important keys to reaching our potential as human beings and to living a fulfilling and productive life. And that our own perspective is only part of the whole story!

Barbara Linney
Dec 27, 2016

Thank you for reading and responding. You point out the lessons I have to remind myself of regularly.


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