We Built This

Jan 19, 2018

Long ago, when we’d drive around town, my grandfather would sometimes point to a particular highway bridge and say, “I built that.” And he wasn’t kidding. He and his crew of carpenters built the wooden forms that molded the poured concrete into sturdy bridge pillars. When I drive over that bridge today, I think of his proud words, “I built that.”

Credit James Rebanks

Dear listener, when you drive past the campus of the area’s public university, I hope you muster up the same pride to say, “I built that.” Because you did, all of us did with our support for public education. That’s our university, your university, and the doors are always open to you even if nobody from your family is studying there right now. Those of us who work at your public university try to make you proud by teaching well, doing worthwhile research, and by sponsoring great open free public events for you to enjoy.

Once in a while a new writer comes along who makes part of the world come alive for the rest of us, and performing that magic trick means we see where we live from a fresh perspective too. James Rebanks, speaking at IUSB on Monday night, has made the shepherding life he lives in the Lake District of England visible in all its beauty, gravity, and meaning. On Monday he’ll tell us how generations of farmers and shepherds have built one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world, and how they adapt and sustain their traditions for our changing world. And happily, the rich things in his shepherd’s life will make it easier to think about what could be, should be, richer and more sustainable in our own.

 

His book The Shepherd’s Life is a memoir about family farm life and the age-old herding practices that created that bountiful landscape. Shepherds tend flocks in sweet valleys and on the common land on the grassy tops of mountains they call fells that spread away on a long green horizon toward the sea. The work is only possible with well-trained sheep dogs that are born to the task of herding. Floss and Tan and Meg seem almost to read their shepherd’s mind about how to gather up and guide the flock forward, but only because their human has learned how to be clear-headed and smart about sheep and dogs and their shared life on the fells.

 

But Rebanks is not telling a fairy tale about some wooly northern Garden of Eden. Atop the fells the winters can be brutal to sheep and shepherd and dog alike. Economic pressures on small farmers can be just as brutal. James will tell us on Monday what sustains the community there in body and spirit. Soon enough it will be spring even in the north of England. A whole month of lambing will be grueling and ecstatic. Sometimes the shepherd must help a ewe give birth by taking the just-visible sloppy-wet forelegs of the lamb tight between the knuckles of his fisted hand and at the right moment giving a hearty pull. James teaches that skill to his young children too, when they’re keen to learn it. There’s much pride in having freely chosen the yoke of a worthy life and work. The pride in building something worthwhile, sustaining it, and passing it on.

 

James will show us dozens of beautiful pictures of dogs and sheep and land, and he’ll tell stories and answer questions. You built the public university, and Monday night would be a great time to check it out. And please say hello—I’ll be the gray-haired professor in the green eyeglasses.

 

Music: "My Land" by Aeterna