The Lake District will always be special to me. The site of several holidays, it is also the place where my husband asked, and I agreed, to build our future together. We have gone there as visitors, leaving work behind for a few days to find refreshing and inspiration from the mountain heights and the lakes’ depths.
I recently read another perspective on this somewhat familiar place. James Rebanks’ book ‘The Shepherd’s Life – A Tale of the Lake District’ details his life as the current generation of a 600-year family line of Lake District farmers. Rebanks recognises that the shepherds and their lives are rarely part of the pervading narrative woven about the Lake District; it has been dominated by poets, and tourists like me. Our visiting viewpoint drowns out the native one.
Rebanks counters the prevailing story with his own of shepherding life. It is at once raw and romantic. Raw because Rebanks has no desire to gloss over the reality of muck, death and graft that is fell farming. This is a truth which defeats many an amateur drawn by a naive romanticism of the life. But Rebanks’ presentation is still romantic. Because he loves, truly loves his life. In the words of his elder daughter, he is all about the sheep. That love for them and for his life sings through the whole book.
Reading this alternative narrative of a visited place reminded me of a TED talk by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie about the danger of building a picture of a place from a single story. The father in one of her novels abuses his family; after reading it, someone comments to the author that it’s a shame all men from that culture are abusers (the author’s hilarious retort is definitely worth listening to). She wrote a story of a handful of people; the reader built a whole puzzle from one jigsaw piece. A fictional one at that. Perhaps we need to take stories at face value, and nothing more. No extrapolations to an entire gender, place, or people group.
I heard a podcast once (where I wish I knew) about how often we engage with other cultures as teachers and later as judges; the speaker was suggesting that instead we should begin as learners then, once relationship is built, we become storytellers. The context was engaging with people from other cultures, but I have found it useful in the everyday of my native land (the idea of homogenous culture is rarely helpful I find). Rebanks puts it better than I could at the end of his book:
“This is my version of the story of my family, but there is nothing exceptional about us – we are just one of hundreds of such families. This is just one story, one perspective, among many. I hope the book helps other people to see what we all do, and show it greater respect in the future. I don’t want to lose the amazing patchwork of family farms that make this landscape what it is, and I don’t think many other people do either. Keep going.”
Whether it’s through books, Twitter chats or dinner table conversations, let’s be storytellers. And let’s learn to listen. Our lives will be richer for both.
Today’s soundtrack: The Avett Brothers // True Sadness