James Rebanks explains kittens and biscuits to me…
My friend Toni lent me James Rebanks’ book THE SHEPHERD’S LIFE: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape a few weeks ago, saying just “trust me, I think you’ll love it.” I trust her, but wasn’t quite sure why she thought I’d love a book about shepherds, as I have never expressed any particular interest in them. Not that I have antipathy towards them either–they just haven’t been on my radar. The closest I come to shepherd contact is watching the Sheep Dog Demos at the Common Ground Fair each September. Which, come to think of it, are pretty fun.
But Toni was right; I did love it. And a huge part of the reason was that I began to understand, through Rebanks descriptions of being of the land, something about Mainers and their attitude towards “people from away” that I had never been able to really grok before. When we moved here, quite a few people–seriously at least a dozen–recited to us this pithy observation about why we are not and never will be considered true Mainers: “just because a cat has kittens in the oven don’t make ’em biscuits.”
Ayuh. Can’t argue with that. But doesn’t a love of a place, an appreciation of the way of life it allows, count for something? Doesn’t the commitment to become of a place reveal a respect and love for something that the local was simply lucky enough to be born to?
Sure it does. But, and this is what I finally get, it’s still not the same. Rebanks is so deeply of his area in the Lakes District in England that he can see his efforts as a moment in a chain that goes back five thousand years. Now, since Maine has only been settled by European-descended folks for a few hundred years, my neighbors can’t trace their way of life back quite that far. But they can trace it pretty far. One neighbor joked last week that he’s moved four times in his life–twice across the hall and twice across the driveway. He lives on land that’s been in his family since the 1700s. He knows the long view of this place. And other neighbors do something akin to what Rebanks does–join the family business, which is a way of living in tandem with the physical world. In the case of our town, that means fishing, not shepherding. But their attention to season and water and weather, to the rhythm of hard work followed by harder work, is very much of a piece with what Rebanks describes.
We people from away may not all be as starry-eyed as the Wordsworth-reciting visitors to the Lake District. But even if we aren’t, we aren’t “hefted” to the place by somatic memory, social memory, cultural memory. We are only hefted to it by present appreciation and future hopes. And that’s dandy, but it ain’t no biscuit.