Hefted like a Herdwick

I love reading about both vocation and location. In a world that is increasingly full of generalists and largely globalized into a strange digital sense of sameness, learning about people who are experts in one job and/or one place is refreshing. Reading about their place and their task strangely resharpens and refocuses me on my own place and my own task even if they are quite literally world away.

Providentially, I picked up a book that caught my eye at the used book sale: The Shepherd’s Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape by James Rebanks. Written by a shepherd from the Lake District of England, the book captured my imagination from the start. After being introduced to the area and the arduous work of shepherding Herdwick sheep on the fells (which means craggy hills, it seems) It is not hard to understand why the author chose to return to them after being the rare shepherd’s son who received an Oxford education.

In addition to exacerbating my desire to visit England, the book left me briefly wondering if I should try my hand at farming. But then I realized that I can barely keep my succulents alive in one of the sunniest climates in that States and struggle to herd my three children on the daily. Ultimately, the book led me to deeper intimacy with my own shepherd even though the author did not likely intend such an outcome.

Hefted Sheep

The book begins with an introduction to a shepherding term: hefted. In its noun form, a heft is a piece of upland pasture to which an animal has been hefted (which doesn’t help much if you don’t know what hefted means). In its adjectival form, hefted describes a sheep that has become accustomed and attached to a particular area of upland pasture.

In non-shepherd terms, the sheep don’t need to be fenced on these hills which are common land. Though there are no barriers or barricades, the sheep don’t want to leave their particular pasture and place. Rebanks explains hefting in the following manner:

“Beyond our common lies other undenied areas of mountain land, other fells, farmed by other commoners, so in theory our sheep could wander right across the Lake District. But they don’t because they know their place on the mountains. They are ‘hefted,’ taught their sense of belonging by their mothers as lambs- an unbroken chain of learning that goes back thousands of years.”

Essentially, hefted is another way to say these sheep have found their deepest and preferred home. This seems strange, especially when you realize that the fells to which they are hefted are not an easy-living environment. In fact, the Northern Lake District fells are extreme pastures with harsh winters, which leads me to the next point.

Herdwick Sheep

My knowledge of sheep reaches to the level of the average preschooler. They say bah. They start out white. They get dirty. We get wool from them. They are not the brightest of animals, thus they need the near-constant care of a shepherd.

But, as I learned from the book, not all sheep are created (or should I say bred?) equally. Herdwick sheep are a prized commodity among shepherds in England because of their hardiness which has been passed on for thousands upon years. Having wintered within their mothers in the biting weather on the harsh landscape of the fells, the lambs become tough cookies. If they can survive the fells, they can thrive on any other pasture in England, thus, explaining their place as a prized stock. Those who shepherd Herdwick sheep take great pride in their choice flocks largely because they have taken great pains to keep them alive, constantly caring for them and thinking for their welfare.

Below, Rebanks describes the importance of the winters in raising a true Herdwick sheep:

“These cold, hard, wet weeks are when Herdwicks come into their own. Few other breeds would survive the winter here carrying their lambs in their bellies…the bond between shepherd and flock is formed in these cruel months.”

As I read about this prestigious breed of plucky sheep, I found myself praying that God would shepherd me and our flock to be like them.

Hefted to the Good Shepherd

The more I read about the incredibly monotonous and grueling yet deeply thoughtful and considerate work of being a shepherd, the more I found myself worshipping the One who is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for his sheep (John 10:1-18). God could have chosen someone from nearly any vocation to replace the apostate King Saul, but he chose a shepherd boy. David, who knew the sobering and strenuous work of shepherding, brought that knowledge into the task of leading God’s people (1 Samuel 17: 31-37). The Scriptures, from the Old Testament all the way through the New, are laced with shepherd and sheep language describing God’s interactions with his people (Isaiah 40:11;Isaiah 53:6-7; 1 Peter 2:21-25).

Rebanks’s detailed descriptions of caring for his flock included his waking up early with the sheep chief on his mind and not stopping to pause until all their needs had been met and ailments addressed. I found his three rules of shepherding helpful as I seek to be a spiritual shepherdess to our own little flock:

“First rule of shepherding: it’s not about you, it’s about the sheep and the land. 
Second rule: you can’t win sometimes. 
Third rule: shut up, and go and do the work.”

However, I could not help but contrast his rules with our perfect Shepherd who always wins and has already done all the work. While my prayers for myself and my flock have not changed, they have deepened and grown more descriptive. I want us to be like a Herdwick flock, only I want us to be hefted not to a particular place, but to a particular person: the person of Christ who is our Perfect Shepherd.

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