In yet another summer reading list detour, I am about half way through a wonderful little book called The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks. The book is part memoir, part ode to England’s Lake District, part tribute to the ancient farming culture that has existed there for hundreds and hundreds of years. Rebanks is a wonderful writer with an eye for the little details that fully immerse the reader in the story he is telling. The book has been well reviewed, and as I make my way through the pages I understand why – it is an evocative portrait of a family and a culture in which we can see ourselves and our own lives.
The Shepherd’s Life is also a book soaked in nostalgia. For childhood. For a simple life of steady work and uncomplicated days. For a lost grandfather, the patriarch of the Rebanks family. And of course, like all things nostalgic, for the past, in this case an ancient farming culture that slowly but surely gives way in the face of modernity. There is a wistfulness to the carefully composed sentences, a longing for things gone by and memories long cherished.
We are all familiar with that feeling, in one way or another. And it seems to me that summer is a particularly nostalgic time, perhaps the most of any season of the year. Vacations and visits often bring us back to places we’ve known for many years, often reunite us with family and friends who have known us from the time we were children. The old haunts, the old activities, games, rituals, stories, jokes, conversations, even feelings! They can flood back into our minds on long summer days and warm summer nights. There is often a sense of mystery in the remembering. How did we get here from there? Where have the years gone? I came to this place when I was a child, or a young adult, or first married. How is it that now my children or grandchildren come here? This great line from the John Prine song Angel from Montgomery comes to mind: But that was a long time, and no matter how I try, the years just flow by like a broken down dam.
The key, of course, is to remember the past but not to be trapped by it. The old places and memories and thoughts and feelings remind us of who we once were, but also of how far we’ve come in the intervening years. We can’t go back, not all the way. But the past is with us, part of who we are, coloring the way we see the world, the thoughts and feelings we have, the sense of where we’ve come from. Each day is truly a new day. But soft summer breezes remind us that new days are built on old ones.