Commoners (Part 1)

by Edward Traub
“Commoner” isn’t a dirty word here; it is a thing to be proud of. It means you have rights to something of value, that you contribute to the management of the fells, and that you take part in our way of life as an equal with the other farmers. If you farm Herdwick or Swaledale sheep and they are hefted to the common grazing land on the fells, then you, by definition, often belong to an association of commoners. (1)
James Rebanks (center)

James Rebanks (center)

I know little to nothing about sheep or the work of a shepherd.  In fact, I've heard more jokes about the lifestyle than I know the truth.  However, it is one type of agriculture, and my interest in all-things-agricultural compelled me to pick up this incredible book by James Rebanks titled The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape.  Rebanks book is both a detailed peek into the sheep and shepherd culture of what is called the "Lake District" of England as well as the author's memoir of growing up in the ancient lineage of shepherds.  What intrigued me about the book before reading it, was the dust jacket describing Rebanks' story of what it means to be from a particular place and choosing to remain in the place.  It is a story of his ongoing journey to stay.

My interest in the effects, and particularly the benefits, of livestock grazing on our land(s) drives me in many ways to learn from every source at my disposal.  I was looking through the "biography" section at our local independent bookstore, The Bookman, when I found it.  I hadn't heard of Rebanks or his book.  I was looking to purchase one of Michael Perry's books.  If you've not read Perry, you're missing out.  The man's stories make me laugh out loud, a much needed remedy in the face of my seemingly incessant melancholy (if you shuffled through the music on my iPhone you would understand what I mean). Yet, Perry's humor brings with it a dose of grace in truth-telling as the following excerpt demonstrates:

In the world of the certifiable stoic, the repression of emotion is just the more obvious half of the battle. The rest of your time is consumed with masking even the appearance of the existence of desire. Anyone can hold back a tear or dodge a hug - it takes a real hardcore Norwegian bachelor to pretend you don’t want a cookie. If I were commissioned to design the official crest for the descendants of emotionally muzzled Vikings everywhere, it would begin by looking up the Latin phrase for “No thanks, I’m fine.”

This outgrowth of the neurosis turns the simplest trip to the grocery store into a pulsating gauntlet of dread. Shopping for staples seems benign enough, but when you present your basket a the counter, you are revealing something deeply personal about yourself. Your are approaching a stranger and saying - in public - “this is what I desire.” And not only that, “this is what I desire to put inside me.” If you are buying a battery cable or a snow shovel at Farm & Fleet, there is no shame. These are exogenous needs. Gotta start the car, gotta clear the sidewalk. But with food, there are distressing elements of psychosexuality in play - Appetites! Hungering! Orality! Gimme Twinkies! - coupled with the implication that if you ingest you must surely excrete, and this not a place the stoic wants to, um, go. (3)

However, the irony of my search for a book by Perry, who lives and works in rural Wisconsin, leading me to A Shepherd's Life is, in retrospect, more than coincidental.  You see, both men now live where they grew up.  Both journeyed for a season into other places, but both somehow knew they would end up "home" and finally have.

To say these authors' stories are alike is helpful, but it would be a disservice to imply that they are identical.  The big picture view, however is that they both address the presence and absolute necessity of the "commoner."  Perry delightfully reminds of the significance of place in talking about small-town watertowers:

“Here we are,” say water towers on behalf of a community, “and this says something about us.”

...More than the houses, more than the streets, more than the small green sign at the outskirts, it has always been the sight of the water tower that has told us, “here you are.” (4)

I'm thrilled by Rebanks' quote at the beginning of this essay, defining what a true "commoner" is. I think most, especially here in the US, think of the commoner as some kind of lower-life-form of society.  There is the "ruling class" and then there's the "commoner."  What Rebanks is attempting to do is reclaim the term for what it truly is from within the particular context of his own story.  Its akin to Wendell Berry's words in numerous places affirming the interconnectedness (better still, the interdependence) of all of life. In fact, it is this interdependence that pushes our language further than the commoner being simply utilitarian, and instead breathes life into the reality of mutuality among members of any community.  

We are all commoners.

My friend Makoto Fujimura approaches these themes from the perspective of "culture care." (5) Instead of waging culture "wars," we are called to be a generative presence in our communities. Regardless of whether or not we live where we came from is besides the point.  We are all commoners, and therefore we are part of the ecosystem of the culture in which we live.  Most of us, though, haven't taken the time to listen well to the place we live.  Gone are most, if not all, "native" traditions and practices.  Yet we still remain dependent upon each other for everything, even if we have never met the source of our sustenance.  Rebanks, also now a consultant with UNESCO, writes:

[W]hen local traditional farming systems disappear, communities become more and more reliant upon industrial commodity food products being transported long distances to them, with all the environmental cost (and cultural disconnection from the land) that entails. They begin to lose the traditional skills that made those places habitable in the first place, making them vulnerable in a future that may not be the same as the present. No one who works in this landscape romanticizes it. (6)

Rebanks, then, affirms the necessity of connection.  Unfortunately our culture has sought to grow and "heal" by becoming more autonomous instead of more connected.  Wendell Berry writes:

The fashionable cure [for the disease of disconnection] ‘autonomy,’ another illusory condition, suggesting that the self can be self-determining and independent without regard for any determining circumstance or any of the obvious dependences...The “cure” thus preserves the disease. (7)

We cannot live as commoners if we seek to live autonomously.  We can pull our selves up by our bootstraps only so far, we still need someone to craft the boots.  Writing from my own mid-west American context I can say that autonomy is the virtue of virtues.  Craftspeople or carpenters, like me, have to continually defend our work and seek to justify our prices in order to make a viable living.  Sometimes it feels as if it is forgotten that those who have "good" jobs working for larger companies still have to make a profit and that is dependent on others who do the work and those who purchase the goods or services with little concern over the markup for profit. Generally speaking, the larger the company the further the distance becomes between the consumer and the producer.

And for some reason we question less the large company because that's just the way it is and they're too big.  The problem, then, is that as soon as we start to say, "Well that's just the way things are," then we've given in to a sense of powerlessness that will hinder real growth and health within our society.  Our imaginations become limited, and we lay down for the empires around us.  True freedom from empires of unending consumption, ironically, is accomplished through the healthy and porous "boundaries" of the commoner's existence.  For Rebanks, his life on the fells of the Lake District, exemplifies just such a freedom:

Ours is a rooted and local kind of freedom tied to working common land, the freedom of the commoner, a community-based relationship with land. By remaining in a place, working on it, and paying my dues, I am entitled to a share in the commonwealth. (8)

And so Mr. Rebanks, along with Michael Perry and others, has propelled me to write about what it means for us to become more "common," not less.  So some of my upcoming posts will deal directly with the ways I see the commoner working itself out today.

I hope you'll check back in and join me.

  1. Rebanks, James.  The Shepherd's Life: Modern Dispatches from an Ancient Landscape.  New York: Flatiron Books, 2015.  p. 23.  Rebanks regular uses the word "fell" or "fells" as a noun referring to what is known in Northern England as a "hill or stretch of high moorland" (Google search).
  2. Perry, Michael.  Truck: A Love Story.  New York: Harper Perennial, 2006.  p. 159.
  3. Perry, Michael.  Off Main Street: Barnstormers, Prophets & Gatemouth's Gator.  New York: Harper Perennial, 2005.  p. 72-73.
  4. Fujimura, Makoto.  Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for our Common Life.  New York: Fujimura Institute & International Arts Movement, 2015.  Read the whole book, of course, but specifically the chapter titled "Culture Care Defined."  [Kindle Version: location 1422-2146]
  5. Rebanks.  p. 218.
  6. Berry, Wendell.  "The Body and the Earth."  In The Unsettling of America.  Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2015 edition.  p. 115-116.
  7. Rebanks.  p. 286.


by Edward Traub

"This thing of soil conservation involves more than laying out a few terraces and diversion ditches and sowing to grass and legumes, it also involves the heart of the man managing the land. If he loves his soil he will save it."

- Henry Besuden; quoted by Wendell Berry in his essay "A Talent for Necessity"