Like ‘The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,’ with Sheep


I often joke about chucking it all and moving to Montana to herd sheep. I don’t mean it of course; my little experience with said animals is wearing their fleece (I do like a good wool sweater) and eating their young. But I’ve a romantic ideal about the age-old trade – how its continuation allows us to stay in touch with our collective history, if but vicariously. Modernization has in some ways led to life as simulacrum rather than as physically connected to the world. That’s one of the things I (as someone who doesn’t do it for a living) likes about hand tools – to me, they offer a deeper connection to the wood and to a long history of makers. I feel as if in some small way I’ve a physical connection to an important past, and in helping to keep it alive today. (Plus, flattening a board a day keeps the arm wattles at bay…at least for now.)

If you’ve read “The Anarchist’s Tool Chest” by Christopher Schwarz, you know that for him, a connected (he calls it “ethical”) life centers around woodworking, tools and making things — and buying things from other makers and family businesses (butchers, bakers, clothiers) instead of corporations. And you know that while the book is ostensibly about making a chest (it’s a great chest) and acquiring a good set of tools to fill it (excellent list), those are secondary to the central philosophy therein: “Though woodworking might seem a traditional, old-time skill, it is rare and radical stuff in this age.”  It’s one of my favorite books (even if I oftentimes take the prologue’s title, “Disobey Me,” to heart).

And to that list – and for many of the same reasons – I now add James Rebanks’ “The Shepherd’s Life” (Flatiron). It’s a book ostensibly about just what the title says, but the central conceit is to champion a way of life in England’s Lake District that’s been virtually unchanged for centuries – a way of life that while always hard, is more challenging to sustain in the face of modernization. “We are each tiny parts of something enduring, something that feels solid, real, and true,” writes Rebanks.

It feels a like lot anarchy by Chris’ definition, but with (a little) more lanolin.

Now I want to move to the Lake District and herd sheep; I’ll just need to pack a few sweaters and my ATC.

Even the endpapers are

Even the endpapers are “bloody marvelous.”

Follow James Rebanks on twitter @herdyshepherd1 to see his gorgeous photos (all shot with an iPhone) of the Lake District, sheep and his dogs. And read his book. Don’t disobey me; you’ll be glad you didn’t.

About fitz

Woodworker, writer, editor, teacher, ailurophile, Shakespearean. Will write for air-dried walnut.
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14 Responses to Like ‘The Anarchist’s Tool Chest,’ with Sheep

  1. ctregan says:

    I “heard” an interview with him on NPR. Great story.

  2. jonathanszczepanski says:

    You might also like “The Backyard Lumberjack”. While its is about felling and cutting firewood, it is also about a father and his boys.

  3. J.C. says:

    Things that we dabble in are the stuff of nostalgia and want of a better place and time. The fact that the tools of hand woodworking are romanticized in print and PBS and now podcasts too.

    People visiting my own home frequently exclaim that I should be “doing” woodwork for a living. That’s when I flip over one the capitals on the front porch hand-railing and show them my start and end dates for completing the porch. Their mouths always drop open and I explain that only an amateur would take that long and put that kind of work into a fifty year old ranch house in a middle class ‘hood. To contract the work would have been cost prohibitive and I would never recoup those amounts if I choose to sell. As it is, I have gone to school over the past thirty years of home ownership, recast the place in our own image and learned the skills of the joiner, cabinetmaker, cooper, finish carpenter and framer. Not a bad trade.

    • J.C. says:

      Sorry for the bad second sentence which should have read, The fact that the tools of hand woodworking are romanticized in print, PBS and now podcasts, are proof of that desire.

  4. You could also try, “@herdyshepherd1”.

  5. …you will also need a raincoat.

  6. I might be ( but only if that’s the right thing to insinuate, otherwise most certainly not) I have also many mixed childhood memories of whole days of walking in the rain – we went on holiday every Easter.

  7. Certainly not (but only if that’s the right thing to insinuate, otherwise most certainly I am).
    I also have many mixed childhood memories of whole days of walking in the rain – we went on holiday there every Easter. We also got lost a lot and were rescued by a friendly local potter once as well as numerous aforementioned sheep farmers in dodgy land rovers ( again in the rain).

  8. No idea why that posted twice – with an eight minute dithering of thinking time in between – I’ll try not to bog up the blog by doing that too often ( it’s been a busy week – sleepiness, whisky and replying to blogs is risky behaviour and should be avoided at all costs). No I think the answer Is definitely No.

  9. John Lhotka says:

    Saw this title linked to a book I am reading that has related themes, “The Oregon Trail: A New American Journey”. Thank you for your insight on it and its connection to another favourite of mine, the ATC.

  10. SSteve says:

    I have a sister-in-law in Montana who herds sheep. One in Oregon too. We went to the top-right corner of California with the Montana sister to watch the Oregon sister compete in the North American herding finals. She didn’t make the final round but everyone enjoyed themselves.

  11. Rob Patrick says:

    You are the only other person I know who has read this book. If you honestly dream about chucking it all and herding sheep in Montana. I suggest “This House of Sky” by Ivan Doig. It’s about his life growing up in the 1950s with his itinerant shepherd father in the Little Belt Mountains of Montana. Fantastic book about a hard life.

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