Mastery refrain

all modes seemed exhausted, and he had left nothing
Of any importance for them to do,
While what had escaped him eluded them also.
— W. S. Merwin, The Master

The masters of the subtle schools
Are controversial, polymath.
— T. S. Eliot, Mr Eliot’s Sunday Morning Service

Brains reel,
Master charts of old ideas erased.
— Maya Angelou, Junkie Monkey Reel

Book in hand, I wandered around the garden that encircled the house, seeking out a bench and a little respite from the familial hubbub. The perfect spot overlooked an enclosure on the fells behind the house, demarcated by stone walls. It was located next to a vertiginous beck that must have been something to behold during the heavy rains late last year. Its occupants, a flock of Herdwick sheep, with several young among their number, had kept me awake much of the night with their bleating.

As I approached my destination, I noticed that a trailer had been reversed into the gateway at the bottom of the field. The gate and some additional railings were being secured by a shepherd who had driven past our rental home a few minutes previously. It looked like he was about to decant the flock from this enclosure to another. I scanned the fell for his sheepdog, eventually coming to the conclusion that it was still inside his Land Rover.

Only a couple of weeks before travelling to the Lake District, I had raced through James Rebanks’s account of a very specific way of life in the region. There was much in The Shepherd’s Life that had surprised me because of its many overlaps with what Kenneth Mikkelsen and I had only recently explored in The Neo-Generalist: education on our own terms, legacy, belonging, identity, and that fascinating contextual fusion of specialism and generalism.

Rebanks hails from a long line of sheep farmers, and is deeply immersed in their traditions. But he has found himself living in multiple worlds, stewarding his farming heritage, even as he has studied at Oxford University, written books, and taken on academic and consultancy roles with the likes of the University of Birmingham and UNESCO. This is a man who understands landscape, people and animals, who communicates eloquently about them, and who paints pictures with words.

One thread that runs through The Shepherd’s Life relates to the partnership that is established between shepherd and sheepdog, as well as the former’s reliance on finely crafted tools such as their crook. Both shepherd and dog undergo a learning journey that begins when they are very young. It is one that moves from apprenticeship to journeyman status and, ultimately, to mastery. Rebanks’s relationship with his dog, Floss, is one of mutual dependency and trust. This is about co-workers, very distant from the owner-pet interactions typical of non-agricultural regions.

With all this fresh in mind, I set my book to one side as I took my place on the garden bench and prepared to witness a masterclass from shepherd and dog. How quickly would the sheep be transferred from enclosure to trailer? How would the dog round up the more stubborn ewes and their lambs? Would the shepherd have to make use of his crook? Everything that ensued over the next hour or so enthralled but for all the wrong reasons. In fact, as man and beast put on their very own Laurel and Hardy show, I laughed so hard I popped a rib.

[Photo credit: The Grasmere stage, Richard Martin, May 2016]

The farmer opened the Land Rover door and pulled the gate to one side to let his Border Collie, Georgie, into the field. Within seconds all the sheep had fled to the top end of the enclosure. A series of calls and whistles from the shepherd had the collie manoeuvring but the effects were not all that were intended. The sheep were in motion but rarely in the direction of the desired destination. Georgie was frequently chased off, tail between his legs, by the odd confrontational ewe who not only stood her ground but frightened him away from his too.

Georgie required frequent breathers, seeking out the shade of a trench or the underside of the trailer. Meanwhile the shepherd gave vent to apoplectic blasphemy aimed at dog, sheep and innocent passersby. A unique form of agricultural Tourette’s. At times, he was to be seen leaning silently over his crook, head hanging in shame and discontent, the weight of the world on his shoulders. Occasionally, the croook was brandished and swung menacingly at errant sheep. Once it was even launched as a missile, but it was hard to tell whether sheep or dog were the intended target.

After much struggle, and a considerable elapse of time, several sheep had been herded on to the back of the gaping trailer. Only for them to indulge in an ovine version of The Great Escape. This happened more than once. Such antics prompted an escalation in profanity, the humour and combination of which finally put paid to my rib. Exasperation and, you would suspect, the need to restore a degree of decorum to proceedings, prompted the shepherd to cut matters short.

He ended up making three journeys to transport his flock. Thereby demonstrating that a lack of mastery creates work and costs time. Mastery may never be attained, but the journey, its pursuit, is something we should all attempt. To stand still, is to assume that ostrich-like position of shepherd bent despairingly over mistreated crook.

In the postindustrial era, success will no longer hinge on promotion or job titles or advanced degrees. It will hinge on mastery.
— Marty Neumeier, Metaskills

The past and the present live alongside each other in our working lives, overlapping and intertwining, until it is sometimes hard to know where one ends and the other starts.
— James Rebanks, The Shepherd’s Life

The craftsman must combine technique and expression so that he is also able to act intuitively. This can only happen when he possesses deep or what is called implicit knowledge. Rather than acting only upon empirical information, the craftsman’s ultimate act is one of unique expression which can only be delivered through the mastery of these skills.
— Alan Moore, No Straight Lines