2015 Ohioana Nonfiction Book Award Finalist

By Richard Gilbert

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Highly recommended . . . —Library Journal (starred review)

A thoughtful memoir of rams and ewes, farmers and family, life and death.—review in Kirkus 

The ups and downs of Gilbert’s farm projects coincide with a deeper reflection on the poignant dilemmas common to all humankind. Gilbert’s memoir is especially refreshing due to the narrative voice’s sincerity and frankness.—Ohioana Quarterly

His family’s story of perseverance on the land and among the sheep makes for a poetic homage to rural life and the struggle of chasing a dream.—Appalachian Heritage

[I]n the process of eking out a small income from his labors, he came to new spiritual awareness. Gilbert points out some larger realities, such as that . . . there are now more people incarcerated in the United States than work at food production.—review in The Christian Century

I absolutely LOVED this book!!! Gilbert gives you everything —the physical, emotional and financial aspects of his experience trying to set up his dream farm.—review at LibraryThing

[A] luminous rendering of a wish grown and shorn that few autobiographers ever achieve.—River Teeth review

The book’s Pinterest page features photos of farm, farmers, animals & updates.

An adventure story about loss, dreams, fatherhood, and farming.

Published by Michigan State University Press, 318 pp., $24.95. ISBN-10: 1611861179; ISBN-13: 978-1611861174

Shepherd: A Memoir

In the centuries-old tradition of farming literature, from Virgil’s Georgics to Verlyn Klinkenborg’s The Rural Life, Shepherd: A Memoir is a story both personal and emblematic.

Shepherd covers a decade in the lives of Richard Gilbert and his wife, academics who move to Appalachian Ohio in 1996 with two small children. They’re charmed by the region’s quirky character and untamed beauty, and thrilled to learn there are still places in America that haven’t been homogenized. But they suffer culture shock as they try to put down roots. They hemorrhage money rebuilding a house; mysterious illnesses plague their new sheep flock; injuries bedevil the novice shepherd; he’s fleeced buying equipment. And haunted by his father’s loss of his boyhood farm, he struggles to earn money in sustainable agriculture.

As a local acquaintance says about such matters, “It weren’t easy.”

But gradually the couple fall in love with their new home, feuding neighbors and all. Gilbert’s prose captures the landscape’s lyrical beauty—

The foothills were becalmed in summer. A maverick breeze might ruffle soybean fields in the bottoms, but hot gales from the plains that had scoured Indiana without resistance got confused when they met the cool damp maze guarding that green kingdom. Gusts fractured into harmless puffs; in the valleys lay a stillness. Yet surprise abounded. The hills suddenly revealed secrets—or jealously concealed them in their folds; a casual visitor might never know that behind the dark ridge in front of him, a valley stretched out in the sun.

In Appalachian Ohio, undulating hills jut 300 feet above the flatter ground of the Allegheny Plateau, and form low ranges that curl protectively around valleys. For all the steepness of their ascent, the lush hilltops are comically rounded: mounds of emerald clay shaped by a laughing child. White mists hang above the wooded ridges after showers, and mist rises like plumes of steam off their wet green flanks. “Look,” the people tell their children, “the groundhogs are makin’ coffee.”

—and the region’s stubborn essence:

Waves of settlers before us had flowed into this furrowed terrain, scouting territory like hens looking for safe nests. First came indentured servants fleeing Pennsylvania; then Scotch-Irish southerners, those too poor to afford land and too proud to work on plantations, made their way up the shaded spine of the Appalachians; and endlessly ever after came West Virginia’s stream of refugees. They found niches. Hard against the gentle hills, they could see something coming long before it saw them.

Freckles'last lambs

Richard with two of Freckles’s lambs.

Slowly, an unlikely mentor emerges from among Gilbert’s surviving 50 ewes: Freckles, a small but hearty sheep whose mothering ability epitomizes the hidden beauty of her humble species. By the time his children leave for college, Gilbert is a respected agrarian and supplier of breeding stock. Yet he questions whether he was temperamentally suited to commercial-scale farming, and endorses the trend toward hobby and artisanal farming that’s once again sweeping America. He tries to make peace with himself, his father, and his romantic dream.

This story of one man’s transformation on the land is embedded in a dramatic narrative that captures the mythic pull and the practical difficulty of family-scale eco-friendly farming.

Endorsements—

“This is a great American story, capturing as it does a wide spectrum of contemporary culture and a tidal wave of issues from socioeconomics to farm policy to family dynamics to careers to parenting to stewardship of the land to animal husbandry, and to old ways versus new—and back to old. It’s a bit of a threnody over rural culture, yet with threads and patches of hope and humor throughout. Full of good ideas and wonderful characters, it’s also a moving story of personal growth unto transformation. There’s no book like it.”—Maine novelist and memorist Bill Roorbach

Richard Gilbert writes with honesty, in gorgeous prose, about  joys and setbacks, bringing to vivid life an enchanted Appalachian valley filled with unforgettable characters, human and otherwise. —Dinty W. Moore, author of Between Panic & Desire

Shepherd is the story of one man’s dream of returning to the land, but Richard Gilbert’s glorious memoir is more than that. It’s a universal story of families, the ones we try to redeem and the ones we strive to create and maintain. Gilbert writes with a keen eye and a quiet grace. His portrait of the natural world takes us into the interior landscape of its very human, very likeable guide—an honorable, courageous man. I’m so very happy to have had the chance to meet him in these pages.—Lee Martin, author of Such a Life and From Our House

A masterpiece of rumination . . . If you want to know just how many adventures old buildings, animals, and town/gown issues in a small town can produce, read the book! . . . [O]ne of the most satisfying endings I’ve ever encountered.—review by Shirley Hershey Showalter

With topics ranging from the specific compartments of a ruminant’s stomach to spirituality to neighbors and history, Richard Gilbert’s book unfolds the true adventure of a modern back-to-the-lander. It is the best fence conversation you’ve ever had, from an instinctive storyteller. He searches carefully in this book for something we’ve all begun to wonder about: where, he asks, is “the wisdom of those who stayed put?”—Liz Stephens, author of The Days Are Gods

Gilbert’s descriptions of landscape and characters, and most impressively, of the work he does—and why—are terrific: often poetic, sometimes funny, and always infused with love.—Ana Maria Spagna, author of Potluck: Community on the Edge of Wilderness

What a delightful book. So authentic in its descriptions of those peculiar critters, sheep. It brings back so many memories of my life at Malabar Farm and the spring lambing season which seldom failed to deliver to me an orphan to brought up on a bottle. People say sheep don’t have much sense. But from the sheep I’ve known, such strikes me as being a very precipitous judgment. Anyone who reads this book will be encouraged to see what I mean.—Ellen Bromfield Geld, author of The Heritage: A Daughter’s Memories of Louis Bromfield

Map by Laura Joseph

[Shepherd’s frontispiece map by Laura Joseph.]