The idea of traditional living is discussed quite often in right-wing circles with varying degrees of seriousness. In recent years, however, those who love to post online about their “traditional lifestyles” without seeming to have any grasp on the concept itself have drawn criticism. These internet traditionalists are mocked, rightly so, for their strange fetishizing of ad campaigns and wall posters from the 1950s depicting a nuclear family with a white picket fence, or a father grilling with his son. Being born in the new millennium, they know nothing of what life was like in the past and so are worshipping nothing more than a simulacrum of the times. The traditional, or more colloquially ‘trad’, lifestyle as it is portrayed in these strange corners of the internet, will never work in reality because it’s not an ideology or even a belief: it is an aesthetic. It's a pantomime of what they imagine life was like 70 years ago based on a set of cobbled-together images given to them by mass media. If this reconstruction is not genuine, then, the question must be asked: what is actually “trad”? What does traditional living in the 21st century look like?
This is a difficult question to answer. Some proclaim that “there is no traditional living in the modern world”. How could one escape the modern world enough to live in a traditional style without becoming entirely disconnected like the Amish? I myself thought it was some quixotic fantasy until very recently. My mind was changed when I was fortunate enough to be given a copy of James Rebanks’ book, The Shepherd’s Life, which showed me what “traditional living” looks like in the new millennium. The young trads of the internet seek to turn the clock back nearly a century, to fight the currents of time and the developments that come along with it—swimming upstream and resisting every new change, seeking their end-goal of an eternally static 1950s across North America. This is, of course, impossible. There will be wars, treaties, elections, revolutions, inventions, collapses, and a whole host of variables to rock the boat. The modern megalopolis will never return to some idealized vision of the past, but there do exist some pockets that, while not stopping in time like the Amish, have held onto their community’s customs and traditions and have resisted much of the unpleasantness from the modern world at large.
The Shepherd’s Life follows the life of James Rebanks and his family as they herd sheep in England’s Lake District. James has been herding sheep since he could walk; his father was the same, and James’ son has followed in their footsteps. Their family has lived in the same region for centuries, and the sheep from which they gain their livelihood go back to tenth-century Viking raiders. Wars raged across Britain, Europe, and the world, but the sheep remained, and so did the people charged with their care. This traditional style of living persists in spite of the modern world because there exists a community insulated enough from it to resist its changes and do what they have always done, unbothered. This insulation is not absolute, however, as Rebanks writes:
Unfortunately, it was normal for farmers like my grandfather to borrow money. It is how they bought the land they could scarcely afford, and this meant they had a connection to the bank and the rest of the world through interest rates. So the waves of prosperity or hardship that affected farming here were often created by global events like the world wars, the Industrial Revolution, the Great Depression or the massive expansion of farming in the American West in the nineteenth century.
Although The Lake District is only a three hour drive from Ironbridge, the birthplace of the Industrial Revolution, it operates on an ethic almost impossible to find in the world nowadays. The most valuable currency in these regions is honour and respect. James demonstrates this through an anecdote from his grandfather:
There is an unwritten code of honour between shepherds. I remember my grandfather telling me about his friend buying some sheep privately from another farmer for what he thought was a fair price. Weeks later he attended some sheep sales and realized that he had got the sheep very cheap indeed, too cheap, about £5 each less than their market value. He felt this was unfair to the seller because he’d trusted him. He didn’t want to be greedy, or perhaps as importantly, to be seen to be greedy. So he sent the farmer a cheque for the difference and apologized. But the farmer who’d sold them then politely refused to cash it, on the grounds that the original deal was an honourable one. They’d shaken hands on it. Stalemate. The only way out was to go back the next year and buy his sheep and pay over the odds to make up for it, so he did. Neither of these men cared remotely about ‘maximizing profit’ in the short term in the way a modern business person in a city would. They both valued their good name and their reputation for integrity far more highly than making a quick buck.
The farmer’s sheep graze on shared land, and every summer they gather them all down from the hills together and divide everyone’s sheep correctly without any fuss or fighting over who’s sheep is who’s. This sharing of communal land for grazing goes back generations and every year the whole community comes together to do their part and get the sheep down from the fells. The summer gathering may now be organized via telephone rather than word of mouth and they may ride their ATVs up the fells coordinating on radios, but the tradition itself really hasn’t changed. The elder of the group coordinates and the others listen. The dogs flush out the sheep, they are herded to the gate, and they are led into town and back to the farms just like they have been for hundreds of years.
The “traditional life” still exists in Cumbria’s Lake District and while its century-deep roots may not exist here in Canada, we still have communities that are tied to the land and insulated from the creeping barrage of pride parades and BLM protests. These are the towns where everybody knows your name, and the names of your mother and father too. They can be found off the beaten path in every province but may not look the way you expect. Some of you may have conjured up an image of Mariposa in your mind, that town on the hillside sloping towards Lake Wissanoti, with Mr. Smith’s Hotel or Eliot’s Drug Store on Main Street, and the five o’clock train pulling into the station. Sadly, you won’t find Mariposa on any map, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. As Leacock said, “Mariposa is not a real town. On the contrary, it is about seventy or eighty of them. You may find them all the way from Lake Superior to the sea, with the same square streets and the same maple trees and the same churches and hotels.”
The trouble for those of us not originally from these towns is, how do you create those roots? The unfortunate truth is that coming from the deracinated city or suburb, barring a connection to relatives, it will be impossible for you to experience the same way of life as those who have lived in that area for generations. The bright side, however, is that all traditions start somewhere and you and your family can be the first in a long line settled in that small town. Truly traditional living is knowing your place in the world, and playing your role to the delight of your community, family, and self. Returning to our introductory reflection, the error of the e-trads is that they confuse outward appearances for what is essential. Tradition is not built on a specific set of clothes, or a particular aesthetic, but rather on the organic connection between a people and their land. Tradition is the roots they lay down firmly into those dark hollows of the earth from whence they draw their sustenance for all the generations of their existence. Those city kids who yearn for something more may not have had the opportunity to grow up in an environment that protected them from the ever-expanding liberal hegemony nor affirmed who they were and who they could or should be, but they can give that gift to their children. Centuries from now their descendants could still inhabit the valleys or plains or riversides that were taken up this generation, and look back thankful that they had the opportunity to grow up in a place they truly felt they belonged and share in James Rebanks’ thoughts:
I have always liked the feeling of carrying on something bigger than me, something that stretches back through other hands and other eyes into the depths of time. To work there is a humbling thing, the opposite of conquering a mountain, if you like; it liberates you from any illusion of self-importance. I am only one of the current graziers on our fell, a small link in a very long chain. Perhaps, in a hundred years’ time, no one will care that I owned the sheep that grazed part of these mountains. They won’t know my name. But it doesn’t matter. If they stand on that fell and do the things we do, they will owe me a tiny unspoken debt for once keeping part of it going, just as I owe all those that came before a debt for getting it this far.