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23 may 2016

New Zealand writer Philip Armstrong begins Sheep by saying that he'd never actually met a sheep till he started the book. This is hardly uncommon. I'd lived in Texas for over 20 years before I met any horses. I lived in New York before that and never actually knew a hipster. Sometimes the most pervasive elements of our culture are invisible because they're everywhere.

Not long ago I was tromping through the landscape in Denmark on my way to a picturesque castle. You had to cross a field of sheep to get there. I was struck by how … "chill" the sheep were, for want of a more current term. Horses will show an interest if you walk across their pasture; goats are hail-fellow-well-met; even cows can sometimes be curious or territorial. These Danish sheep, in words that Armstrong quotes from Haruki Murakami, "neither rejected nor accepted my presence, regarding me more as a temporary manifestation" (158).

It's common to think of domestic sheep as stupid, but Armstrong is at pains to show how intelligent they are within their own Umwelt. Or at least potentially so, as Armstrong suspects that the most common varieties have had their intelligence severely bred out. Sheep are social animals who (ironically, given human stereotypes about them) are strongly invested in recognizing individuals, and may match humans in their capacity to recognize faces – or do better, since sheep can tell humans apart and humans are poor at returning the recognition.

Sheep are also excellent at surveying ground and transforming it: partly as a kind of flock-mind activity, but partly too as individuals who naturally reconnoiter their habitat and continually reshape it to suit their needs. Armstrong thinks of sheep as having been the main colonizers of places like Australia and New Zealand: people brought them, of course, but then sheep had their way with the environment.

Sheep are at the heart of civilization, says Armstrong, and it's not an oversell. After dogs, sheep were the first domesticated animals. Mesopotamians, Egyptians, and Greeks used sheep as all-purpose animals: for milk, fiber, meat, and miscellaneous products. Other such animals, wild or domestic, have served as all-purpose anchors of cultures, from walrus to bison to yaks and buffalo. But sheep enabled cultures to replicate themselves deliberately and expand across Eurasia, in the movement that we came to call civilization. They were a portable and more malleable version of the resources packed into larger and intractable wild animals, or cattle who needed larger and richer pasture land.

Armstrong notes Western ambivalence about sheep: they are stupid, easily led, in need of pastors; at the same time, one of Christ's avatars is the Lamb, a profoundly gentle and self-sacrificing animal, paradoxically the scourge of sin and death. By contrast Eastern cultures, much less dependent on sheep, tended to see them as strong, reliable, and admiral, much more single-natured.

One of the more unsettling passages in Sheep is Armstrong's discussion of the use of sheep as experimental animals. They are enough like humans to yield good results and enough different so that we aren't torn up ethically about using them. In the case of scrapie, for instance, sheep research provided insights into how kuru and Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease are transmitted. But much research strikes the reader as inane, and right from the start, as when 17th-century naturalists transfused sheep blood into violently insane humans.

The Patient from being Maniacal, or raging mad, became wholly Ovine or Sheepish; he bleated perpetually, and chew'd the Cud. (140)
Unfortunately this metamorphosis seems to have been an irreproducible result.

Armstrong, Philip. Sheep. London: Reaktion, 2016.