Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Sheep on the Land

Academic journal article The American Biology Teacher

Sheep on the Land

Article excerpt


I teach a diverse group of students many of whom were either born in foreign countries or have relatives there. When I ask them to describe their experiences with nature they often write about their countries of origin, and sometimes about farms where they visit relatives. I find these essays fascinating because they allow me not only to learn a great deal about my students, but also something about global ecologies and farming practices. Not being very self-reflective, it took me a long time to realize that one of the reasons I find these descriptions so moving is that I have a similar background and similar experiences. My parents were immigrants from Ireland, both grew up on farms, and when I was an adolescent we took a few trips to visit relatives on Irish farms. Having spent most of my life in the New York area, these have been about my only experiences of farm life. Irish farming in the 1960s was less than industrial in size. My relatives had family farms on a European rather than American scale. I recall seeing cows milked and pigs fed, but what I found most memorable was watching my cousin Johnny Molloy herd a few hundred sheep with the help of a single dog. For me, this was an early lesson in animal behavior; I considered both the dog's ability and the sheep's docility amazing.


Maybe that's why, over 35 years later, I was drawn to a book called Tutira: The Story of a New Zealand Sheep Station--that and the fact that I had read a glowing review of a reprint of this work which was originally published in 1921. Written by Herbert Guthrie-Smith, who with a friend had bought this land in 1880, it is a singular piece of prose. It was republished in 1999, in a Weyerhaeuser Environmental Classics series edited by the environmental historian, William Cronon. In his introduction, Cronon writes that when asked to take on this editorship, the first book he thought of was Tutira. He had originally read it as a student when it was a suggested to him by Vernon Carstensen, an expert on American public lands. Cronin admits that a book about a New Zealand sheep station didn't seem at all appealing, but he got a copy and became an immediate fan: "Guthrie-Smith is more than just a close observer and an engaging storyteller. Precisely because he had committed himself so completely to such a small tract of land he was able to see historical changes and ecological interconnections many others would have missed. The result is a piece of writing that offers some of the most richly textured ecological observations and meditations on nature available anywhere" (p. xiv).

Like Cronin, I too became caught up in the web of Guthrie-Smith's quiet passion for his land. His writing is so deceptively low key that it's hard to pinpoint what makes it so seductive. He simply lays out the story of his sheep station, beginning quite literally with the land and its geology. In other words, he starts by setting the stage for the biological changes he wants to chronicle. He writes as if he were telling a story to a friend--clearly and with anecdotes, metaphors, and asides. One reason the text is so riveting is that the story is so dynamic. There is a lot going on at Tutira, and Guthrie-Smith seems to have taken note of even the smallest change and considered its causes and its significance.

It's important to note that he wrote this classic of ecological literature without any formal education in the sciences. Born in 1861, Guthrie-Smith emigrated to New Zealand from Scotland in 1880 and with a boyhood friend, he purchased 20,000 acres of land on the shores of Lake Tutira on the North Island. By the early 1900s he had bought out his partner, increased his holdings to 40,000 acres and sheared up to 30,000 sheep a year; later he worked up to 60,000 acres with 40,000 sheep. These numbers seem impressive but they belie the fact that there were many lean years in which Guthrie-Smith was deeply in debt and had to deal with droughts and earthquakes--all of which he chronicles. …

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