Meat or Vegetables? New Zealand's Literary Sheep and Guthrie-Smith's Tutira

By Armstrong, Philip | Journal of New Zealand Literature, January 1, 2011 | Go to article overview

Meat or Vegetables? New Zealand's Literary Sheep and Guthrie-Smith's Tutira


Armstrong, Philip, Journal of New Zealand Literature


The Travels of Sir John Mandeville, a popular fourteenth-century travelogue, describes how in the far East 'there groweth a manner of fruit, as though it were gourds. And when they be ripe, men cut them a-two, and men find within a litde beast, in flesh, in bone, and blood, as though it were a litde lamb without wool. And men eat both the fruit and the beast'.1 This curious organism, variously known as the Barometz or the Vegetable Lamb of Tartary, occurs rather differendy in the Talmudic tradition, which describes the lamb attached by its navel to a stem rooted in the earth. Once the lamb consumes all the grass within reach of its tether, the stem withers and the creature dies.2 During the European Enlightenment, when the study of nature provided the crucible for the emergence of modern science, the vegetable lamb became the subject of expert debate. In 1781 the poet-naturalist Erasmus Darwin (grandfather of Charles) envisaged the creature implanted through its legs rather than its navel:

Rooted in earth each cloven foot descends,

And round and round her flexile neck she bends,

[...]

Eyes with mute tenderness her distant dam,

Or seems to bleat, a vegetable hmb?

A century later Henry Lee concluded that both versions of the vegetable lamb derived from European travellers' descriptions of the cotton plant, and cited as evidence die words of ancient writers like Herodotus, who referred to trees that 'bear for their fruit fleeces surpassing those of sheep' from which warm clothing could be made.4

Although Lee's explanation has been generally accepted, the story has an interesting antipodean coda. New Zealand, it turns out, has its own species of vegetable lamb. Two in fact: Haastia pulvinarius and Raoulia eximia are endemic alpine mat plants belonging to the daisy family, with cushion-forming leaves densely covered in tawny or grey-white hairs. Lying in clumps a metre or two in diameter amongst rocks and scree, they vividly justify their popular names: vegetable sheep and sheep plant. On first encountering Haastia and Raoulia, Victorian naturalists responded with a characteristic blend of astonishment, calculation and disdain. 'Although singular and interesting to the botanist', wrote John R. Jackson, curator of the Museum at the Royal Gardens in Kew, in 1 867, 'these plants are of no value economically, but, on the contrary [...] certain species of them are a plague to the shepherds, inasmuch as they give them much trouble and annoyance to discern between an animal sheep and a vegetable sheep'.5 More than a century later the same confusion recurs in Philip Temple's Beak of the Moon (1980). Temple's novel evokes the anthropomorphised perspective of a young kea, Strongbeak, who while flying home from exile notices that the alpine vegetation has been replaced with pasture, along with other figures he originally mistakes for Haastia or Raoulia.

The surfaces of the terraces and flats [...] showed a new greenness, like the scum of algae on a stagnant pool. The tussocks, tematakoura bushes, speargrass and flax had almost entirely gone [...] and dotted everywhere were new plants, like the white tutahuna which cushions bare screes. New plants he thought, until he saw them move.6

A footnote glosses tutahuna as 'Haastia and Raoulia species, commonly known by humans as vegetable sheep'. As we discover, Strongbeak is mistaken: the kea's range has been taken over by high country farmers and the pastures are full of actual sheep. Yet uncertainty persists over these newcomers. When Highfeather, the authoritarian leader of the kea, suggests compensating for the loss of forage by eating sheep instead, a debate ensues. Since their dietary code prohibits the consumption of flesh, the kea can only justify preying on sheep by classifying them as plants, comparing the sight of their blood with 'berries' (p. 391) and the taste of their meat with 'roots and berries and grass altogether' (p. 326).

What is the significance of this blurring, in the case of sheep, of the categorical distinction between fauna and flora? …

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