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Ecology, the animal turn and sheep in poetry

Sheep have been closely associated with humans for at least 10,000 years, but despite their ubiquity and association with agro-pastoral cultural landscapes, they are poorly represented in both poetry and in critical readings of pastoral texts. This book addresses that omission by applying concepts from the still emerging field of animal studies to an ecologically focused reading of poetry referencing sheep. The distinction between wild and domesticated species is called into question, with particular attention to Tim Ingold’s ideas about how hunters and pastoralists differ in the relations they have with animals. Pastoral literature is compared with what pastoralism means in agriculture and how it can produce landscapes with a high nature value. Poetry from the upland sheep-farming areas of western Britain is read from the viewpoint of the animal turn. The sheep-breeding practices of Dorset and Devon are explored through the poetry of Ted Hughes and Kay Syrad. Sheep and sheep keeping have been heavily involved in emigration of people, sheep and agricultural practice to the settler colonies, so readings of a small selection of poems from the USA and New Zealand are included to open the important topic of postcolonial reading of sheep poetry. The final chapter opens the question of whether sheep and poets have a future as the crisis deepens. The book makes a contribution to the literature of animal studies and ends with the question of whether the ethical case for a vegan lifestyle and low emissions means that the whole species is destined for extinction.

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William Welstead

The introduction describes the rationale for a critical study of sheep in contemporary poetry as a means to redress the relative lack of poems ‘about the beasts themselves’, when compared with both literary and critical output on pastoralism. This lack of writing about sheep is mirrored in the experience of agricultural historians where text, literally written on sheep in ancient parchments, was of less interest to a historian than the wool fibres on the parchment that he could see under the microscope. The chapter makes the case for revisiting the ecological basis for ecocriticism by considering the distinction between the population ecology of a single species and community ecology of an assemblage of interdependent species. How do these separate approaches to ecology map onto the difference between poems about sheep and those in the pastoral mode? Have ecocritics, in their haste to explain the etymology of the word ‘ecology’ as about ‘home’ or ‘place’, made poems about a single species, which is domesticated and not wild, more difficult to consider critically? Does the animal turn in the humanities raise issues for the critical study of poems about sheep?

in Writing on sheep
William Welstead

The first chapter introduces the key texts associated with the animal turn in the environmental humanities with particular emphasis on Peter Singer (1975), John Berger (1980) and Donna Haraway (2008). The 10,000-year history of domestication is explored through Juliet Clutton-Brock (1995, 2012) and Terry O’Connor (2013). The animal turn in the humanities depends in part on insights gained from the development of ethology from Darwin through the work of the 1973 Nobel laureates Tinbergen and Lorenz, the sociobiology of Wilson and its more recent transition to evolutionary psychology (Griffiths 2011: 393–414). Ted Hughes’s essays on writing about animals are used to test the idea that the animal turn can enrich our critical understanding of poems about animals.

in Writing on sheep
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The Soay sheep of St Kilda
William Welstead

Most sheep are domesticated, but much discourse about these creatures is based on the distinction between wild and domestic. The second chapter explores the main differences between wild and domestic, in terms of how humans construct their relationship across the species boundary. The St Kilda archipelago is the most remote part of the British Isles. Hirta was the only island to be inhabited until 1930, but in that year this community left for good. In 1932, 107 sheep were relocated from Soay to Hirta and left to become wild. The population ecology of this wild population is of great interest to ecologists and has been intensively researched, first from 1959 to 1967 and since 1985 through the Soay Sheep Project. The sheep on Hirta have the potential to inform discussion by ecocritics of issues such as the difference between wild and domestic, the ethics of watching populations starve and crash without intervention and the overall impact on biodiversity of this strategy of knowing all, but not intervening. The chapter considers the prose writing of Kathleen Jamie and the poetry of Donald S. Murray and New Zealand poet Cilla McQueen, whose ancestors left Hirta in 1851.

in Writing on sheep
William Welstead

For many ecocritics any consideration of the pastoral has to be referred back to classical texts. The third chapter follows this line of enquiry, but with a new reading in the light of the animal turn, that explores the type of relationships these ancient shepherds had with their sheep. Pastoral literature has been a fertile, but also contentious, field for ecocritical analysis. Agriculturalists’ understanding of pastoral is equally problematic. The aim of this chapter is to find a place for sheep in pastoral literature and also to refresh ecocriticism by going back to source in terms of what pastoralism means for ecologists, agriculturalists and land managers. Pastoralism as agricultural practice is now more or less synonymous with naturalistic or extensive grazing and transhumance. The changing pattern of pastoralism over time is traced from the nomadic travels of ancient shepherds with their flocks, to transhumance between winter and summer grazing, to the role of sheep in mixed (livestock and arable) farming during the agricultural improvements of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. There is a brief discussion of how new readings can complicate our understanding of poems from the pastoral canon.

in Writing on sheep
William Welstead

The context for Chapter 4 is the award in July 2017 to the English Lake District, Cumbria of UNESCO World Heritage Status as a cultural landscape. The basis of this award is both for the role played by traditional farming and the way that our ideas about landscape have been influenced by William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and John Ruskin. Herdwick sheep, which have a long history in the Lake District, were championed by Beatrix Potter on her portfolio of hill farms that she bequeathed to the National Trust. James Rebanks, who is both a Wordsworth scholar and Herdwick shepherd, continues this tradition. Cumbria, which includes the Lake District, is home to three distinctive hill breeds: Herdwick, Swaledale and Rough Fell. The idea of a cultural landscape is proving to be contentious, and this chapter offers the opportunity to explore how the pastoral mode can be reinterpreted through the animal turn. There is a further opportunity to consider how creative writing is being deployed to conserve the place for hill farming in rural culture. Poets have played an important role in reflecting the lived experience of shepherds. Contemporary poets discussed include Meg Peacocke, Josephine Dickinson and Harriet Fraser.

in Writing on sheep
Sheep and people in the Welsh uplands
William Welstead

Chapter 5 covers the Welsh mountains from Snowdon to the Brecon Beacons. The agro-pastoral society of this region is central to the concept of Welsh identity and language. The poets discussed in this chapter write in English, but this dual heritage is always present. The Welsh poet Harri Webb chose the title The Green Desert for his 1969 collection of poems. The idea that the Cambrian Mountains are seen as some sort of desert has been cited by environmentalists as an example of the damage done to the landscape by sheep. This chapter argues for a more nuanced reading of Webb’s designation, linked as it is to the concept of ‘terra incognita’. It is argued that a postcolonial reading would be more appropriate. It will take note of readings of Webb’s poetry by Morris (1993), Jarvis (2008) and Bohata (2004), but with particular reference to how sheep farming is now under pressure. Welsh Mountain sheep and closely related mountain breeds are the mainstay of the Welsh-speaking hill farmers in Snowdonia and the northern Cambrian Mountains. Authors include Ffion Jones (2014) and poets Owen Sheers (2000), Christopher Meredith (2011), Gillian Clarke (1997) and Christine Evans (2006).

in Writing on sheep
William Welstead

In Chapter 6 poetry from Scotland is considered in the context of the movement of sheep from the border regions into the Highlands at the time of the Clearances. Although it happened long ago, this traumatic event still colours narratives of sheep in contemporary Scotland. The Northumberland and Scottish Borders and the Cheviot Hills played an important role in the development of sheep breeds. It was here that the Blackface and Cheviot sheep were developed to meet the requirements of the terrain and from where the breeds spread north during the improvements inspired by the Scottish Enlightenment. The arrival of these breeds in Scotland, driven by market forces as well as ideas about improvement, was sudden and violent. In the play The Cheviot, the Stag and the Black, Black Oil, first performed in 1973, the new breeds of sheep are seen as signifiers of aggressive colonialism that displaced the subsistence-farming crofters so that their lands could be converted to sheep walk. Poets considered in this chapter are Jim Carruth, who writes from first-hand experience as a farmer poet, and Hugh McMillan, whose sympathetic engagement with sheep is both humorous and insightful.

in Writing on sheep
Ted Hughes and Kay Syrad
William Welstead

In Chapter 7 poems from two poets are read, against their very different experience on sheep farms: one as an owner-occupier in Devon and the other as a writer in residence on three farms in Dorset. By the time Ted Hughes acquired Moortown Farm in Devon, which he farmed jointly with his father-in-law, he had already developed his ideas about how to treat animals in his poetry. This chapter considers how domesticated animals fit into his literary practice. The case is made for Hughes to be seen as having a primary influence in the animal turn in the humanities, in a way that complements his importance in wider ecological literary criticism. In 2014 poet Kay Syrad and sculptor Chris Drury were ‘embedded’ on three organic farms in Dorset. Kay Syrad has ‘crafted a narrative which witnesses what it is to be a farmer’ through her own poetry and recorded interviews with the farmers. The chapter reads this poetry and prose from the viewpoint of the animal turn. It also explores the very different narratives and values deployed by Hughes during what he saw as a fundamental shift in Devon farming, and those of contemporary organic and naturalistic farming practice.

in Writing on sheep
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William Welstead

In Chapter 8, the reach of poetry, agricultural practice, breeds of livestock and critical analysis across the English-speaking world is examined. While reference was made to postcolonial readings in the above discussion on poetry in Wales and Scotland, this chapter follows those who were dispossessed during the Clearances or for personal or economic reasons made the journey to the new colonies. As agricultural improvement developed in Britain, so these ideas, animals and grass varieties spread to the New World. The pioneers also set about writing their own founding myths, which in many cases were contradictory. Context is provided from readings of writers and historians including Mary Hunter Austin, Marsha Weisiger, Mary Weaks-Baxter, Sally McMurry and Virginia de John Anderson. Readings of a small number of poets including Hershman John, Donald Hall and Cilla McQueen are compared with the developing narratives and implicit values of environmental discourse in the countries where they made their home. Adding a colonial perspective greatly increases the complexity of what is already a complex field of study.

in Writing on sheep