Wednesday, May 5, 2010

A Twist of Sheep and Fossils

The annual Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival is reportedly the largest event of its kind in North America. The 37th iteration of the Festival this past weekend was an engaging and sprawling multitude of sheep, sheep farmers, shepherds, weavers, knitters, and others who gathered to display aspects of the many lifestyles that involve sheep and wool.

The stars, of course, were the sheep, sometime behaving unsheep-like. Probably shows my ignorance of sheep, but, Lord, they can be stubborn and headstrong. Clearly, my education in things sheep is still very much a work in progress, having begun with a posting in January. The many varieties of sheep represented at the Festival attest to the wonderful effects of selective breeding. Among my favorites are the Leicester Longwool looking so Rastafarian.

I searched for Herdwick sheep, another favorite, but didn’t expect to find any. They are a rugged breed living in the mountainous Lake District of England, championed in the first half of the 20th Century by a leading sheep farmer in that region, Beatrix Potter. The survival of the breed may well be credited to her.

The photo below of Herdwick sheep at Dungeon Ghyll in the Lake District was taken by Paul Johnson and posted on the Discover Cumbria website. It is reproduced here with permission.

Yes, the sheep farmer is that Beatrix Potter who wrote and illustrated so many children’s classics. Though the best known of them is The Tale of Peter Rabbit, I count others among my favorites, such as The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies (in which a mouse and rabbit parents outwit Mr. McGregor) and The Tailor of Gloucester (in which mice repay human kindness). There’s no condescending to children in Potter’s tales, and, despite the fact that her animals often talk, wear clothes, and walk upright, the realities of the natural world occupy center stage – rabbits are eaten, cats do kill rats and mice. Her language is to be savored, in part for its humor. This passage is from the Flopsy Bunnies – “It is said that the effect of eating too much lettuce is ‘soporific.’ I have never felt sleepy after eating lettuces; but then I am not a rabbit.” Though the refrain in The Tailor of Gloucester may require a parent to do a bit of research to explain it to children, it’s irresistible – “No more twist! No more twist!” (“Twist” is a thick, twisted silk thread used for buttonholes and decoration.)

As will become clear (well, as clear as things get in my postings), sheep and fossils come together nicely in Beatrix Potter (1866 - 1943). She is the subject of a superb biography by Linda Lear entitled Beatrix Potter: A Life in Nature, published in 2007. It’s a volume that I intended just to dip into in search of the paleontology bits (sort of like hunting for the “nasty bits”), but stayed to read from cover to cover. What a masterful work, certainly worthy of Potter.

And Potter would have loved the Maryland Sheep & Wool Festival, particularly for its sheep competitions.

Potter’s life can be divided into pre- and post-Peter Rabbit periods, though, as with most lives, nothing’s quite that black and white. The publication of her children’s books, beginning in 1902 with Peter Rabbit, provided Potter, who was in her mid-30s, with the financial and emotional means to gain some freedom from her opinionated, controlling parents, particularly her mother (whom Beatrix labeled “the enemy”). The elder Potters’ domineering ways were compounded by an obsession with social standing. They looked down on people in industry and the trades, a wonderfully ironic attitude because the family wealth had been built in the textile trade. Her parents clearly reflected Victorian England’s view of the proper role of single, unmarried women. Still, Beatrix’s younger brother Bertram also suffered under his parents’ harsh regime, so much so, that he kept his marriage a secret from them for 11 years, clearly afraid of opposition to his wife, the daughter of a wine merchant. The story of Beatrix’s engagement is tragic, while that of her eventual marriage comforting.

The most substantial early step toward independence was taken in 1905 when she bought Hill Top farm in the Lake District. Over the course of the rest of her life, Potter continued to acquire land in the area, deliberately setting out to conserve as much of the natural landscape as possible to keep it from development.

Her spirit of conservation extended to her efforts to preserve the local Herdwick sheep, a breed suited to the Lake District’s wild mountainous uplands, the fells. Herdwick can survive solely by foraging on the vegetation that grows in this rugged landscape, they can endure the unforgiving snows that fall there, and their coarse wool apparently dries out faster than that of other sheep. But, they may be most distinguished by their ability to know the area in the fell where they lived as lambs (their farm’s “heaf”) and from which, as adults, they don’t wander, making fences unnecessary. On its website, the Herdwick Sheep Breeders’ Association gives an example of the importance of the “heafing” instinct for fell farmers: “This is crucial as the central Lake District fells are inaccessible and a sheep which strays from Borrowdale to Eskdale will involve a 100 mile round trip by road for the farmer to collect it.” Potter recognized that these sheep were essential to the viability of farming in the fell region, providing wool and meat.

It was in the pre-Peter Rabbit period that she developed and honed her scientific skills that continued to serve her as landowner and Herdwick sheep farmer. For all of their control of their children’s lives, the elder Potters gave Beatrix and her brother an amazing degree of freedom to explore nature and bring it home with them. As Lear writes,
The third-floor nursery menagerie included, at various times, rabbits (Benjamin Bouncer and Peter), a green frog called Punch, several lizards, including Judy who was a special favourite, water newts, a tortoise, a frog, salamanders, many and different varieties of mice, a ring snake, several bats, a canary and a green budgerigar, a wild duck, a family of snails, several guinea pigs and later a hedgehog or two. (p. 38)

The Potter parents encouraged the emerging artistic talents of both children. The natural world inside and out of the third-floor nursery was the subject of their painting and drawing, and continued to be as they grew into adulthood.

As a young adult, Beatrix remained drawn to natural history, collecting and illustrating her specimens, including fungi and fossils. Apparently, such an engagement with natural history was not an unusual thing in Victorian England, particularly for women from affluent families. Potter’s interest in fungi deepened in her 20s and she developed an expertise in illustrating and, ultimately, in cultivating them. The story of her effort to penetrate the British scientific ranks with her ideas about the composite nature of lichens (a symbiotic relationship between a fungi and an alga) and fungi reproduction (many going through a mold state), and the rebuff she experienced from the scientific establishment, is told in Lear’s biography and elsewhere, such as the article entitled Helen Beatrix Potter – Her Interest in Fungi, by Roy Watling (originally published in The Linnean, January 2000). Potter's ideas about fungi were ultimately commonly accepted.

She didn’t elevate her work with fossils to the same level as her study of fungi. Indeed, Lear posits in her biography that Beatrix’s interest in fossils was in their collecting, not their study. I’d suggest that the drawings she made of her finds reveal the close attention to details that only a student of fossils could accomplish. The surviving illustrations she made of her finds are very fine. Poor quality reproductions can be seen in the online article entitled Beatrix Potter’s Fossils and Her Interest in Geology, by B.G. Gardiner (originally published in The Linnean, January 2000). Lear’s biography includes a nice reproduction of the drawing of eight marine invertebrate fossils that also appears in Gardiner’s article.

I would like to have included at least one of those drawings in this posting but, as with so many things related to Beatrix Potter and her art, there is a very tight hold on them. I tried to gain the necessary permission but failed and chose not to violate whatever copyright applies. My difficulty in this regard is certainly in keeping with how Potter herself protected her illustrations and books. She was the quintessential merchandiser, realizing early on that there was money to be made with the images of her creations, particularly Peter Rabbit. As a result, her approach to marketing her animals seems very contemporary, involving close control of any use of their likenesses.

Geology and paleontology flared as important interests for her when she was in her late twenties and subsided relatively quickly. During this period, she eagerly scoured quarries and climbed hillsides in pursuit of fossils. Her descriptions of her fossiling forays during this period are remarkable when one realizes that she continued to live at home with her parents and was under their vise-like control. Surprising to think they let her, even if presumably with a chaperon, wander the countryside and search quarries where she’d come under the watchful eyes of quarrymen. Her descriptions of her efforts are alive with humor.

In 1894, on holiday in Scotland, she declared she’d reached some level of expertise in finding fossils – “I have found out which stones to split, and how to use a cold chisel.” (p. 93, all of these fossil-related quotations are found in Lear’s biography)

At the end of this holiday, she declared herself “very sorry indeed to come away, with a feeling of not having half worked through the district, but I have done a good summer’s work. The funguses will come up again and the fossils will keep.” With her customary wit, she added, “I hope I may go back again some day when I am an old woman, unless I happen to become a fossil myself, which would save trouble.” (p. 96)

At one juncture, she was advised to narrow the focus of her fossil collecting. Collectors everywhere can relate to her response to this direction. “I do not feel under any obligation to confine my attention to a particular formation . . . I beg to state I intend to pick up everything I find which is not too heavy.” (emphasis added, p. 98)

Yes, indeed. Stubborn and headstrong, after all.

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