While shepherds watched their flocks

This morning I am mulling over the sheep/shepherd imagery that so thoroughly infects the Christian tradition. What might the popularity of this imagery tell us about our relationships with each other – and with the divine Other? According to eco-philosopher Paul Shepard (The Tender Carnivore and the Sacred Game, University of Georgia Press, 1973),

Among animals, suitable candidates for domestication are social, herd-oriented, leader- or dominance-recognizing forms. Their response to their own species (possible sex partners) and their own habitat is more a matter of learning and less of fixed responses to fixed signals. Husbandry seeks out and exploits three characteristics of these animals: the tendency of the young to follow whoever is caring for it by imprinting – the process of irreversible attachment; the gradualness of the transition from nursing to eating; and the way in which different social relations may be mediated by different senses. For example, mother-daughter nurture relationships may be based on imprinted taste. A Scottish milkmaid lets the cow lick her bloodied hands (as well as the calf) at birth, and thereafter the cow will “let down” – give milk – for the milkmaid and the calf, but only for them.

Inborn metabolic errors condemn wild animals to swift destruction. In captivity such cripples are sometimes not only protected but prized. These flaws (“hypertropies”) in growth result in the production of extra meat, wool, silk, eggs, and milk. All such freaks carry a burden of genetic weakness. The nurture of these weaklings is a large part of modern animal science, which may be defined as the systematic creation of animal deformities, anomalies, and monsters and the practice of keeping them alive.

Another mutant trait common to domestics is excessively delayed maturity and sexual precocity combined with rapid growth. In culling out the irascible and stubborn individuals, the hard, mature, lean line is sacrificed for animals with submissive and infantile responses. Individuals maturing at slower rates are favored. Cows and horses have long-enduring mother-child relationships just as primates do. By exploiting this relationship, new social interdependencies can be created. Infantile animals are less attached to their own kind and readily join other barnyard animals or the human household. Children are eager to adopt them as “people” and adult humans are attracted by their helpless appeal and immature faces – for juvenile qualities are as apparent in face and body as in behavior. The effect of all this is that domestic breeds are creatures who never grow up in spite of their sexual precocity.

By contrast, animals that have not been domesticated, but are simply caged for human amusement or edification, frequently suffer mental and physical breakdowns, because they

lack the extensive range of choices necessary to a healthy physical or social existence. Some species simply cannot be kept alive, necessitating a constant flow of “living material” to replace the dead or dying.

Domestic animals who also live in restricted environments are not stir-crazy and malnourished because they are the survivors of hundreds of generations of captives. They are the well-padded drudges, insulated by blunted minds and coarsened bodies against the uniformity of the barnyard, having achieved independence from the demands of style by having no style, coming to terms with the grey world of captivity by arriving at the lowest common denominator of survival….

Occasionally man himself [sic] is included in lists of domestic animals. But man is civilized, not domesticated.

In fact, human beings are still genetically wild, suffering a variety of mental and physical ailments as a result of artificial confinement, literal or metaphorical. The irony is that many of these diseases stemming from an over-civilized condition are interpreted as signs of weakness, whereas in fact – if Shepard is right – the individuals least adapted to zoo conditions are those with the most wildness, the most vigor. Allan Ginsburg was not imaging things when he “saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, / starving hysterical naked, / dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix…”

It’s practically a truism that the sentimentalized objects of many a self-professed wildlife lover’s concern have little in common with true wild animals. What worries me is the possibility that many Christians might hold a similarly infantile conception of God. More than any specific dogma, it’s the abundant sentimentality of Christianity, along with its insistence on herd-like submissiveness, that I find off-putting. For many believers, it seems, God is simply an all-benevolent servant of their desires, an idol, a Santa Claus writ large.

Needless to say, it’s this side of the religion that is most on display during the Christmas season. Nativity scenes resonate with our deeply acculturated appreciation for domesticity. Instead of the random and frightening noises of untamed nature, angels sing in harmony. Their message: fear not. Everything is safe and snug and cozy. Barnyard and hearth, shepherd and benevolent king are symbolically united in this adoration of the Lamb.

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My mother just stopped in as I was typing this to ask if I’d heard the coyotes last night. Unfortunately, my computer is so loud that I didn’t hear anything until I went to bed, shortly before 10:00. Just as I was dropping off to sleep, I heard what sounded like the world’s loudest screech owl right outside my window. My mother informs me that the coyotes were yipping and barking up in the field around 8:00, then began singing volubly not too far up Laurel Ridge a little after 9:00, continuing off and on till at least 11:30. “I can understand now why they call them song dogs,” she said. “These coyotes are much more musical than the last bunch!”

There was a pack in residence on this end of the mountain for a couple of years, but a year or two ago they all disappeared – probably the victims of hunters in the valley who don’t appreciate the perceived competition, and who believe any number of horror stories about coyotes’ viciousness toward their precious deer. Members of that pack had been, perhaps wisely, very infrequent singers.

Then in mid-November we started seeing abundant coyote scat on the trails again. It’s exciting to think that a new group has adopted this mountain as its refuge, and has survived the regular rifle deer season – but what is Coyote, after all, but a master of survival, the ultimate habitat generalist, civilized humanity’s most resilient foil? Something tells me I’ll be spending a lot less time on-line in the coming months. I’m already imagining long snowshoe walks on moonlit nights, feeling the ache of cold air in my lungs, keeping an eye out for the northern lights and an ear cocked for another outpouring of wild, anarchic music from the animal the Christianized O’odham Indians still rightly call God’s Dog.

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Dave Bonta (bio) crowd-sources his problems by following his gut, which he shares with 100 trillion of his closest microbial friends — a close-knit, symbiotic community comprising several thousand species of bacteria, fungi, and protozoa. In a similarly collaborative fashion, all of Dave’s writing is available for reuse and creative remix under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 United States License. For attribution in printed material, his name (Dave Bonta) will suffice, but for web use, please link back to the original. Contact him for permission to waive the “share alike” provision (e.g. for use in a conventionally copyrighted work).

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