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How to hold a conversation with sheep: hiding one’s "kime" and the gaze of the predator-researcher

In philosopher Vinciane Despret’s essay “Sheep Do Have Opinions”, (1) she argues that ethologists’ questions about the nonhuman animals they study have elastic properties. Certain lines of inquiry may make behaviours more expansive, complexity more visible, allow for new and unexpected discoveries. Alternatively, she says, their questions can shrink our understanding by reproducing assumptions – that males always dominate, or that competition pervades every dimension of animals' lives. For Despret, expansive questions mean allowing animals to “testify to what interests them”, rather than simply what interests the researcher. This, she argues, is a form of inter-species “politeness”. Primatologist Thelma Rowell's experiments with a flock of sheep, she says, are a case in point. After decades studying apes and monkeys in Africa, Rowell became frustrated by the ‘hierarchical scandal’ that saw some animals the glamorous subjects of fascinating questions about social relations, and others relegated to questions about what they ate. She began to study a group of sheep that she placed in a field just outside her garden, with the patient attention to detail of a practiced fieldworker. What particularly fascinated Despret, however, was the experiment she re-launched each morning: she gave each of her 22 sheep a bowl of food -and then set down one extra – a 23rd bowl. The 23rd bowl was a device designed to solve a problem – how to attract wary sheep to a researcher’s observational field, but at the same time to make competition only one possible response. An extra bowl, rather than a missing bowl, allowed them multiple options for how they negotiated it, expanding the kinds of behaviours and interactions that could be observed.

The practical and ethical questions of how to make animals (literally) visible in our research practices, especially in ways which allow us to observe animals in a free-roaming habitat, interacting with their peer group, is not one that multi-species ethnographers in the humanities frequently have to deal with. In some form or other, the animals are already in the control or trust of their human associates and we just show up. However, for one of the animal behaviour experts whose work formed one of my case studies, mutually acceptable proximity is worth cultivating as part of the learning process, and it made me reflect on the possibilites and limitations of the radical sensory, kinaesthetic and somatic-emotional methodologies she taught. At the organisation I'm calling Equine Instinct, where participants worked with horses from the ground in the teaching of both 'equine-assisted personal development' and horse behaviour and communication, Erin explicitly forbade the use of food to attract the horses out in the fields or in the arena. And whilst there were certainly some practices of control/direction, and the herd of 14 free-living horses had previously been riding horses, used to human contact, Erin tries as far as possible to allow them some choice in their proximity to humans, trying to use only those horses that "presented themselves" to her on entering the field to catch them for a morning's work; waiting until the horses were ready to accept the halter before she placed it over their ears. Once inside the arena, the horses were loose and could choose their proximity to the human client; and when we worked out in the fields, they had a huge range. Trust, acceptance, mutual curiosity, and perhaps the promise of a scratch, was, for Erin, the best way to learn about her horses and find connection with them. Fundamentally, she believed, "connection" had to be earned by working on oneself. So the two aims of Equine Instinct – learning about horses, and learning about yourself as “personal development”, are intertwined.

Being a participant observer meant absorbing myself in learning these techniques as well as thinking sociologically about them. So I had learned the practice of "grazing" with our hands alongside the horses as a way to share time without the appropriation of touch; practicing using all of our senses, finding a ‘present moment’ state of calm and focus, and engaging what Erin called the ‘felt sense’ through exercises in embodied, emotional self-awareness. Some of this came easier to me because of some years of practice in yoga, meditation and acting training. Methodological justifications about my immersion in the comparatively strange techniques that follow are the subject of a groaning methodology chapter - perhaps a future blog. Suffice to say that there are well-trodden paths in sensory ethnography and I argue that whilst these particular techniques are less familiar and perhaps less comfortable to many Western ethnographic researchers, they have ample precedence and are nothing more mysterious, nothing more (or less) problematic.

Having spent several weeks working in this way with Erin’s horses in a group context, I was sufficiently intrigued by what I found to want to experiment with its possibilities further by myself. Erin and her husband Rob keep a small flock of rescued sheep, mostly Soays and Sussex, all with quaint literary names (Quentin Blake, Oliver Twist). They are not generally used for the 'personal development' work, so have relatively little contact with human strangers. Despret’s article title, "Sheep Do Have Opinions", stems from Thelma Rowell’s comment to her: “People who rear the animals (in intensive farming) will go quite some way towards avoiding accepting that these animals have relationships and opinions; animals do certainly have opinions”. I had always wanted to engage with more overlooked species like 'farm' animals in my animal behaviour research, and was intrigued to see if I could use Erin's techniques in the same way as with the horses to get close, and learn something, however small, about their “opinions”, about what might have meaning for them. On a more prosaic level, I was mindful of the university paperwork that would be involved in spending quality time alone with a herd of large horses. I felt reasonably confident I could outrun a flock of sheep if they became peeved with me. (I never had to find out – I might be wrong). So this is how I found myself feeling somewhat overdressed against the chill in a field in early November, planning to spend the best part of two days hanging out with the flock. I wasn't hoping to gain a sophisticated understanding of sheep social life, but perhaps I could learn something small, such as who tended to take charge. To do that, I either needed binoculars (cheating) or I needed to gain enough trust and acceptance to get close to them. In an hilly field roughly an acre in size, this would be a challenge.

Day One:

We began on a misty, chilly morning on the crest of a hill at Erin and Rob's former dairy-farm, which stretched down to the autumnal woodland beyond. The sheep were grazing quietly together some 30m away. They also had access to a scrubby area sheltered by a large oak tree (in the photo above), which in turn led up to a small paddock adjacent to a large pond and two new, rescued donkeys, the subject of intense curiosity from all animal life at the farm. Erin would watch for a while, before leaving me alone. Before I set off, she gave me some advice. They were even more sensitive and responsive to shifts in emotion or intention than the horses, she said, and they tracked your movements from behind with a vision of almost 360 degrees. Once spooked, the game was up, so a leisurely pace was the order of the day. “Be careful your gaze isn’t the gaze of a predator”, she said. She suggested I relied more on my peripheral vision to see them, rather than staring directly. I should, she said, keep asking myself ‘am I listening to them’ and to constantly try to find ways to allow them control of our interaction.

The gaze of a predator? Moi?

What we disparagingly call ‘sheeplike’ behaviour could be, says Despret, the foundation of sheep’s social intelligence: “The closer and more attentive the animals remain to one another’s movements, the sooner the enemy will be detected”. Rowell, however, apparently believed that predation, whilst far and away the most important possibility in many animals' lives, was difficult to study - because the presence of the human researcher made attack less likely. She thought this meant we could learn nothing about what the presence of a predator means to the sheep. But what about when the researcher is considered the predator? It’s not dissimilar set of motivations. Get close. Capture something. I recognised a certain murderous quality in my intense interest, my need for an Event and a sense of optimal timing.

After some body scans and breathing exercises with Erin to bring some anticipatory jitters to a more suitable place of calm, I set off into the field, adopting what I hoped was a casual, ‘nothing-to-see-here’ walk, arcing slowly and nonchalantly around the hedgerow, suddenly embarrassingly aware of the light-reflective quality of my silver salopettes. I heard her softly saying my name - why I was making that choice? I turned back. “Too creepy?” I said. She nodded, smiling. “It’s what a wolf would do, flanking the herd!” she said. “Try and think about your intention, rather than your speed or position. When Rob works in their field, he walks fast, he can be quite loud, but if his intention is clearly not directed at them, they ignore him”.

How do you make your intention not-them when it is overwhelmingly, overpoweringly, want-results is-them? It reminded me of Einat Bar On Cohen’s writing on the control of "kime" in the practice of karate (2). Kime has no direct English translation, nor is it considered something that can be adequately verbally articulated, but it has to be somatically found. Located under the navel, in the area which nondualist Japanese phenomenology calls the ‘hara’ or “body-mind”, kime is understood as the quality of potentiality, not just of muscular motion but of the movement of decision:

Hiding kime, performing the exercise as if there were no kime, means complete control over both movement and thought. In this situation, a thought (a decision) or an emotion (the will to win, for instance) is a somatic activity that can be detected by the other, a corporeal mode of inter- subjectivity: the mind too is a movement. For the attack to surprise the opponent it should be void, it should ‘start out’ without betraying a signal. The attacker himself should forgo the decision; he should let his body decide when to attack, and he should let his body carry out the attack perfectly, as it was trained to do. (Bar on Cohen, 2006:80)

So, whilst far from a trained ninja capable of entirely ‘voiding’ intention, I could work towards "hiding my kime", I thought. If the mind too is an embodied movement, capable of being detected by another, I also can try taking it in other directions, as Erin suggests. I began giving myself tasks on the edges of the flock such as– ‘examine those berried branches over there’ or ‘hmm what an interesting thistle’. A trained actor, choosing strong make-believe objectives should, I thought, surely be convincing enough to an ovine audience.

It was true that the sheep largely ignored me, at a distance, but it was also hard to observe them at the same time. So eventually, I started to “graze” my way over to them as Erin had taught, on my hands and knees, trying to make the pulling up of grass with my hands my absorbing intention, the way I imagined it must feel to be hungry for it. Like we had with the horses, I practiced settling myself to a "present-moment mind", trying to dissolve my suspicion of this tactic. Was it ridiculous? How far would I get if I just walked straight over? But the risk was, as Erin said, that I would forever be a threat if I spooked them, and the sheep didn't seem too at ease with my presence as I was. The research practice was to follow instruction. So I made my way closer, trying to stay in “present-moment”. I avoided any sustained, direct gaze. The instant that one of them shifted or glanced at me I looked casually away and ‘grazed’ in another direction. It felt like an odd version of woolly grandmother’s footsteps. I grew intimately familiar with the ground. The grass was cropped here, long dull and straggly there, its summer lustre faded. Worm casts appeared where it cleaved to one side and another. Water seeped up through the damp clay. Ryegrass and meadow-grass and clover flowers. Dry brown hawthorn leaves, speckled with mould, littered the grass near the hedge. Small shiny beetles about their business. A tiny spider’s web in a thistle, groaning with a knot of eggs. A path of torn grass through the dew marked my achingly slow progress.

The sheep would keep me at a distance of roughly 15-20 metres. Quite composed, they would then remove my gaze with calm unhurried decorum, as someone might politely but firmly remove an unwanted hand from the knee. What became extraordinarily evident, however, was their sense of my intention, as Erin had warned. I began to notice this more and more. I would find myself getting reasonably close, and then pause to rest. But then I might simply move from an absent-minded state to a present-minded one - getting lost in my thoughts and then returning to the task- and one or two would look up nervously and shift. It must be nothing more than a change of breath or perhaps a small jolt, though I was never aware of one. Far more than had been evident to me with the horses over many days of ethnography, the sheep seemed to sense the shift in intention or focus, the “movement of my kime” before I had even, I thought, moved in my body. At one time I was doing a meditative practice Erin calls ‘going into neutral’, bringing sustained visual interest to a small patch on the ground, returning from any thoughts back to this focus. I must have been 30 metres away and had been motionless for 10 minutes. As I raised my eyes, I found four of the sheep had already raised their heads and were looking at me, and as my gaze swam into focus four others turned and looked. To my knowledge I had barely moved, just the slightest incline upwards of my head, perhaps 30 degrees, from tens of metres away.

I had already substantially lowered my expectations and thought that I might as well enjoy myself. After a chilly start, the sun came out, with a surprisingly fierce warmth so low in the sky. I lay down and enjoyed it. I spent time isolating and using my senses as we did in the retreats – touch, sight, sound, smell. The breeze was gently buffeting my face, but rustled loudly in the nearby woods with their drying autumn leaves. A buzzard called high up. I wrote in my notebook.

When I sat up the sheep had moved into the adjacent scrubland under the oak. I "grazed" my way slowly over them but when I got close they moved up into the paddock. If I was to follow them there they would be cornered and I might panic them. Besides, I had noticed one of them, Billy, was lame, and I didn’t want to make him keep moving on my account.

So after about four hours, I decided the day was over. I went for a debrief with Erin and told her about Billy. She came to have a look. Sheep are prone to foot-rot in damp weather and she needed to see whether she could treat it herself or whether she needed to call the vet. Her husband Rob would normally help but he wasn’t at home. She asked me to go and find some sheep pellets and a headcollar while she finished up. I met her at the gate and she asked me to wait behind it.

I had never watched Erin with the animals by herself before, apart from when she brought the horses in and out of the arena, so I was intrigued to see if, and how, she would accomplish the apprehension of Billy. She began by walking into the field and calling the sheep, scattering some pellets from a bucket. They came running, Billy hobbling slowly and painfully. She gave some of them a scratch on the head and one or two ate out of her hand. (So not that frightened then, if food is in play. Hrmph).

After a few minutes of nosing the ground for leftovers the flock dispersed. Billy, however, was lying down, his legs folded underneath him. Erin went to sit a little distance away from him with the headcollar, gazing out over the fields. I rested my elbows on the gate, watching quietly from a distance. Both were still, and Erin's body was relaxed. After about ten minutes, she shifted slightly on her bottom sideways towards him, just a few inches. He didn’t move and she continued to hold the headcollar in her lap and gaze out over the fields. I waited, listening to the evening birdsong.

Dusk was approaching. The breeze had dropped and it was becoming still and cool. The blackbirds were commencing their evening chook-chook-chooks. The light began to fade. Erin and Billy continued to sit a little distance apart as the rest of the flock moved on. Every ten minutes or so she would shift a little closer. The sensitivity of the situation became slowly mesmeric. Would she do it? I was completely held in anticipation, though finding time to think that this was an awfully long-winded way to catch a sheep.

They were no more than a metre apart when I heard a loud familiar miaow and Erin’s wiry black and white cat Pepper arrived at my feet and started calling loudly. Perhaps suppertime was late. He jumped on the gate ahead of me and started pacing up and down its beam, demanding attention. I carefully rubbed his ears, trying to make as few movements as possible, but he was insistent. I thought I could better pacify him on the ground. Slowly slowly, I lowered myself to a squat.

Instantly Billy jumped up and hobbled away. She’d lost him. A human moving to a crouch behind a gate some 20 metres away was enough to break the spell. I was shamefaced as Erin returned. She tried to reassure me – she said she had begun to feel impatient and she thought that contributed to it too.

We talked as we walked back to the farmhouse. I said that some people might think that a few moments of struggle might be less stressful for the sheep than 40 minutes of approach. She agreed, and said if Rob had been present to hold him she might have been more assertive and just got the thing done. But if she had tried and failed to physically contain him, she would have lost both his trust and the opportunity to treat him – she wouldn’t have been able to get close to him for a month. What was it like, I said, what were you trying to do?

Despite the failure of the task, she looked elated. She said “I could feel this pulsating between us. And we spent ages just looking at each other! I was trying to find his frequency. I was thinking, how quiet can I get myself, so I can find you? Where are you?”

It was a methodological insight to her work that stayed with me. For Erin, then, subjectivity resonates at a frequency. Connection and communication with sheep, she suggests, is at least partly the result of surfing the energetic airwaves, and adjusting your own volume. It sounds like New Age waffle, but it has interesting parallels in “soundscape ecology”. Brandon Keim describes how Bernie Krause, a former musician, records “biophanies” of landscapes, the collective sound of living organisms in a particular space (3). The resulting “spectrograms” of a healthy ecology, he says, occupy very distinct frequencies in relation to each other. There is clear discrimination, where each species can find their own bandwidth of sound. Erin’s description of her energetic searching reminded me of this. Some minds and lives, she implies, are loud and busy (like those, she would probably say, of humans) some frequencies spacious and faint, like the minds and lives of sheep. To find them, you must manage your self and your energies, find Zen-like emptiness and lightness here, a more resounding baseline there. Not something multi-species ethnographers are methodologically or epistemologically prepared for, but it’s not as leftfield as it sounds – research into the work of dancers, actors, yogis, musicians and martial artists has shown they have ready concepts and activities for the distinguishing and management of “energies”, and accepted felt consequences to such work.

It was an interesting methodological proposition, and I had one more day with the flock.

Day 2

“How quiet can I get myself, so I can find you?”

I thought about this overnight and decided that instead of working with intention, I’d take this idea of internal volume on board. Perhaps I too could try and quieten my thoughts and feelings to such an extent that I could attune in some way. If not exactly to hear the psychic crackles of sheepy musings, then at least to try and meet them at somewhere near what Erin considered their own internal pace and rhythm, which was probably a bit more agreeable company than my own. I would need the meditation practice. I set off with new determination.

When I arrived at the farm, Billy had been caught by more traditional means with the help of Rob and Erin was off to get the antibiotics from the vet. I told her what my plans were but said I was concerned about Billy – I didn’t want to make him keep moving on a bad leg. She said that I should use that risk as a way to focus my practice, so that he didn’t feel the need to move.

The sheep were just on the brow of the hill before it sloped down away from me, about 30 metres away. Billy was lying down. Before I went in through the gate I did Erin's body scan again, checking in with my emotions. I felt more relaxed this morning, knowing I had time. I went through the gate and sat down and went into ‘neutral’, focusing my visual attention for ten minutes to calm myself. As before, when I finally raised my eyes I was already the object of scrutiny.

I averted my gaze from them and casually “grazed” on the spot. A few of them wandered away. Billy stayed lying down. After a few minutes I noticed that they had started to file down along their sheep path to the oak tree scrubland. The entrance was through a narrow muddy opening in the fence.

I noticed that a black sheep called Rolo, who Erin had warned me was particularly nervous, had gone through first and the others had followed. I wondered if he was the flock leader, but if he was so cautious it would surprise me. The golden-fleeced Soays were next in line but they stopped before moving through the fence. Horace, a speckled black sheep ambled past them and entered next. After him, Oliver Twist (a misnomer for a particularly sturdy sheep, with glamorous Princess Leah-style horns). Then finally the Soays began to file in. All of a sudden two or three stopped and looked back. Billy and Joey had stayed on top of the hill and hadn’t moved down. The Soays stayed there for quite a while, exchanging glances between them and me. Then they turned and followed the others under the oak tree.

After a little while Joey got up and started walking towards the others. Finally Billy got up and tried to join. It was painful to watch him, he couldn’t put any weight at all on his right foreleg and he had a very heavy fleece. Every now and again he would sink to his knees and rest or graze. He kept stopping to stare at me. I grazed all around me, and tried to ignore him. Joey appeared to wait for Billy for a bit and then went through the fence to the other side. Eventually he hopped and staggered through the mud to the other side. And I began my journey again. With a patience I had never managed to sustain in meditation class, over the next hour of approach I focussed as much as I could on quietening my mind. I ‘noted’ thoughts or feelings, then let them pass and returned my attention to my breath. I practiced “mindfulness of walking” - paying attention to each step, the sensation of my walking boots on the soft ground, which became more and more boggy from an underground stream. The sheep weren’t paying me too much attention. But I still wasn’t “empty” enough. So I tried to imagine the quiet already in me, in the depth of my belly. I imagined the quiet in the earth underneath my feet. I heard a buzzard call high up and imagined the silence around its wings. The silence in the trunks of trees around me. And the quietness of the sheep, trying to “find” it, identify with it. Quiet here, quiet there, quiet everywhere. I sent myself on quite a trip, and it was kind of working.

I spent an hour this way on my way to the muddy duck-through in the fence and I was feeling a little weird and spaced out. The sheep had moved further on towards the top paddock with the duck pond. I didn’t look at them. I focussed on the squelch of mud under my feet as it rose and covered my boots, and the sensation of sinking into the ground. I made it through and grazed for a while rather unconvincingly in the sparse grass, twigs, stones and brown acorns under the tree, sitting for a while. They had mostly moved out of sight but a few remained just visible from my position. I continued sifting through the scrub.

All of a sudden something made me look up. A group of five or six sheep had bunched tightly together in formation on the bank, with Horace in front, the others crowded behind, and were staring directly at me. (Aha!! Horace must be a leader!). If they were human their arms would be folded. It was clearly an assertive show of “‘now look here, who are you and what the hell are you up to?”. Oliver Twist was standing slightly apart from the cluster. Looking in his direction, I had a brainwave - I defocused my gaze and started slowly moving my mouth in a circular motion as if I was chewing cud. (It’s impossible to feel anything but spaced out when doing this –go on, try it). And to my surprise, he mirrored me, chewing, then lowered his head and starting to sniff about him. I glanced across to the cluster. Two younger Soays with frosted white coats had broken off from Horace’s squad and were scuffling about on the bank for acorns. Horace looked more relaxed. I tried with him. Gazing just above his head, moved my mouth in a circle, chewing cud, empty thoughts. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw him chewing back, mirroring me. Magic!!! It worked!! The little group broke off and moseyed back up the bank to the paddock with the pond and the donkeys.

Gradually, and slowly, trying to ignore a rising excitement, I worked my way up the bank towards them. It seemed utterly improbable after hours of effort that something so simple would work, but to my surprise it seemed to, and I was gaining ground. Any time one of them looked at me, I looked back at them, faded my gaze and "chewed cud" and, it seemed to diffuse tension. Perhaps it lowered my own. They were still extremely sensitive to being looked at and would quickly raise their head under scrutiny, or if a direct stare was sustained a second too long.

Before long I had moved up the bank to level ground. With the exception of Billy, most of the sheep were grazing busily around the pond, getting on with things. For the first time, there was a noticeable shift. They didn’t seem worried, or preparing to move away. They were getting on with things and content with my presence just a few metres away. I stretched out on the ground and observed them properly for the first time in two days of work. I looked at my watch. Ten minutes before I’d agreed to meet Erin.

I was struck by how different their pace and rhythm seemed from closer up. Their mouths worked at a much busier pace than those of the horses, like the click-click-click of knitting. They were browsing around the edge of the pond. Some of them were grazing up the wire fence that separated them from the new young donkeys, who were also gazing warily at me. They seemed a little nervous of the donkeys. But, for the first time, I felt completely tolerated, and allowed to stay and look for a while, notice all the differences in their facial features.

Billy looked at me a few times. I chewed cud, grazed, he’d look away.

Oliver Twist came up to me and investigated. I remembered Erin saying that he was the most confident around humans. He extended a twitching nose into our shared breathing space, then went on with his business. The sun was shining and I felt accepted as a guest. It was great.

Then all of a sudden there was an awful, grating, scraping sound. Like a hacksaw on a steel pole. Everything stopped. The sheep bolted from the fence and bunched nervously on the bank behind me.

The donkeys! Young Spartacus was practicing his first breathy “e-yore e-yore e-yores” in a series of fast, asthmatic, sawing breaths. The sheep were horrified. And I was something to do with it, they were sure. They looked at me, and looked at the donkeys, and looked at me again. I felt like an outsider blamed for the state of internal affairs. That is a weird thing. And you are weird thing. That must mean only one thing – you are responsible.

The spell was broken. And anyway, it was time. I got up and left via the donkey’s enclosure, confirming everything they probably now thought they knew about me.

What did I learn from this foray into alternative multispecies knowledge practices, into ethnographic hinterlands of gaze and grazing hands and amateur yogic mind-games? Was it worth two days to learn that sheeps’ mouths move like knitting, or that Horace takes charge in a conflict, or that mirroring sheeps’ mastications has a reassuring effect? Would a few handfuls of treats got me closer sooner, taught me more, and saved me the reputational risk of writing a blog about tuning into sheep like radios and imagining the silence in a buzzard’s wingspan?

Probably. But it’s also the closest I had ever got to trust in multispecies research, and in that perhaps I did learn something of Despret’s “virtue of politeness” as a condition of research, opening up the possibility of expanding the questions and then being led by improvised answers. I learned that to a sheep, the mind is a movement and anything more than a diffused gaze, sieved into surrounding space, is as loaded and devouring as a gun. Epistemological sightlines matter. And perhaps knowledge situated in the humility of peripheral vision and quiet minds is a welcome addition to opinions on the opinions of sheep. As Donna Haraway says:

“We seek not the knowledges ruled by (…) disembodied vision. We seek those ruled by partial sight and limited voice - not partiality for its own sake but, rather, for the sake of the connections and unexpected openings situated knowledges make possible”

1) Despret, Vinciane (2006) "Sheep Do Have Opinions"

2) Bar On Cohen (2006) "Kime and the Moving Body: Somatic Codes in Japanese Martial Arts", Body and Society, 12 (4) 73-93

3) Keim, Brandon (2017) "Decoding Nature's Soundtrack" in Keim's The Eye of the Sandpiper: Stories from the Living World, New York: Cornell University Press

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