Picnic with Sheep

This month the Dark Mountain editorial team will be delving into the archive, unearthing some of the gems in our 20 book collections to showcase online. We begin with an 'in the  field' art project by Leonie van der Plas, chosen by editorial assistant and event coordinator, Ava Osbiston, first published in spring 2016.
is a storyteller, ritual, facilitator and visual artist, living an working in Leiden in the Netherlands. She is slowly exploring the vast (and sometimes hidden) undercurrents of our culture and searching for language and images to communicate her findings.

I know a Shetland sheep named Maud. She’s 20 years old which is an almost unheard of age for a sheep. She is affectionate, strange, energetic and vocal. Over the years I have often wondered about ways to engage with her that might expand our relational repertoire beyond sheep nut provision and back scratches . This summer, I planned to sleep the night in a bivvy bag in her field so as to get closer to her and experience a little more of her way of life. It was just after a companion of hers had passed away and she was temporarily living alone. Once we had exchanged our sheep nut excitement and a good chin scratch, I noticed a slight uneasy feeling in myself and wondered how much of the feeling was my own.  I thought I could sense that she was wary of my presence at that odd time. It was then that I was suddenly struck by the arrogance with which I was presuming she would appreciate my company! I spent the evening instead in the barn felting some of her recently shorn wool, contemplating how I might seek her consent to make more collaborative art with her.

I was struck by Leonie’s piece not only because of her parallel thoughts about relating with sheep and exploring their unknown but potentially rich inner lives but also for the gentle playfulness and humility with which she writes. We are just animals on a planet and to presume any sort of dominion based on our determination to overthink and call it intelligence, is not just arrogant but absurd when we zoom out even just a little bit. AO


Sheep portrait (Photo: Leonie van der Plas)
In June 2015 I was working on an art project with sheep. I called the project Kurly Wurly II – an anthropomorphic approach of sheep. After three weeks of being with sheep in order to unveil information on their religious and ritual life, I decided to organise a picnic for them. That way I wanted to thank them for working with me; maybe it was nothing more than paying off the fact that, from time to time, I had been causing a slight unease among the flock just by hanging around.

I told the sponsors of the project that I would make objects for the sheep that (in my eyes) might have a relation to their way of seeing the world. By seeing how they’d behave towards these objects, I would be able to draw some cautious conclusions on the presence of religious feelings among them.

Normally we are hardly ever confronted with objects made by sheep – they are born with hoofs, not with hands. The fact that they have hoofs, not hands, has major consequences for the effect that they have on the world around them (and on how they deal with the world). Right now their effect on their surroundings, e.g. in forest regions, can be that, by cropping grasses, they prevent trees from popping up. I do not know whether they do so on purpose. During my project I found that certain individual sheep do make shallow holes in the ground by sheer nestling. And keep coming back to their own hole. But cropping grasses or other plants hardly ever leads to what we think of as an object. I hoped to be able to make something that they would make if they had hands like us, humans.

By the way, I cannot claim any expertise on sheep. Originally I trained in social sciences, later on I entered the domain of what we call fine arts. One of my incentives to do a project with sheep was the fact that through the years I have heard many times the statement that animals do not have ‘consciousness’. That statement is often made to support the idea that we (humans) can do as we like with animals (an idea which I do not support). Somehow I do not condone the idea that we, humans, are the only living beings that can claim ‘consciousness’. I am also not sure about the opposite idea, it is something that I just don’t know. But, to be honest, I prefer the idea of animals having a consciousness. Let’s say I am a believer here.

Leonie with sheep in the field

I could have chosen any other species to work with on this project, but sheep live in flocks so you can easily study them as a group. And I find them photogenic. I want to cuddle them. The flock I was working with was a small one, consisting of seven grown-ups and two lambs. They had been living together for a year, so their common culture may have been fresh. The flock had started off with three sheep of an old French race (Ouessant); a small horse and a pony had joined the flock spontaneously. But these left as soon as the next four sheep came (the lambs were born some months after that). They all lived on a small fenced plot, where chickens poked about, and during the day the flock got shaken up by humans who were visiting the adjacent restaurant and who wanted to pet them (which they never accepted, they would always walk away). And probably by me, who tried to uncover their spiritual life.

Our whole economy seems to be based on the premise that comfort will be the fruit of our efforts (is this a shared trait of all mammals?).

Very quickly I found that these sheep spend a great deal of their day looking for comfort. They love to lie down in an easy way while twisting their cheeks in rumination. And I found that, if they do not feel at ease at a certain spot, they will continue on to look for the next spot. In this respect they are not so different from us, humans. We tend to spend a great deal of our lives in zeal in order to create comfort. Our whole economy seems to be based on the premise that comfort will be the fruit of our efforts (is this a shared trait of all mammals?).

I also found that being with sheep confronted me with the fact that I am human. This was not only because I could not communicate with them in any language that I knew – somehow we tend to find alternative ways of communication as soon as our usual ways are not relevant. While being with sheep, and trying to live at their pace, I felt very strongly my own drive to give shape to the world around me (call it a tendency to manipulate my surroundings). As soon as I found a nice spot for the observation of the flock, I brought a stool and a mat to lie down on, and I started to arrange the branches that were lying around in such a way that some separation arose between the spot that I was inhabiting and the rest of the plot. (Is this a general human tendency or does it have to do with my conditioning?) And after reordering some branches, I started to put some other markers on the spot, which may have been caused by the fact that I was doing a project.

As soon as I realised that the sheep were strongly focused on their comfort, I decided to make them a kitchen counter. That was only the first thing that popped into my mind when thinking of comfort, and I was trying to cause some improvement in the lives of the sheep (building a bed would probably have been more appropriate). I used materials that I found in the vicinity. On the spot I invented a braiding technique in order to attach some branches to each other. (I brought some rope of my own for that objective.)

While I was working on the kitchen counter, the sheep came and lay around quite close by. It was the first time since my arrival that they did lie down so close to me. Of course I loved to believe that it was their way of showing their approval of what I was doing there. But maybe they only felt attracted to my zeal, or to the fact that I did not try to get in touch with them. Worse, maybe they just appreciated the place that I’d chosen in the shadow on that very warm and sleepy day.

Investigating the altar (photo: Leonie van der Plas)

A week later, after putting several efforts into trying to imagine a symbol unique to sheep (which I couldn’t, my imagination turned out to be quite limited on this account), I decided to build them an altar. For that objective I was bringing a huge pile of antique timber to the spot, which had been lying behind the chicken shed for some months. Bringing the timber caused a lot of noise. I had to throw the wood down to the ground in order to sort it by length, and used my handsaw to adjust it to the right size.

The moment I chose the exact spot for the altar, and put some timber in the right position, the old ram came my way and laid himself down right on the spot. It was difficult to not see this as his affirmation of what I was working at. If he had wanted to prevent me from building, he could have behaved aggressively towards me, couldn’t he? And while I was building the altar, which made some noise altogether, most of the flock joined him. How can sheep agree with a human building an altar, when being sacrificed by humans over and over again is part of their history? Could that mean that they have agreed throughout history to serve as a sacrificial animal for human rituals?

How can sheep agree with a human building an altar, when being sacrificed by humans over and over again is part of their history?

This brings to mind a book that one of the people visiting my project showed me. It was written by a Dutch woman who claims that she is able to understand the thoughts of animals. I forgot her name and the name of the book. Maybe because it irritated me. In this book she translated the ideas of several animal species into a human (Dutch) language. Obviously, in the book it turned out that goats do agree that the reason for their mere existence is being fodder for humans. Even if I would not be doubting the fact that this woman knows how to translate the waves of goat-thought into human language, I would start doubting the claim of a goat knowing the reason for its existence – which, in my point of view, is always a question of belief. At the same time I realise that I may be suffering from a lack of imagination here; the fact that I doubt our ability to know the reason for our existence, does not mean that a goat (or any other creature not being me) can’t know the reason for its existence. After all, who says that non-humans, who do not have our (my) kind of linguistic mental concepts, can not grab concepts that seem to be inaccessible to humans (me)?

It’s easy drifting off while trying to tell you about a picnic. In order to thank the sheep for letting me into their vicinity, I decided to organise (another human asset: organisation) a picnic for them. For that occasion I made them a special tablecloth (with circles cut out that would do for plates, so the grass was coming through there). On the morning of the picnic I went outside the fenced plot to seek tree branches with leaves that they love to eat but normally cannot reach. I also picked some wild flowers. I put some of the flowers on the altar, the rest became part of the picnic.

I laid the tablecloth on the grass and put the branches on it, as well as the rest of the flowers and some sheep-muesli. For the first time since I’d met them I would feed them. (For reasons of research, I’d previously decided not to feed them – I felt it would blur our contact and make sheer observation hard.)

The picnic

They were very excited about the situation. The muesli seemed to be their main point of focus, and the fresh green leaves on the side enthralled them. As soon as they had filled their stomachs, they started to feast on the tablecloth. The youngest ram especially turned wild: he even peed on one of the ‘plates’. I didn’t believe what I saw after that: they all went to the altar (except for a few flowers I hadn’t put food on it). Were they seeing the altar for what it was (a bunch of wood at which they could scratch their backs), or did they put meaning into it? Alas, in my amazement at seeing the sheep turning to the altar, I forgot to observe whether there were certain patterns in their movement that could serve as an indication to that which we call ‘ritual’. So, I really haven’t a clue whether religious feelings made them turn towards the altar, whether they were acting as iconoclasts or only as vandals – or just something else. How could I know?

Unveiling information about the religious and ritual life of sheep was quite hard to do, as in this short span of time the sheep and I had found no common ground that made evident communication about these subjects plausible. I wonder if taking more time among sheep will shed more light on this question. Or would it help if I were another person, even more sensitive to non-human communication? Maybe my project was more about asking these questions than about getting an answer to them. And about having a good time among the sheep. And there was something that I didn’t foresee: for me, being with the flock eventually shed more light on what it means to be human – more than on what it means to be sheep.


This month Dark Mountain’s How We Walk Through the Fire second workshop will focus on our core relationship with animals in times of ecological collapse and species extinction. Kinship with Beasts will take place on Saturday 29th January and 5th February 2022. 


Dark Mountain: Issue 9 (PDF)

The Spring 2016 issue is a collection of writing and artwork that responds to the idea of 'humbleness'.

Read more

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