Text: TIMOTHY MURRAY
Does the pastoral still have a pulse? I thought it had crawled off to a dusty library in a remote wing of the ivory tower along with the select circle of academics concerned with it. Yet as the rise of celebrity shepherds, high-end rustic-natural food cultures and Cabin Porn suggest, not to mention heart-wrenching environmental elegies (cue Michael Jackson’s “Earth Song”), the pastoral mode is alive and kicking.
Originating in poetry and migrating to drama and art, the pastoral is a perceptual convention that simplifies, idealizes or laments where “humans” and “nature” meet – or have failed to do so. It has been a defining link or disjoint between nature and culture in the Western imaginary since there were sheep and shepherds in Greece. Transmitted by and attainable through digital and transportation technologies, pastoral impulses are present nowadays in tourism, the desire for rustic retreats, mass media entertainment and environmental melancholy. In the pastoral cosmos the tension between modernity and tradition, the urban and the rural, harmony and imbalance generate meaning: the natural tends to be sublime, simple, separate, healthy, or cute (“What cute sheep!”); whereas the human is technological, complex, urban, transcendent and emotional (“OMG. I really need to get out of the city.”) The pastoral is all but obsolete. It’s pop, in fact, an easily relatable way humans make sense of their place in the world – a sense perpetually at the threshold of (be)longing and alienation.
Someone once said, “no shepherd, no pastoral,” and being a shepherd is rather newsworthy in Europe these days. In the U.K., for example, the trajectories of pastoral stardom are twofold: write a book about life as a traditional shepherd in a modern world and become a lifestyle celebrity, or use your already existing celebrity to face your inner demons in a shepherding reality show. Here I’m referring to the Lake District native and sheep farming activist, James Redbank and his hit pastoral memoir, The Shepherd’s Life (2015), and the TV series, Flockstars. Humans are digitally flocking to the former, whois Twitter’s most popular shepherd ever with approx. 73,700 followers, a factoid so often cited I cannot help but think: it must be the assumed polarity of slick-screened social media vs. sensuous earthy shepherding behind this tidbit’s traction. (A shepherd tweeting with the world at large? Progressive!) Yet such a hybrid seems less astonishing when put into the context of newcomers using Facebook groups to self-organize their way from the Middle East to Europe. This is not a political plug for the virtues of digital technology. There is a direct pastoral link to my segue: A bit further down in Europe, mid-Continent, Hans Breuer, a Yiddish sheep farmer located near Vienna, has been shepherding flocks of newcomers from a Hungarian refugee camp to the Hegyeshalom train station on the Austrian border, all while enlivening the route with participatory Yiddish folk songs. German chancellor Angela Merkel may have crafted the necessary legislation for accepting loads of newcomers into the country, but shepherd Hans Breuer is literally tending to the flock – and singing it to safety. Precisely the kind of humanitarian poetry of the everyday historically ascribed to the figure of the shepherd – a dynamic most certainly at work in this video going viral.
In the new golden era of television, when absolutely anything can be the premise for a series, Flockstars isa reality shepherding competition featuring highly attractive British celebrities. Clad in country chic, they train closely with equally fuckable professional shepherds and border collies for six weeks and then show their skills on a herding course. Despite a brief nod to the learning of interspecies social skills, the focus is undoubtedly on dramatizing the celebrity shepherds’ dilettantism, self-esteem and hunger for victory, all brought to life against the dogs’ unflappable professionalism and the unpredictability of the sheep, and of course, the pastoral container of the rural setting. Even the figure of the innocent, hard-working shepherd cannot sidestep the neoliberal regime of competitive self-realization. Viewers are bound to feel soothed by the graceful movement of the dogs and sheep. And the countryside has never looked so glam.
But enough of visual and auditory delights for now. Whether you approach shepherding as an activist, folk singer or actor – or by consumer osmosis – both humans and dogs are known for having eyes bigger than their stomachs. Modern globalized twists on rural culinary standbys figure squarely in the global pop pastoral. As for human fodder, what immediately comes to mind are the comfort foods associated with the rustic farm table: shepherd’s or cottage pie and haggis. Haggis is a sheep dish through and through, consisting of sheep’s heart, liver and lungs mixed with onions, oats and spices, all encased in a sheep’s stomach. Such a concoction could have only been cooked up where there were sheep galore. And speaking of excess, let Macsween’s of Edinburgh upgrade ya with their nouveau haggis, including: Highland wagyu beef, white summer truffle from France, highly regarded by chefs as ‘diamonds of the kitchen,’ tellicherry pepper from India, cultivated only at an exclusive 2,000 – 3,000 ft. above sea level and a dusting of 24-carat gold. Lose the sheep organs, pimp the form and voila: pastorally delectable at £4,000 a pop.
Late capitalist abundance also plays a role in how herding dogs eat, but first a few words from 37 BC: “Do not let the care of dogs be last; but the swift Spartan hounds, and fierce Mastiff, Feed the whey.” The Latin poet, Virgil, wrote these lines in the Eclogues, the Roman version of the Greek Bucolica, both forms of pastoral poetry concerned with “idyllic” landscapes and the people and creatures that populate them. (Dairy has since become a dog food no-no.) Fast-forward to 2016, a time when the pastoral has already undergone anti-, post-, neo-, deep green and ecofeminist revisions, and Virgil’s concern is a gazillion-dollar industry. The debates surrounding proper working dog diets are endless, centering primarily on increased performance, joint health and longevity. And the general scientific consensus is that we were all in the dog-food Dark Ages until the 1950s, when the extrusion process was developed, making dry pet food commercially available. (Fun fact: semi-moist, foil-packed dog food led to the invention of Pop-Tarts.) Until then dog food consisted primarily of human table scraps – delicious, yes, but not always nutritious. Herding dogs fall under the classification of working or performance dogs, and thus require a higher caloric intake as well as more protein (estimates range from 26 – 40% of the overall diet). Premium commercial dog foods, as opposed to private label or generic dog foods, have garnered much trust in the performance dog community for their nutrient-dense formulas and top quality control standards. The rub, however, is human distrust in scientifically optimized, industrially produced dog food as unquestionably representative of progress in dog health. This discourse glances backward to a more “natural” state of affairs, invoking wild, raw meat-eating dogs, a move that expresses a core concern of the pastoral convention and its main players: What is the role of human artifice in the delicate balance of life?
The larger point, of course, is that pastoral themes are the makings of human consciousness. Having left the confines of arts and letters, the Euro-American version of the pastoral pops around the globe in all kinds of accessible forms. It has a pulse, but what is its voice? What does it actually have to say? Is it an escapist fantasy, a political allegory? Could it offer alternatives to existing social structures? The fact of the matter is return and retreat: the vast majority of humans on the planet must leave the city or suburban sprawl for the country. They may have a fenced-in tree on their street or a park not far away, but no fabled landscape with roving beasts and the singing shepherds who care for them. For those who do not live and work as actual pastoralists, the pastoral is a dream, an experience that can be bought and sold: as “human-grade” dog food, luxury poor-people food, a modern pastoral farmhouse on AirBnB or pastoral interior design. No life is fabled, and even for the staunchest of anti-nostalgists, if the grass isn’t always exactly greener on the other side, there is always another side. The possibility of another, more balanced or more janky world at best vaguely connected to one’s own daily reality continues to reside in the corner of the imagination – the quintessentially pastoral sci-fi of the globally warming now.