mountain sheep and man

Mountain Sheep and Man in the Northern Wilds by Valerius Geist. 1975. Blackburn Press, New Jersey.

An ethological account of wild mountain sheep, in the Rocky Mountains. Valerius Geist is not afraid to link his scientific insights to his own developing maturity, nor to make parallels between how sheep and humans behave, for example in combat. He was taken aback to find that mountain goats would kill each other if they could, and reasons that mountain sheep are protected from damaging each other by their physiology. He observed how rams established hierarchy, and again was taken aback to elicit homosexual behaviour between subordinate and dominant males. I can’t judge his scientific work – for example on cold climates as an evolutionary prompt for humankind holds water – but enjoyed his writing style and his insistence on linking how animals are to how we are, and what we do. In the final chapters he describes encounters with tamed mountain sheep – acknowledging his initial naivety believing that he had successfully disguised himself as a goat. “I could have changed my “goat suit” for that of a circus clown with equal effect.’ p228). The sheep knew what he was all along but would be tamed for the salt that they craved in early spring.

“Thus when I arrived in Banff National Park after my Stone’s sheep study,  groups of enthusiastic amateurs had long known somehting that professional zoologists were not quite conscious of: namely, that wild, unhunted animals can get along with man in a fashion reminiscent of the Biblical paradise.”

“Have you ever sat on a mountainside and observed a ram graze below you, watched the ram finish feeding, then look up and come to you, paw a bed that sedns the dust and pebbles striking your legs, and then lie down beside you? There you sit, the cunning hunter and the cunning prey, while the wind plays genlty with your hair, and is heavy eyes blink, ready for a little nap. The clouds move past overhead adn their shadows play in the valley, the grasses rustle in the breeze, and the eagle soad past along the slope below both of you. The creature resting beside you is as free and wild as the mountains that nourish it. It can choose to leave yo, but it does not. For the moment, it prefers your company.”

He gained insights as a result: “some of my concerns were rather mundane, such as checking if chronological age, as determined from dates of tagging, did coincide with age rings on the horns. It did. I could demonstrate to my satisfaction that the sheep were exceedingly loyal to their seasonal home ranges and reappeated at the same seasons each year in the very same places. I could show .. that rams moved between the female groups. Thus the female sheep in a group were largely related by maternal descent. The scientific discoveries pale, however, beside the recollection of the individuals I came to know for a few years of their short lifves. Some were shy individuals who waited a logn time before they decided to come to me. … Others, in particular the females, became exceedingly tame, and stuck their noses into everything – my pockets, my rucksack, my camera lenses, and even my cameras if I had to change film… (p221)”

In concluding paragraphs, when he leaves the mountains, he asks “Think of the carbon, nitrogen and water cycles. Is there not poetry, no art, no philosophy in them? have they no dimensions beyond the scientific ones? Do they not say something about the stuff that forms me, which the I gave shape to. They say that the me has been eternal and will be so, whichever way we define eternal.  … Me cycles and recycles; I comes and I goes. Me is my link to eternity; I to the present. I is my link to mysteries past and mysteries future. The land is in me and of me….


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