Telling stories about NZ wool production

I’ve been looking for historical NZ fiction that takes place on farms or includes sheep, but the setting and/or topic don’t appear to have been very popular. (Stories of small towns abound, however, often in a dark gothic tradition.) Taking a break from my searches, I remembered some brilliant Warner Bros. cartoons featuring Sam Sheepdog and Ralph Wolf.

Cartoon legend Chuck Jones created Sam and Ralph for a series of shorts with music by Carl Stalling and voices by Mel Blanc:

Don’t Give Up the Sheep (1953)

Sheep Ahoy (1954)

Double or Mutton (1955)

Steal Wool (1957)

[I can’t find an online copy of this, although it does appear on the Looney Tunes Golden Collection Vol. 3 DVD]

Ready, Woolen and Able (1960)

A Sheep in the Deep (1962)

Woolen Under Where (1963)

The cartoons are part of a long tradition of anthropomorphising animals, with added allusions to labour relations as Ralph and Sam punch in every morning to do a full day’s work. As the foreman, Sam’s job is to protect the flock from worker-Ralph’s constant attempts at theft and harm. In the cartoons from the 60s I love how Ralph uses new technologies to beat Sam to the clock every morning but still never gets the sheep; I also love how they go home each night before going back to the same thing again the next day. It’s an endless cycle of nature and culture, rank and file–mundane but serious stuff, beautifully drawn with lots of gags.

But all this makes me wonder if humour (not irony) should drive our Counting Sheep scenarios. I posted earlier about how Country Calendar spoofs can be really good at this, but I’m also really wary of what happens if it’s done poorly. For example, in their discussions of critical design Dunne and Raby warn:

“Humour is important but often misused. Satire is the goal. But often only parody and pastiche are achieved. These reduce the effectiveness in a number of ways. They are lazy and borrow existing formats, and they signal too clearly that it is ironic and so relieve some burden from the viewer. The viewer should experience a dilemma, is it serious or not? Real or not? For critical design to be successful they need to make up their own mind. Also, it would be very easy to preach, a skilful use of satire and irony can engage the audience in a more constructive away by appealing to its imagination as well as engaging the intellect. Good political comedians achieve this well. Deadpan and black humour work best.”

But what if humour is only an element in a broader genre? Take soap operas, for example. Some people feel compelled to distance themselves from such “low-brow” forms of culture, but regularly engage in, and thoroughly enjoy, stories and gossip about the everyday lives of their friends, co-workers, neighbours, etc.. Academics have long argued that soap operas work as social binders and provide ways for viewers to formulate personal opinions and identities. But let me bring this back to sheep: I recently read a blog post that has stuck in my brain like you wouldn’t believe. UK-based ethical knitwear designers The North Circular occassionally post updates from the flock’s shepherd, Ernest, and this is the kind of story I’m talking about:

“July seventh, sheep are all clipped finally! All except for 6, that is, who will have to carry on sweltering until the ITV film crew can get here to film. It was pandemonium. These were all the frisky ewes who have just had lambs. I was up at 5am, gathered them all in a pen. Dave the shearer arrived and then it started raining, classic, the only rain to fall in 3 months. Clipping was abandoned and shearer went home saying he would be back when it cleared. Let the sheep back into the pasture. At midday Dave the shearer said he was coming back, as the sun had now made an appearance. Could i catch the sheep?!? if only. Izzy called to ask if she could come with the film crew – managed to politely says not a good time. Next thing, the shearers wife called Izzy, she wasn’t happy – no she was absolutely furious -the three of us, shearers wife, Dave the shearer and I had been running circles round t’ fields trying to catch them fer very long time and Dave the shearer was on the verge of walking off, shearers wife thought he was going to have a heart attack. Bit woolly if you ask me but, I put the film crew off, they want wildlife episode not soap opera drama! Shearers wife raged at Izzy, Do you have any idea how naughty your sheep are, how absolutely impossible they are to catch and handle?! you should come and see my flock, see how good they are, so you can compare your wild ones to them! We visited Dave the shearer this afternoon sheepishly bearing his cheque and a box of fruit and vegetables. All was forgiven after a few strong brews!” [emphasis mine]

First of all, this is is a good story. But here’s the most interesting and important bit for me: Ernest knows what story ethical wool marketers and media want to capture, and it isn’t what actually happens on the farm. The real story, and what I think is actually the better story, is full of humourous mishaps. Nature, as NZ’s brand suggests, may be 100% Pure but it’s not 100% cooperative. Sometimes it rains when farmers want to be shearing, and that reality makes for all sorts of inconvenience. But if we tell the story of that “failure” instead of waiting for a “perfect day” then we learn something about people as well. First, we learn that nature and animals are always already apprehended by, and through, people. We learn something about social interaction, like relations between farmers, business owners and mass media. We also learn about relationships between people and animals, and between men and women. We even get glimpses of shearing as seasonal and migrant labour, as well as competition and reciprocity between farms. These are the stories of wool production worth capturing and sharing. They can deeply affect or move people, and the foibles remind us that we are part of the story. I’m not convinced these stories do the same because I’d argue that people actually want “soap opera drama” more than “wildlife episode” or sterile quality assurances.

[Update: Edited the last two sentences in response to Twitter comment by Laura Allen.]