Vision: A Resource for Writers
Holly Lisle's Vision
Heritage of the Barnyard
Animals in Uncommon Fiction
By Justin Stanchfield
2002, Justin Stanchfield
live on an amazing planet: a world teeming with life, countless species of
animals, some wild, some domestic, filling every conceivable niche. Sadly, too
many fantasy stories populate the pages of their pre-industrial world with
people, wolf-hounds, horses, and the occasional lap cat, neglecting to the point
of absurdity the rich heritage of the barnyard. And this is too bad. History,
both real and imagined, is incomplete without the animals that helped shape it,
fed us, and provided the sheer muscle to build empires or tear them down.
Without our beasts of burden we would most likely have remained little more than
clever apes hovering at the fringe of extinction. Fortunately for us all, our
ancestors came to the same conclusion several millennia ago.
Although we like to think of biotechnology as the cutting edge of modern
knowledge, it is in truth the oldest of all the sciences. Man and animal have a
long history, stretching back so far that the roots are all but lost in
history's dust. Where and when the first wild animals were domesticated is
irrelevant, as it most likely occurred hundreds of times in different locations
around the globe. However, the first creatures to be domesticated were most
likely wolves. Certainly archeological evidence supports the idea. Wolves had
been tamed and bred to become the forerunners of every breed of modern dog
centuries before humans crossed the land bridge between Asia and North America,
or made the dangerous sea crossing to Australia. Dogs were our companions,
hunting partners, pack animals and yes, even food, ages before any herbivores
were bred in captivity. But what of the larger animals? To trust Hollywood,
horses leapt into our lives not long after the discovery of fire. The truth,
obviously, is somewhat different.
Horses are romantic. They're bold, seductive, even lovable at times. But
they were never the true ”workhorse” of the world. That honor fell to the
lowly ox. Cattle, another of the earliest wild species to be domesticated, have
long been used as a dual-purpose animal, both for meat, milk and as draft
animals. Egyptian tomb paintings show spotted oxen, distant precursors to the
longhorns that would someday stampede across the American west, yoked in tandem,
side-by-side, pulling crude wooden plows. From tropical Asia to sub-arctic
Europe, oxen provided the sheer power to transport loads otherwise impossible to
move. More tractable than horses and easier to break to harness, oxen were
teamed together in strings sometimes containing more than thirty animals, giving
an enormous pulling capacity. Furthermore, as cruel as this may seem to modern
sensibilities, they could be eaten at the end of the long journey.
This is an oft-repeated pattern. Nearly every domesticated animal served
two or more roles on the farmstead beyond simply being a ready source of
protein. Sheep, and some breeds of goats, were shorn for their wool, the most
important fabric in northern climates. Goats, not cows, were also the chief
source of milk in most regions of the world. Chickens, ducks, and geese were
kept as much for their eggs, and occasionally their feathers, as their meat, and
in many farms were left to roam freely in order to warn the family of intruders.
(Anyone who has been chased by an angry goose can attest what an effective alarm
system they are!) Even pigs, which were considered unclean by many cultures,
were trained to root out truffles and other edible fungus.
These, of course, are simply the more common animals, especially in
European traditions. Nearly every major species of animals has, at one time or
another, been domesticated. Camels, donkeys, llamas, and reindeer are just a few
of the many animals that have been harnessed through the ages. One creature that
does surface often in fantasy settings is the falcon; the image of a mounted
warlord surveying the hunt, his favorite bird perched and hooded on his forearm,
is almost irresistible. However, the years of training, devotion, and constant
care, not to mention the tenuous bond between falcon and falconer, is seldom
mentioned. Indeed, the most pressing question on most falconers’ minds is not
whether the bird will return with prey, but whether it will return at all; the
constant knowledge that many hawks eventually do return to the wild is foremost
with every hawker.
Sadly, another problem in all too many fantasy novels is an abject
ambivalence toward agriculture. In a time when survival, not to mention the
economy, of every kingdom, duchy and province was dependent on farming, even the
most urbane lord was expected to have mastered a rudimentary knowledge of animal
husbandry. Knighthood, as with most minor titles, entailed a grant of land with
the title. And while many courtiers chose to sharecrop their holdings, they were
still intimately connected with the production values of the farms in their
keeping. To ignore the source of their wealth, whether for a minor landlord or
high king, could only spell financial ruin for themselves and their subjects.
And while the gentry would have shunned the physical labor associated with
farming, most took a keen interest in the breeding stock, allowing another
avenue for competition between nobles. A prize bull or ram was always worth its
weight in bragging rights.
Raising livestock, to those who have never done it, seems a simple
matter. Turn a bull into a herd of cows, then sit back and let nature take its
course. In a few months your herd will have doubled in size. Of course, reality
is always a bit more complicated. Raising stock, whether in modern Iowa or Third
Century Rome was a complicated, time-consuming endeavor, and then, as now, a
study unto itself. Knowledge was passed down, each generation adding to the
unwritten library of animal lore. There were no textbooks, no County Extension
Agents to turn to in case of trouble. There were also, sadly, no antibiotics or
vaccines. Sickness could, and did, decimate entire herds in a matter of weeks.
Entire bloodlines could be wiped out by something as minor as a dirty water
hole. Only the canniest of stockmen could bring their herds through a season
unscathed. Is it any wonder that the herders specialized? Consider the origin of
some common English names: Shepherd, Calvert (calf herder), Beeman, and my
personal favorite (my son's name), Colter.
Still, if fantasy relegates the majority of creatures great and small to
the back pages, science fiction usually ignores them altogether, assuming the
food our intrepid voyagers eat will come from ”replicators” or hydroponic
vats. And while it is true that the first generations of space pioneers will
most likely derive their food from plants and algae which thrive in artificial
environments, by the time humanity begins terra-forming new worlds the same
animals we have raised for centuries will be as valued as ever, though perhaps
for different reasons. Horses will still provide cheap, renewable
transportation. Bees will still pollinate the same old flowers under alien suns.
Birds will still flit about under strangely colored skies, genetically tailored
perhaps to fit their new environs, but still recognizable as Terran species. But
it will be the large, sharp-hoofed species such as cattle, deer, and sheep,
which will prove the most valuable, rendering the vital link between seed and
soil, spreading grasslands far more effectively than any cultivator might.
Farm animals may, in fact, prove to be the perfect ”first colonists.“
They thrive in captivity, their health and genetic traits are readily
understood, and most importantly of all, while they are generally docile and
easy to handle, they will become feral in a single generation. Given all this,
considering how important barnyard animals have been to our past, present, and
future, shouldn't we give them their due in the stories we create?