Wednesday, January 24, 2024

Letters to My Sheep by Teya Brooks Pribac - Reviewed by Andrew Taylor-Troutman

Teya Brooks Pribac, Letters to My Sheep. 2023, Blue Books. 136 pages. U.S. $16.99, paperback. 978-0-45374735 

Reviewed by Andrew Taylor-Troutman

Even though the title, Letters to My Sheep, suggests a direct address to these creatures, Teya Brooks Pribac is often writing to her fellow humans. This writer is at pains to speak against the reduction of animal life into a product for food consumption. Indeed, it hurts her heart. Those familiar with veganism will find familiar arguments with which to agree. But the underlying question for Pribac is: How do we change someone’s mind? How do we, living in a culture that commonly considers humankind superior to the animal kingdom, change our worldview? Pribac demonstrates that empathy is the greatest teacher.

Letters to My Sheep gives voice to Pribac’s companions. Their thoughts are recorded in italics and provide humorous commentary sprinkled throughout the book. Pribac is not averse to depicting her sheep as gently poking fun at her and her understanding. For instance, a sheep muses, Humans have this little obsession with mirrors (40). Pribac is aware that such writing has an anthromorphic effect on sheep, making these creatures more humanlike. But in my opinion, these thoughts work because the author is an astute observer. Much of the book is a narration of her time watching the sheep be sheep. And she makes the effort to view sheep on their own terms: “It took me a while to realize that peeing is another sign of happiness in sheep, a bit like a smile in humans” (41).

Letters to My Sheep includes brief descriptions of the relatively new scientific field of ethology, the study of nonhuman animal behavior. Basic theories, such as the brain’s categorization of visual objects, are introduced, including critical analysis (such as how the process of categorization can lead to prejudice), which are then illustrated with the sheep.

I was most interested in the “momentary states of uncertainty” that temporarily resist “closure” or assimilation into known categories. Pribac thinks of such states as a moment of awe and asks, “Can sheep have this kind of experience? I believe so” (99). In a pean of praise for our “delicate and beautifully interconnected world,” she writes, “Every move, every sound, every smell is worth a thousand human words” (51).

If awe is one common response between human and nonhuman animal life, Pribac profoundly demonstrates that so is grief. Her sheep mourn the loss of their canine friend, and the book closes with Pribac’s and her husband’s grief over the loss of a sheep. She includes her husband’s poetry as a means to point to this loss: “When he dies, I will have lost a dear friend, a co-author, an idiot savant, as hungry for life as anyone I have seen go out of it” (127). It’s moving, and yet Pribac recognizes the inevitability of death: “We can’t do much about it. [The cycles of life] steal from us, but they also bring us gifts.” I think readers will find many gifts between the pages of this book.

- Andrew Taylor-Troutman is pastor of Chapel in the Pines in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and the author of seven books, including Tigers, Mice & Strawberries: Poems.

Copyright©2024 by Andrew Taylor-Troutman. All Rights Reserved.