Book Reviews Counting Sheep Twenty Ways of seeing Desert Bighorn

Counting sheep is a collection of short stories that all loosely share one general theme, Desert Bighorn Sheep. Most of these stories are set in Cabeza Prieta Wildlife Refuge during the annual sheep count. Despite these restrictions, the contributing authors had no apparent difficulty funneling their diverse interests, perspectives and biological insights through this taxonomic sieve.

As such, two of these contributing authors, Ann Zwinger and Terry Tempest Williams offer us contrasting perspectives, Zwinger takes us on deeply analytical but personal journey, whereas, Williams drags us through the trenches of a political war.

In the short story, “Of White-winged Doves and Desert Bighorns,” Ann Zwinger intricately details her journey through Cabeza Prieta in search of the desert big horn, but along they way, her biological meanderings serve to both entertain and educate. Illuminating diverse topics ranging from anaphylactic shock to death by dehydration, she offers some depth of understanding of what it takes to survive in the desert.

Albeit for a only a few days, she has “moves in” to the desert and graciously heads off to meet her new neighbors. No one is neglected. She interacts will all of the desert’s characters, recognizing each of their individual plights for survival as well as her own.

In “All That is Hidden” Terry Tempest Williams relates the story of her illegal entry and seemingly torturous journey through Cabeza Prieta. Her story begins with her adamant refusal to sign a military “hold harmless” agreement that is required to enter the refuge. Instead, the rebel Williams opts to “invisibly” cross the border, to commence her quest of the desert bighorn without the blessing of the United States government.

However, what began as a pleasant hike investigating pack rat middens and taste testing chiltepines was quickly cut short. Incessant mock military air strikes both frighten and enrage her. Oddly, her depiction of Cabeza Prieta counters the accounts by other authors in this book. It is as if she had made a wrong turn somewhere and landed in some third-world war-torn country.

While both authors aspire to express and confer affection for this place, Williams fails in the latter. Zwinger expands the reader’s interest beyond the realm of the desert big horn to the desert as a whole. In contrast, William’s short story attempts to scare us but doesn’t really make us aware of what it is we may lose.

Although at times the reader is bombarded with scattered textbook accounts of physiology and natural history, Zwinger succeeds in infecting us with her own brand of ADD (Attention Deficit Disorder). With so many other stories to tell, we really don’t mind if she ever finds a big horn sheep. From robber fly assassins to gossiping quail, she is equally inspired by all the characters the desert presents to her. In turn, her lengthy discussions create a vivid image of not only the bighorn sheep but also of the neighborhood ecology. As our view of the desert bighorn gains context, Cabeza Prieta becomes a real place.

Sparingly, Williams alludes to some of the native flora and fauna but she is purposefully distracted. She is too busy keeping score with her battle with the military and she admits it, “Instead of counting sheep, I am counting bombs”. If she really wanted to inspire public outrage, she needed to make the people care first. Why should we care? She portrays the bighorn simply, as fragile and static victims of an indifferent government. These overly excitable sheepHow in the world did they ever survive this long anyway? If she had described the refuge and the bighorn in more detail, her political arguments may have had more impact.

Although William’s convictions are strongly stated, her arguments are ineffectual because she doesn’t serve to endear us to Cabeza Prieta. Instead of selling the reader with the image of a place with rare and underappreciated beauty, she touts and she pouts. Without forced intention, Zwinger arouses the reader with her glimpses of life and survival in the desert bizarre, Cabeza Prietaa much more effective prologue for environmental action.

Nabhan, G.P. 1993. Counting Sheep: Twenty Ways of Seeing Desert Bighorn University of Arizona Press