‘The visit to Shetland in 2012 was like an awakening where I knew that things had to change.’
The Ponies at the End of the World
By Catherine Munro
Published by Rider
Congratulations Catherine of the publication of The Ponies at the Edge of the World. You must be thrilled! Can you tell us all of what to expect from your memoir?
Thank you! The ponies at the edge of the world tells three interconnected stories.
The first is the story of people, ponies and landscape and how these relationships are connected to ideas of home and belonging. I describe the history of Shetland ponies and how their story, and the story of Shetland, is one of love and survival against the odds. I describe how when people work with ponies today they seek to preserve historic characteristics in ways that keeps the breed relevant for its current/future roles. Through their daily lives with ponies they connect to Shetland histories, the ponies living out in the hill today and with hopes for sustainable island futures.
I consider this in relation to ideas about domestication and critique traditional narratives of domestication which emphasise human control and domination over animals. Instead I consider how domestication relationships in Shetland are part of an ongoing process of communication where both humans and animals are active participants and are both affected by their shared lives
The third theme is my story about moving to Shetland. Before starting the PhD I had been living in Glasgow, I had been in a cycle of low paid, temporary contracts and the PhD was a way to do something different with my life. I write about how there is no one place that is home to me and my family- such a contrast to the extended networks of roots I found in Shetland, where memories of places, people, flocks and herds stretched back for generation. A landscape of history and connection. I write about how home is a journey, even for people who know their roots and can trace their connections, home is a daily practice of cultivating, creating and maintaining connection.
This is your first book. Can you tell us a little bit about its journey to publication?
While I was finishing my PhD I took part in a the XpoNorth tweet pitch. I tweeted the basic book idea and this led to me signing up with my agent Jenny Brown. She helped me to think about how I could turn the ideas and stories from the PhD into a book that would suit a wider audience. When we sent the idea out to publishers I was lucky to get some offers and chose to publish with Rider Books. It has actually been a lovely and relaxed process and I am lucky to work with a lovely editor and agent.
What was it that drew you to move to Shetland? What was your relationship with animals before the move?
My mum’s family is from Orkney and my dad spent many years in Shetland and so the islands were somewhere I heard a lot about. I visited Shetland when I was very young but it was a visit in 2012 where I fell in love with the place. At the time I was living in Glasgow and was in a cycle of short term temporary contracts which left me feeling anxious and unsettled. When I returned from Shetland, I just kept thinking about the islands and longing to return. I started to think about the possibility of doing a PhD and doing my fieldwork in Shetland. This would allow me to move to Shetland and go back to the work I had done in undergraduate, exploring connections between people and place. I was incredibly lucky to get a place with Aberdeen University’s Arctic Domus project, a five-year project studying human-animal relationships in northern places. This allowed me to follow my dream of going back to Shetland but also meant I could spend my days with horses.
As a child I grew up rurally and was surrounded by animals. For a time we had a goat, donkey, dogs, hens and a pet jackdaw. I was very lucky to live near to a trekking centre and riding school where I would help out at weekends and holidays, joining rides whenever the opportunity arose. I hadn’t realized at the time what a lasting effect my childhood love of horses would have, how these days would become part of me, continuing to shape my body and mind. Every time the wind carries the smell of horse manure baking in the summer sun, I feel a deep sense of happiness, and the sweet smell of grassy breath from soft-whiskered noses brings an instant release of tension. My separation from a life outdoors was not deliberate; it just slowly happened as jobs and money tied me to the city, in a life where I felt perhaps not unhappy, but somehow less me. The visit to Shetland in 2012 was like an awakening where I knew that things had to change.
How has your background in anthropology shaped your experiences and storytelling?
I think my background in anthropology has significantly shaped how I write and tell stories. Ethnographic research teaches you to spend time in a place, to observe what is happening around you and pay attention to the stories. Much of my anthropological work has been on human-animal relationships and multispecies ethnography and this has affected how I think about and write about places. When I write, I want to tell stories about the intertwined lives of people, animals and landscapes, to consider them all to be active participants in place making.
What do you hope readers from across the country, in diverse environments, can take from your book?
One of the stories I really want to tell is about the social bonds we can share with the animals in our lives and how these relationships can affect who we are. We become who we are through sharing our lives with others and this includes non-humans. In the book I look at this in relation to domestication and consider what domestication can mean for our lives with animals. A lot of writing about farming has, quite rightly, focused on the harm caused to animals and environments from large industrial farming.
Domestication has traditionally been understood as a point in history where humans gained control over animals and landscapes. It’s often associated with a separation from, and commodification of, nature. The violence of industrial farming wreaks unthinkable harm on animals and ecosystems, reducing biodiversity and accelerating climate change. Domination and violence don’t have to be part of domestication relationships, but too often they are, and narratives that imply this is an inevitable part of domestication can legitimate, and naturalise, exploitative practices. These processes turn nature into resources and profit rather than something to be understood and respected, something to be loved that may be capable of loving us in return. If we become who we are though our lives with others, then silencing so many potential relationships – those with landscapes and animals – leaves us isolated, feeling separate from the worlds in which we live, rather than part of an ongoing, engaged social life.
This is why I want to tell a different story about domestication and home. That domination is not the founding principle of Shetland domestication relationships. It is domus meaning ‘home’: a home co-created with animals, a home comprising myriad meaningful interspecies relationships, where through their domestication practices Shetland pony breeders actively create possibilities for shared lives. When Shetland summers are spent outdoors with foals that will form the next generation of island ponies, and winter winds simultaneously carry stories of past survival and hopes for unknown futures, then this land truly becomes part of body and mind. These connections are social and reciprocal. Through their love, their ways of noticing nature every day, people affect the land and animals, and feel this love returned through the landscape, their home.
Nature memoirs are hugely popular with readers. Do you have favourite books you return to? Which books have influenced your writing?
I absolutely love books where the landscape plays a role in the story. Neil M Gunn and George Mackay Brown are two of my favourite writers as they have the most amazing ability to make you feel the places and stories. Anna Tsing’s The Mushroom at the End of the World and Robin Wall Kimmerer’s Braiding Sweetgrass are two of my favourite non-fiction books and both were very influential to my writing. I loved Cal Flynn’s Islands of Abandonment, I really enjoyed her amazing descriptions but also the unusual locations that she described. I also loved Alice Tarbuck’s A Spell in the Wild and have already started to reread it despite only finishing it about six months ago!
You’re also a tour guide in Shetland. Other than Shetland’s ponies, what do you love to share about the islands to visitors?
I love how there are many areas in Shetland that have experienced near constant human habitation since the Neolithic. The history of people and animals is present in the landscape around us. Jarlshof archaeological site is a particularly good example of this as it has well preserved Neolothic, Bronze Age, Iron Age, Viking and Scottish Laird’s houses. It is like having a walk through 5000 years of history
What next for your writing?
It is very early stages but I have begin researching what I hope will be my second book. I am hoping to get some sample chapters done this summer.
The Ponies at the End of the World by Catherine Munro is published by Rider, priced £16.99.