Living With Sheep
By Chuck Wooster, Photographs by Geoff Hansen
Lyons Press, Guillford, Ct., hardcover, $24.95.

Here’s the long-awaited sequel (or second in a series) to the classic “Living With Chickens,” which was much hosannahed, perhaps to excess, in this space a year or two ago.
Sheep are about as different from chickens as two common barnyard species could be. They are shy, good-natured, unobnoxious, herbivorous, clean and subtle. That subtlety is the key to their likeability, and it is very often mistaken for exactly the kind of dumb that characterizes chuckle-headed barnyard fowl.
The Old West cattlemen who fought the sheepmen popularized the notion that sheep were morons -– unlike their brutish longhorns! -– and the latter-day chicken men, the colonel and Frank Perdue and the Tysons and them, took up the libel and continue to defame the reticent sheep with it to this day. That’s why we have these horrible giant chickenhouses befouling vast stretches of the landscape instead of picturesque sheep meadows, why we have chicken nuggets and strips and assorted organs by the billion and not nary one muttonburger drive-thru or bucket ’o lamb drumstick barbecued and calling itself buffalo. A sheep economy would have prospered here comparably, the great livestock expert Anton Smith once told me, and it would have been much healthier and more esthetic, and would have promoted a more bucolic, almost alpine, or arcadian, and much less trashy image. Sheep would’ve put us in a win-win situation, as the state legislators like to say, but of course it was not to be, and I try not to be bitter about this and so many other of our historical might-have-beens.
“Living With Sheep” is mainly a practical guide for would-be shepherds. It is full of good, sound, sensible and helpful advice for the tyro and, well, the sheepish newcomer to sheepkeeping. But the book takes frequent philosophical turns, which a sheep book probably couldn’t avoid if it wanted to. For instance, just a few oblique references got me thinking about all the sheep symbolism in the New Testament. The early Christian fathers knew sheep well enough to model their behavior and many of their ideals on these pleasant animals.
Sheep are unaggressive, they won’t push themselves on you, and they own a gentle disposition that suggests a quiet joy and invites a kind of mutual regard. It is a key to sheepness, as it used to be to Christianity, to not fight back when attacked, but rather to know there is safety in numbers and that passive resistance is usually the best way to foil the wolf or beat the devil. Ovine character studies might be of great benefit to some of today’s in-your-face “people of faith” intent on making everyone as miserable as they are.
Pretense of Glory: The Life of General Nathaniel P. Banks
By James G. Hollandsworth Jr.
Louisiana State University Press, Baton Rouge, paperback, $21.95.

The three phases of history writing are said to be the heroic, the revisionist and, finally, the tragic. With this terse and beautifully written biography, Gen. Banks, first a war hero (in his own estimation anyhow) and then a consensus goat, gets to move over out of farce into tragedy.
An object not so much of scorn but of pity now a century after the fact, Banks built a successful political career before the war on the premise that bombast and opportunism were the real keys to advancement in life, and that genuine knowledge, conviction, character and integrity were mere bothersome peripherals. He had been a Massachusetts governor and then congressman, and was speaker of the House of Representatives when the war started, and used his influence to get himself appointed a major general, thinking to secure his political future with glorious feats on the battlefield. But Stonewall Jackson kicked his ass in the Shenandoah, and after that he could do nothing right. Maybe the Union’s worst decision-maker, and its surest excuse-maker, his own men became his sternest critics, in part because they suffered most from his incompetence, in part because he was ever ready to blame others, usually those same longsuffering men, for his screwups.
The war had many of these Phoghorn Claghorns, but Banks set the standard. The Red River campaign remains the textbook study of bonehead politicians trying to play war. He somehow had some political success after the war, but he was constantly switching parties and allegiances for expediency’s sake, and never achieved the renown that was the object of his ambition because he never really stood for anything.
An earlier-era historian wrote of him: “Banks needed to hold office in order to pay his bills, and he desperately wanted to be a famous man. In consequence, he was usually willing to reshape ‘principles’ to suit the occasion, to deal in compromises and reversals, catch phrases, weasel words, and political tricks.” Historian Hollandsworth adds here that Banks’ greatest failing was a congenital inability to learn from his mistakes. Probably he couldn’t learn from his mistakes because he couldn’t acknowledge that he had ever made any. He never admitted a single one.
P. Allen Smith’s Container Gardens
By P. Allen Smith, Clarkson Potter Publishers, $29.95.

Though this reviewer comes from a long line of hillbillies who could probably plant a hubcap in the spring and reap a row of Buicks come the fall, I have been cursed with what might charitably be called The Black Thumb. No matter how much I want my yard to burst with color, scent and happy honeybees, all I seem to be able to grow are rocks.
That’s why a guy like P. Allen Smith can really get under my skin. A Little Rock fella made good (his show, “P. Allen Smith’s Garden Home,” is a fixture on PBS), Smith is to dirt and mulch what Martha Stewart is to puff pastry and shady stock deals, routinely turning his little postage stamp of earth into the greatest garden since the one where Eve couldn’t keep her hands off the produce.
In his new book, “P. Allen Smith’s Container Gardens,” Smith once again brings his good news about gardens and gardening to the masses, dishing up 60 different “recipes” for growing plants in pots, urns, window boxes and other containers. The results are nothing short of stunning: living flower arrangements that prove that Smith’s theories about balance, color and scale work as well by the square foot as they do by the acre.
Novice gardeners will be glad to see that Allen has helpfully provided a bird’s-eye view of each pot, labeled with the placement of each plant. Those like me — worried about over- or underwatering, too much or too little sun, when to plant and other common gremlins — will be happy to note that each plan contains information on all those joy-killers and more, with a comprehensive list of “things to keep in mind” at the end of each page. These include practical hints on topics like drainage, container care and choosing plants that can coexist — you know, all that stuff that will keep your artful grouping from turning into a lovely pot full of shriveled sticks.
As a would-be gardener who often freezes like Walt Disney at the sight of all the plants to be had at your average nursery — and one with dreams of speaking knowledgably about the pros and cons of using clematis over jasmine — the projects I liked the most in the book were those that used obscure plants to make interesting little worlds in and of themselves. In particular, I liked project 53, a mix of Blue Star juniper, violas, lavender cotton and dusty miller fern daffodils in an ice-blue urn. The result was a sweet little riff of muted color and texture, one that screamed sophistication without all the Mardi Gras garishness.
For the gardener without much space — maybe even the apartment dweller looking to brighten up that stoop or balcony — this is a great book, full of easy and eye-catching projects (as a bonus, the separate sections on choosing and caring for containers, directory of pot-friendly plants, and stocking a potting shed are almost worth the price of the book in themselves). All that is not to say that “Container Gardens” is only for those who can spit a cherry pit across their garden. As the pictures in the book prove, Smith’s containers make for artful and lively focal points no matter how much dirt you have to push around.
— By David Koon