Still a Canadian

I’d rather reread “Wind in the Willows” (Kenneth Grahame, 1908) than “Animal Farm”. I especially enjoyed the illustrated children’s version, which I read many times to my sons. It was just a good-hearted story about unconfident Mole, adventurous Rat, honorable Badger, and self-indulgent Toad–the owner of Toad Hall–who was constantly chasing after one fantasy or another. There was only one possible outcome for Toad’s infatuations: his automobile inevitably crashed; he grew bored with traveling the country side in his horse-drawn recreational vehicle; and rowing on the river, in his Olympic-quality scull, proved harder than it looked in the brochure.

Toad is absent from Toad Hall so much, pursuing his fantasies, that the weasels and the stoats take it over and, once installed, they treat their usurped territory as if they have been given a mandate to exploit it. But when, eventually, the weasels and stoats are expelled and peace is restored, Toad seems calmer and more balanced—as if he recognizes that the other animals were willing to risk their lives in his defense.

I like to believe that there are always Boxers and Badgers among us, pulling the heavy loads on which our well-being depends. But today’s weasels and stoats seem to have grown so comfortable in the halls of power, I wonder how long the Badgers and Boxers among us will be able to keep saving the rest of us.

The dodo and the dinosaurs have moved on, but Aesop’s Ant and Grasshopper will never die, as long as there are doers and dreamers (activists and contemplatives). Aesop clearly admired how Ant gathered and stored corn in autumn, before winter snows (like a natural pandemic) kept everyone indoors, while he leaves Grasshopper standing on the frozen ground, completely out of options. My own daily life has more Ant than Grasshopper at the helm, but I have a soft spot for the notion that our lives don’t have to be nailed down by duty and expectation; that a door to freedom can swing ajar when we question the value of what we have been doing and dare to try something different.

Concerning the value of prudence and of industrious preparation for the future, Ant and Grasshopper are well-known to hold very different views:

One day, in late Autumn, Ant and Grasshopper were having tea at Badger’s house, when a migrating Canada Goose showed up. After listening politely for a while to Grasshopper’s remarks on the benefits of travel, the Canadian visitor cleared his long throat and announced that he had composed a Haiku on that very subject somewhere over North Dakota:

I think more and more
About how to get back home
Yet I’ve never left

Badger took his pipe out of his mouth and nodded thoughtfully, while Grasshopper started jumping from the couch to the lamp shade and back again in vigorous approval, all the while exclaiming, “Did you hear that, Ant? That’s exactly my point. There’s no need to keep building a new home. The world is already our home.”

Ant remarked dryly: “Calm down, Grasshopper. Unlike you, our foreign friend is preparing for the winter by migrating toward the equator. But what do you do? If Badger wasn’t sharing the supplies in his excellent root cellar and letting you sleep here, you’d already be lying on your back in some cold field, dead as a stone. I don’t wish to offend, but what a waste of potential your sorry life is.”

Grasshopper, undaunted, hopped up onto the kitchen table, made a few circles, then sat down on his haunches and proceeded to disclaim on his favorite subject, “My dear Ant, while you carry body parts in one direction and grains of sand in the other, those of us who see further than the rear end directly in front of us are free to inhale the autumn air, celebrate the early morning mist, and bask in the glorious sunlight. Only an obsessive compulsive would keep digging tunnels in the dark, day after day, from morning to night.”

Ant, who was at Badger’s that afternoon to lay a pipe to carry water from the pump to the kitchen sink, was studying blueprints spread out in front of him and may not have heard Grasshopper’s speech. But Badger stood up from his rocking chair and cleared his throat.

“I propose a debate to be held here this Sunday afternoon. Grasshopper, you will defend the affirmative of the premise: ‘Home is where the heart roams.’ And Ant, you will take the negative side. Tear this proposition down; dismantle it; devour the leftover bits and pieces; demolish all empty rhetoric; and skewer the slightest hint of implausibility with your penetrating analysis.”

Ant started to plead prior obligations: “That sounds like great fun; however I’m afraid that Rat needs me to retrieve an engagement ring he dropped into a crack in his patio.”

Badger knew his way around Ant. “I will be breaking into my summer corn harvest—organic, non-GMO. Doggy bags allowed.”

Ant immediately dropped his disclaimers and Badger turned to the Canadian visitor, “Well my fine-feathered friend, you started this with your Haiku. I trust you will stay to see what you have wrought.”

But the visitor from Canada spread his impressive wings–knocking several mice off a nearby book shelf–and said,

While the Sun wings South
I must follow in His wake
Lest my days end here. 

Badger nodded and said, “Until next Autumn then, my venerable friend.”

Then Badger lit his pipe, picked up the newspaper and buried himself behind it, until even Grasshopper got the hint and went to watch Ant struggling with a rusted pipe fitting. Presently, Grasshopper was giving Ant the benefit of his fund of practical wisdom. “Remember, Ant. Righty tighty, lefty loosey.”

Ant kept his counsel as he continued to work, but he may have been silently preparing a few choice remarks for Sunday.

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