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The Search for an Ideal World

Bill Meredith

"We find ourselves in a bewildering world."
Stephen Hawking, 1996. A Short History of Time.

"This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played to me."
Kenneth Grahame, 1908. The Wind in the Willows.

Some time ago I came upon a book review of a newly-illustrated edition of Kenneth Grahame’s classic, The Wind in the Willows. I felt a bit guilty because I had never read it, so I went to the library and got a copy. My wife thought it was silly for someone of my age to waste time reading a children’s book, but I enjoyed it more than anything else I’ve read this year. There is a long tradition among British writers, from Beatrix Potter to J. K. Rowling, not to talk down to children; rather, they use the same vocabulary as if they were speaking to a child sitting beside them on the porch swing. The stories are not about some ideal world where all creatures are perfect; rather, they speak of the conflict between good and evil, with heroes, villains, and ordinary folk who do extraordinary things, and through whose efforts the world becomes a little better.

One of the characters in the book is a toad who has more money than he should. Like spoiled rich folk everywhere, his self-indulgent behavior always makes trouble for others… he drives his car too fast, scares horses off the road (remember, this was in 1908), and cheats and lies without a shred of guilt. But he is not all bad; he is generous, irrepressible, and good company, so his friends put up with him. Children who read the story (or have it read to them, as parents used to do) will learn much about how life should be lived. But they won’t learn much about toads.

I don’t know much about British toads, but in America toads are sensible creatures and, in an ideal world, they would lead well-ordered lives. When fall comes they find a pond or a spring, dig themselves into the mud below the freeze line, set their biological clocks for half-past March, and turn their metabolic processes down to power-save mode. When the spring equinox arrives, they already have been yawning and stretching for a week or so. Then, the first time there is a warm rain, they dig up to the surface, rinse off the mud, and begin to sing in a falsetto trill that will bring all of the lady toads within earshot hopping to them at full speed. Life is good… in an ideal world.

2010 started out ideally, if you were a toad. From their bedrooms in the mud they were able to ignore the record snowstorms and power-outages that bedeviled us humans. The unusually wet weather in April and May provided them with a breeding season that was like an extra month of vacation at the beach. But from mid-June onward, things went downhill. Temperatures shot up to record levels and stayed there; rain came in storms that were weeks apart, so the water either ran off the parched, brick-hard soil or evaporated in the heat. The grass stopped growing… a minor benefit for toads, since they were less likely to encounter lawnmowers… but insect populations crashed, so there wasn’t much to eat. I didn’t even see any Japanese beetles this summer. About the only insects that seemed to flourish were the stink bugs, which, I imagine, don’t taste very good… I didn’t try them myself, but they are an alien species, and toads tend to be conservative and aren’t inclined to try new things. So, prompted by the instincts that have enabled them to survive so many millions of years, most of them buried themselves in the wettest places they could find and went into hibernation early.

The drought was broken in the last week of September by rainstorms that dumped over 6 inches of rain on Emmitsburg. My wife and I had been out for an evening of bridge with friends on Sept. 30, and when we started home around midnight there was a chorus of toads singing. Apparently the warm rains had awakened them, and they came out to see what was going on. The equinox had just passed, and they must have had the same understanding of it as my wife, who has always maintained that if you’ve seen one equinox, you’ve seen them all. So they reasoned as toads do: equal periods of day and night + warm rain = mating season, and they started singing. I hope that’s as far as it went. This is no time of year for tadpoles to be out wandering around.

Even if you’re not a toad, it has been an unusual year. The trees took advantage of the wet spring to set on a prodigious crop of nuts and fruit. The Bradford pears in our yard are so full of miniature pears that their limbs are bent to the point of cracking. The flowering crabs and honeysuckles in the back yard are full of robins and cedar waxwings, and even a few catbirds are delaying their migration to share the feast. It is a mast year: when my golf ball made one of its frequent trips into the woods on a recent outing, there were so many acorns on the ground that the ball couldn’t find a bare spot to sit on. A few weeks ago, while walking to the post-office I saw a young squirrel with a walnut in his mouth; he seemed puzzled by the taste, and looked as if he wasn’t sure what to do with it. Eventually he stopped trying to figure it out logically and followed his instincts, which told him not to try to eat it now but to carry it up to my yard and bury it in the flower bed. Apparently all of the flowerbeds are full now; this morning I noticed several holes in the lawn where he and his friends are burying nuts of various kinds. Winter may be coming, but the larder is full. From their point of view, this is an ideal world… at least for now. They’re young; they will learn.

I remember the day I learned to read. I was about five, and was going through my book about Peter Rabbit, which had been read to me since before I could walk, and which I knew literally by heart. I was reciting the story to myself, idly poking at the groups of letters on the page, when it suddenly dawned on me that those groups of letters were words. It was a true epiphany, a feeling of the purest delight. I traced my way through the whole book, and began to recognize t-h-e as "the," a-n-d as "and," and so on to bigger words; and by the time I started school I was able to read books I hadn’t previously memorized. Looking back, I think I became a better biologist, and certainly a better teacher, because of Peter Rabbit and Uncle Wiggly. It did me no harm that, when I was six, I thought animals really talked among themselves; I had no trouble giving up such anthropomorphism as I matured. And I understood that while the world is a bewildering place and is not ideal, there are still good times to be had in it.

There is a point in the Wind in the Willows where the water rat meets an old friend who has traveled to faraway places, and they sit down to a picnic lunch. There are cheeses, sausages, French bread, and "a long-necked, straw-covered flask wherein lay bottled sunshine shed and garnered on far Southern slopes." Children might not know what all that means, but in an ideal world they would hear it read by parents or grandparents who would have time to pause and explain. Hearing the language used like that would be a lot better for them than sitting in front of a television set watching SpongeBob Squarepants.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith