I was once lucky enough to count among my good friends an extraordinary gentleman who valued kindness and good books and who, even at age eighty-four, believed in happy endings. He taught his grandchildren how to sail and play tennis, always used the latest cell phone apps, and was among the first in his extended family to get his own Facebook page. I found him unfailingly calm and gentle, with great control over his speech.
Every day we would chat while we were on a break at the tennis court sitting in the morning sun in our folding chairs waiting for a turn. He was one of my few Florida friends who was interested in what I was reading and we always had a good conversation about a favorite or a newly discovered book.
It was in this context that I loaned him an unusual volume which still rates among the top two or three I have ever read in a lifetime of reading. Those of the Forest follows the life of a snowshoe rabbit through the seasons in a Wisconsin wood, but it is really about all life on earth.
Its author, Wallace Grange, once restored over 9000 acres of ravaged Wisconsin forest and wetlands, the same empty second-growth woods now common in North America. Even these spindly enervated woods, so inferior to the great primeval forests once covering much of the continent, with his careful and intelligent assistance, eventually attracted enough lynx, wolves, beaver, fox, pileated woodpeckers, great horned owls, hawks, deer, and weasels to create an extraordinary conservation area still in existence today. This was the background for a snowshoe rabbit to live out his life.
I had brought this book in a small paper bag to the tennis court and some weeks later, my friend returned it in the same bag when we were sitting in our usual folding chairs. “I didn’t get too far into it”, he murmured apologetically. “Nothing seemed to happen.” And that was that. A well-traveled and successful international businessman, living for a stretch at the Hotel Nairobi, he could not fathom why any adult individual would read a novel about rabbits. We had many hilarious evenings discussing our divergent tastes in literature. Soon after, with good-natured mirth, he took to calling Joanie and me “the bunnies”, in honor of Snowshoe and because he was always helping Joanie with her beginner’s tennis game on the ‘bunny’ slope/court.
A few months later, he presented me with an inscribed birthday present of his favorite book, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett, a historical novel about the building of the Peterborough Cathedral in England eight centuries ago. I tried to get into it but only managed to finish the chapter about the murder of Thomas More. And that was that.
I really can’t explain even to myself why I am so interested in the quiet concerns of non-human creatures and plants. Most of my peers in their relentless efforts to reform the world immerse themselves in the sufferings and injustices of people, not to mention constantly reading about others who do the same. Perhaps my sympathies are just with the underdog which, in this case, happens to be Earth.
My esteemed tennis friend liked to laugh and he liked to be happy. His optimism and kindness were a great comfort. Had he met the humorless Mr. Grange around our dinner table, he would have been gracious and attentive but his own curiosity and enthusiasm was largely concerned with human nature while Mr. Grange could, without shame, write three pages about willows, their history and evolution, the threats to their kind, and their value and importance to so many animals. His long slow look at a forest was not ironic or human-centered, which is the main reason I was so charmed and educated by this book. The natural world would be a much hungrier and poorer place without the willows, that all the tribes of rabbits and moose, caribou and grouse, elk, deer, mice, beaver, buffalo, musk oxen, and geese, in fact all browsing birds and mammals, depend on the leaves, stems and bark and buds of the willows for their food. Whoever knew?
All of this came to mind when I went out to bring in the newspaper one morning before it started to rain. It was about 6 a.m. and an ominous black cloud was on the western horizon while in the east the sun was just starting to come up. Sitting close together in our front yard intently watching the drama, were two mourning doves, a pair of mockingbirds, a bluejay and the neighbor’s large brown and white rabbit. They were absolutely still, close together almost touching, the rabbit with his ears laid back. Nobody looked at me or moved as I delicately retrieved the paper from the driveway. I recognized this as an extraordinary scene but they were obviously waiting for me to leave, so I returned to the house.
Joanie, still under the covers in the barely emerging daylight, asked how was it outside. Nothing’s happening, I said nonchalantly, trying to imitate my sophisticated worldly friend I had admired so much. But, eventually, I had to describe the unusual scene to her as a dark rain poured down and the pair of mockingbirds, their meditation over, fluttered excitedly in the bird bath.
Despite the fact that I seem to represent the cleverest species in the solar system, despite my own haughty electronic culture, I knew these solemn creatures sitting in the midst of piles of oak leaves, all so devoid of grandiosity and ambition, would flee if I approached them. I was nothing but a threat.
The conviction that my species is superior to all life on the planet does not come from these inhabitants in my yard, nor from the animals and plants in Mr. Grange’s woods, nor from the willows everywhere, nor from the huge number of creatures who rely on the willows. All these life forms are indifferent to our vast superiority. They inhabit their own valuable world with complete assurance that in every way they are perfect and understand everything they need to.
That people are incomparably better is not my idea either, certainly not, but it’s everywhere around me and almost impossible to resist. Just look at the bright future we have laid out before us: robots will travel through the multiverse with just a smidgeon of human DNA to identify our unique brilliance; extinct animals and birds will be returned to life; the moon and asteroids will be mined for unimaginable treasure; little metal spies will enter into the tiniest cell in our body to kill off any secret disease hiding there. We will accomplish every fabulous thing imaginable. So predict the masters of the universe.
Most of these inspirations involve the recent explosion of computer power which implies that silicon thought will work the same as carbon-based thought, and that artificial intelligence will soon surpass our own. If global catastrophe ever makes the world inhospitable to biological life forms, we will preserve the most important life form – guess who, and perhaps continue to make a corporate profit.
We might want to step back before we upload our minds and consciousness to computers. Something is off with the cleverest species in the solar system. I will just say it outright. We kill everything, even songbirds. What we don’t kill we soil with our infinite garbage. We value money more than life. We attach more importance to technology and robotics than to biology and the living. We are such a frightful menace that even mockingbirds, bluejays, mourning doves and large pet rabbits avoid us.
Needless to say, we are nowhere to be found in the little book by Mr. Grange, who published it in 1953 before the computer revolution. He saw an absolute genius in everything that lives, something that a youngster working on his algorithms for a virtual reality program might miss. He quietly put all of us in our proper place. His descriptions of the boundless energy of forest creatures: their “surging, impulsive, tenuous, unrelenting struggle that feels, breathes, mates, sings, flowers and moves onward” is irresistible .
Even Snowshoe had no concern for the life of the willow, but the willow’s life is not hopeless: “like the rabbit itself, it has its own way of life and is not easily defeated. Although its stems may be eaten by rabbit or deer until all that remain are a few mutilated shoots, the willow roots, in spring, will send forth new sprouts as hardy and as quick to grow as those which were destroyed. This willow, after attempting its growth year upon year only to be eaten down again, and again, may die; but others will live, for the willows numbers are legion.”
As for the rabbit, who for two years had lived one successful day after another, well he was finally grabbed by the talons of a snowy owl while of all the unseen small mammals hidden nearby trembled in terror at his bleating anguish and the jays screamed their disapproval. My tennis friend had not read far enough into the story. Something did happen. Poor Snowshoe had vanished into the unknown, never more to know another spring or summer wallowing in a dust bath, or taste a fragrant pine twig or hear the melodies of the first migrant bird of the south.
The excellent gentleman whose friendship I so treasured, who valued kindness and good books, who believed in happy endings, also eventually died. The tennis court was never the same. Some ingrained courtesy and thoughtfulness disappeared when he did. New people came who only played with each other and then moved on to join leagues.
The moment sitting in our folding chairs in the sun talking about books, waiting patiently for friendly games, had passed. But this gentleman’s wife, who finally located all the passwords to her husband’s digital gadgets, still wistfully refers to Joanie and me as the bunnies.
In a prodigiously violent instant the fabric of space was wrenched apart, creating ripples of gas and dust extending 14 billion light years across, eventually solidifying into hundreds of billions of galaxies, suns, planets and moons. It seems quite remarkable that from all the exotic particles created in this explosion, rabbits, birds, Mr. Grange, of course my tennis friend and his wife, the willows and all who thrive upon them, my social circle who never stop trying to reform the world, and Joanie and I, well we all eventually came into being, one after the other. How can we decide who is more extraordinary and improbable than the next? Not me certainly. Which is why, I guess, I will always be a bunny, and some will find that foolish.
Recently, two bald eagles have made their home on top of a cell tower near the tennis court. Their twins are about to make their way onto the world stage. But they need to eat constantly. One of their huge parents flew low over the tennis court and grabbed a squirrel fleeing across the street. The squirrel squealed frantically in much the same way poor Snowshoe must have cried out many summers ago. I was made aware then that these white-headed beautiful raptors are the true masters of the universe. And I was greatly relieved.
©2014 Linda Clarke Volume 13 Issue 1