Saturday, January 02, 2016

The Wind in the Willows

I have just finished reading aloud to my son The Wind in the Willows.  It was an unabridged edition, so we have been enjoying those chapters that are sometimes cut: 'Dulce Domum' on Mole's desire to see his old home, 'The Piper at the Gates of Dawn', where they encounter the god Pan, and 'Wayfarers All', on the conflicting impulse to travel and to stay at home.  It was a pleasure to read the story without engaging too critically with the book's nostalgic conservatism, or puzzling over how these talking animals coexist with human car drivers and washer women.  I thought I would quote something from it here, but rather than choose a lyrical description of the river or the changing seasons I've picked an intriguing passage that I'd forgotten all about, concerning Badger's large underground home.  Here, in Grahame's pastoral dream of England, the idea of the city has been literally buried: civilisations decline but nature endures.

Mole has just recovered from his adventure in the snowy Wild Wood and now, after finishing one of the book's many fine luncheons, he is shown around by Badger... 
'Crossing the hall, they passed down one of the principal tunnels, and the wavering light of the lantern gave glimpses on either side of rooms both large and small, some mere cupboards, others nearly as broad and imposing as Toad's dining-hall. A narrow passage at right angles led them into another corridor, and here the same thing was repeated. The Mole was staggered at the size, the extent, the ramifications of it all; at the length of the dim passages, the solid vaultings of the crammed store-chambers, the masonry everywhere, the pillars, the arches, the pavements. "How on earth, Badger," he said at last, "did you ever find time and strength to do all this? It's astonishing!"
"It would be astonishing indeed," said the Badger simply, "if I had done it. But as a matter of fact I did none of it—only cleaned out the passages and chambers, as far as I had need of them. There's lots more of it, all round about. I see you don't understand, and I must explain it to you. Well, very long ago, on the spot where the Wild Wood waves now, before ever it had planted itself and grown up to what it now is, there was a city—a city of people, you know. Here, where we are standing, they lived, and walked, and talked, and slept, and carried on their business. Here they stabled their horses and feasted, from here they rode out to fight or drove out to trade. They were a powerful people, and rich, and great builders. They built to last, for they thought their city would last for ever."
"But what has become of them all?" asked the Mole.
"Who can tell?" said the Badger. "People come—they stay for a while, they flourish, they build—and they go. It is their way. But we remain. There were badgers here, I've been told, long before that same city ever came to be. And now there are badgers here again. We are an enduring lot, and we may move out for a time, but we wait, and are patient, and back we come. And so it will ever be."
"Well, and when they went at last, those people?" said the Mole.
"When they went," continued the Badger, "the strong winds and persistent rains took the matter in hand, patiently, ceaselessly, year after year. Perhaps we badgers too, in our small way, helped a little—who knows? It was all down, down, down, gradually—ruin and levelling and disappearance. Then it was all up, up, up, gradually, as seeds grew to saplings, and saplings to forest trees, and bramble and fern came creeping in to help. Leaf-mould rose and obliterated, streams in their winter freshets brought sand and soil to clog and to cover, and in course of time our home was ready for us again, and we moved in. Up above us, on the surface, the same thing happened. Animals arrived, liked the look of the place, took up their quarters, settled down, spread, and flourished. They didn't bother themselves about the past—they never do; they're too busy. The place was a bit humpy and hillocky, naturally, and full of holes; but that was rather an advantage. And they don't bother about the future, either—the future when perhaps the people will move in again—for a time—as may very well be..."'

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