Joel Salatin On Fundamentalists And Mother-Earthers


“Growing up in a conservative Christian home on our beyond organic family farm in the 1960s, I lived in two different worlds. Our church friends lived in one world, but our family farm lived in another. My Dad and Mom, ultra conservative by any standard, routinely befriended hippies and our house often had dope-smoking mother-earthers hanging around talking about compost, dome homes, and Viet Nam war atrocities.

On Sunday, of course, I spent the day with straight-laced Bible fundamentalists who made jokes about hippies and those mother earthers. When Dad made Adelle Davis’ Tiger Milk, a concoction of brewer’s yeast, honey, raw milk from our Guernsey cows, and I can’t remember what else, our church buddies called it Panther Puke. I grew up on Bible memory programs and Mother Earth News magazine.

While our church friends made jokes about environmentalists, in our house The Whole Earth Catalogue stimulated many great discussions. Our family routinely patronized the health food store when it first came to town, a place our Christian friends thought cultish. How could a Christian patronize a place that smelled like incense, sold tofu, and had Zen literature stashed about? Our Christian friends built Tyson chicken houses and confinement dairies, used pharmaceuticals indiscriminately and poured on chemical fertilizer. Even their backyard gardens received liberal (a judicious use of the word liberal, to be sure) doses of insecticide just to be safe.

The whole notion that farming and food systems could contain a moral implication couldn’t make it past the laughter and jokes about environmentalist pinko commies. Yet our family plugged on, eschewing chemicals, building compost piles, planting trees, and attending environmental farming conferences. As our farm began attracting attention, most visitors were tree-hugging cosmic nirvana creation-worshippers. We used these visits to plant seeds of Biblically-based stewardship as Creator-worshippers. That sure made for some interesting conversations.

Over the years, I’ve seen an amazing transformation in our farm visitors. Today, probably half are conservative home-schooling Christians. I believe that the home-schooling movement spawned an entire awakening to alternative ideas. Families who left the conventional institutional educational setting, who disagreed with credentialed officialdom, found their new path soul satisfying. That satisfaction led them to ask the question: “Well, I wonder what else I’ve been missing out on?”

This quest for a narrow way within a broad way cultural context led families to chiropractors (what, those quacks?), nutrition, cottage-based businesses and home-based self-reliance. The home school idea literally sprouted kitchen sprout growing, raw milk consumption, gardens, and domestic flour mills for home-baked breads.

I believe the Christian community, which should have been the repository of “fearfully and wonderfully made,” squandered this high moral ground of environmental stewardship. Today, young people like Noah Sanders are beginning to chip away at the stereotype of the creation-exploitive (just one notch below rapist) religious right. When members of the religious right espouse creation stewardship, people listen to the Biblical redemption message who would never give it a thought otherwise.”

– Joel Salatin, from the introduction to Born-Again Dirt: Farming To The Glory Of God, by Noah Sanders.

 

Not much to be added to these robust sentiments. I’ll simply say that I love Salatin’s freehanded use of a diverse range of time capsule language. Still can’t believe that Christianity could get so far away from caring about the earth, but there are about a million things I can’t comprehend about the history of Christianity.

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The Dark Horse Of Love


We found out that we lost the first baby a few days before Ash Wednesday.

It’s hard to understand mourning someone whom you will never meet. Our older children were both a stark symbol of the growing absence and a balm in the midst of our gloom. When we initially told them we were going to have another baby, Norah’s reaction was strange. She was concerned for the baby’s safety, uncharacteristically nervous. When she found out that the baby had died, she sobbed. Having that pain filtered through our five year old’s tears was harder to bear than any other shade of this sorrow.

I have found that we each give and receive love in ways as unique as our own thumb print. Upon reflection, mourning seems to be a self-same instinct.


Me, I just wanted to keep my head above water till the storm waters had subsided. I expected to always carry the weight of this grief as heavily as the day it was handed down to me. I spend my days preparing my heart for sorrows that rarely crossed my path.

But my wife on the other hand, her feelings are usually so veiled that they remain shrouded even to her, until a culmination of grief and relationship bear in upon them. A woman’s connection to her unborn child is something a man isn’t meant to understand. The difference makes it all the harder to relate in processing the loss. It wasn’t until the pregnancy in May that she began to talk expectantly of another loss. She felt as if something had broken in her, both spiritually and physically. As if she were being punished for some fatal and unrecognized flaw. Her brow was dark, forecasting a curse that she would never have conceived of six months prior. And in some aspect at least, she proved to be right.

The second miscarriage was worse. Farther along and with more complications, the scars run deeper. My wife rarely shares, but says those memories haunt her every day. She ended up in the hospital before all was said and done, undergoing outpatient procedures that turned into an inpatient transfusion of a couple of quarts of blood. We buried our baby boy at the back of the garden, near his sister, sprinkling wildflower seeds across the sprawling roots of the stump that serves as a headstone. They are just now starting to bloom for the first time.

Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Perhaps it does seem foolish in hindsight, looking back on our ancient decisions. The sorrow of loss is inextricably mingled with the question of culpability. We replay our missteps and recalculate our misguided course corrections ad infinitum. We wear out the tread of the truth in each slipping memory.

What should I have known then? What could we have done better? Is it irresponsibility to let this happen again? Is it cowardice to stop nature in its course?

Hope sprung eternal, hellacious gluttony, or stubborn pride of principles? Some synthesis of these keeps us returning to that boundless natural resource: human suffering.

We all squint a bit sidelong at the foreign aspects of each others’ humanity, incapable of understanding what allows someone to be so cautious or so reckless, so invested or so isolated.

Too deeply animalistic, so willingly tied to the frailty of our fallenness.
Undisciplined. Too excessively principled, rejecting sensibility to go chasing shadows of eternity in a dangerous world. Naive.

These mortal coils seem sleepy and submissive at a comfortable distance, yet they always prove inscrutable at close proxemity. Lulled to sleep by years of screen hyponosis, yet a prolonged toothache is all the discomfort needed to suddenly stir the dozing suburban spirit. Many would call us fools for allowing our bodies to continue to procreate. I imagine myself viewing the scene over your shoulder, nodding my approval of such pronouncements. Perhaps I am a selfish pig for allowing my wife to devote her body to so many scarring failures. Perhaps she is a timid fool for continuing to trust in me and Him and this process.

The third miscarriage in as many quarters came with stranger circumstance and more nebulous confusion. After a month of concerns and tests and procedures, the doctors could never verify the presence of a child in the womb. Still, her body continued on high alert, in a fever pitch to prepare for a life that didn’t seem to even exist. The verdict was that letting this misguided attempt continue would most likely kill her in time, but we waited all the same, hoping toward some glimmer of knowledge on which to hang. None came. Each passing day meant less time before her body broke. We caved. The girders of our constitution were found wanting. Under stress, they collapsed upon our heads as we pondered them. The layout of the hospital wards were becoming all too familiar. By the end of October, we looked back on the year in a dumbfounded daze.



Suffering is a thing that some prepare for. Like doomsday preppers, they carve out a place inside them and try to get comfortable, quivering and waiting for the inevitable fallout. Most seem more eager to ignore the mushroom cloud on the horizon. With a little numbing of the soul, we can convince ourselves that it can be avoided altogether, even as we cruise toward it. Whether we level our stance to try and catch it or turn our hearts to ignore its approach, the breaking of our love bowls us over and wrings us out when it arrives. No philosopher who apologizes suffering in the sunshine feels comfort from his aphorisms in the midnight watches. No preacher is comforted by his portfolio of God-study on the restless deathbed.

Love sours. We place our youthful bets and clench our tickets madly, cheering in unadulterated enthusiasm. At length, life slows and we frown. Grey hairs arise. Hopes wane and fall back among the pack, being slowly surpassed by unforeseen entries. Mourning is the dark horse of love. This new front runner overtakes and whelms all of our investments as we get to know and slowly age out of this world. We reveled in and savored them in their newborn flight. Now they are leaden upon our shoulders and our hearts.

I promise that if you love, you will know excruciating pain. Lewis said that to appreciate even an animal is to open oneself up to be broken by care. Still, to those familiar with the long weight of beauty, the man who has no attachments has a more pitiable fate than that baggage of a lifetime. Such is our lot, to sting and yet fear most the not being able to feel the sting.

I promise that your loves will deteriorate and that it will hurt. This is true for the waffling atheist, the star-crossed lover, the ardent jihadi, the workaholic philanthropist, the octogenarian martyr, and the cafeteria Catholic alike. The depth or type of a conviction is never strong enough by principle alone to withstand the terrors that prey upon the minds and memories of men. Whether you ignore the universe or build an empire of conclusions, everything human cracks under the slightest pressure from our inescapable place. There is no collection of right perspectives or sufficient actions that will grant release from the slowly crushing weight of existence; all attempts at love and hope turn in slow degrees to anxiety and despair. What we lean on most heavily becomes in its turn the source of the quickest decay.



Is there yet some flicker of comfort in all of this? Some recollection of a sensible design, if decay is now the unforeseen path upon which caring leads us? Love is not a blindly self-replicating chemical reaction, a dangerously diluting emotional state, or even the noble choice of a hearty devotee. Love is more than a divine impulse. Love is divinity Himself. Love once embraced this depth of mourning and darkness and pain. Love recognized that its path led into desolate depression, yet still it plunged. Love is a person who embodied hope that willing drowned in pain. Love entered a void of turmoil and came up gasping for breath in the unseen hope beyond.

When we lost the first baby, our daughter wept tears too bitter for the young. But then she sang songs of life over us. This one we first put our life into, she poured out new songs about Jesus’ desire to change our circumstances and our mistakes and making all things right.

Love is not a concept or an action. Love is a Person; that Person is the salvation of the world, who willingly stepped away from all hope and trusted that hope would be found beyond reckoning. The Christ is Love, promising unfathomable mourning now and overwhelming purpose ultimately. Suffering hits us all squarely, disorients us to the cores of our likeness with Him; but we can expose our hearts before God and men, open ourselves to more suffering without hardening our hearts, and seek to know the Person who is a promise that all will be renewed as concrete joy in the end. Mourning hearts are well prepared. Those who have known loneliness make worthy worshippers.


Self-Inflicted Chaos — Like Lions : The Landers Family Mission Journal


HELP US GET THERE!!! I tend to be a bit of an over-thinker. As a child of ten, I would lay in bed at night wondering if I was pulling my weight in making the world what it should be. I worried about my relationships and whether I was caring for people well enough, […]

via Self-Inflicted Chaos — Like Lions : The Landers Family Mission Journal

Book Review: The Broom Of The System by David Foster Wallace


“You can trust me,’ R.V. said, watching her hand. ‘I’m a man of my'”

– Final, incomplete sentence of The Broom Of The System, by David Foster Wallace

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Dang.

I was really eager to like this book…

As someone who has only ever read maybe 50 pages of Infinite Jest and an essay or two, my perspective wasn’t one of comparison on this read. But with all the hype surrounding someone as intelligent and well-received as David Foster Wallace, you feel like a real loser for not wholly enjoying his work. He reputation is openly built on pretense by his fans, bringing with it an aire or fear of intelligentsia snobbishness. Alas, while tuning the risk of being accused of “not getting it,” I still can’t help but admit disappointment with the way this one ended.

The characters Wallace employees are amusing and he does a fantastic job of fleshing them out. Just about every character is shown to be somehow complex and altogether shallow. It’s a striking and honest indictment of innate human hypocrisy and disconnection. The absurdity of the names and language all hark back to Wittgenstein and language games and I really enjoyed these elements as well. Most of the crazy circumstances throughout the plot are also really enjoyable. Overall, the plot and elements were dense and dripping with possibilities to make deeper connections and bring about some sort of fully developed concepts, but ultimately the only satisfying elements seemed to be the character studies.

I suppose, as I think about it, that most of my dissatisfaction with this novel comes from its post-modernness. It sets up about a thousand hilarious elements and characters. It contains about as small of a world as one could dream up, as every character ends up with previous connections among the cast. It rolls along on a ridiculous, often sidetracked plot, but as connections are made, nothing comes of them. In the end, the book goes nowhere. People’s fragile realities are crushed, they lean further into their insecurities and psychological issues, and then it just ends.

I enjoyed the book enough to keep plowing through, eagerly hoping for a grand, inspired finale somewhere between Flann O’Brien and John Kennedy Toole. I really expected an impressive and equally absurd resolution to come together, perhaps like A Confederacy Of Dunces. I expected to be dazzled. But there was no point. That was the point.

The last sentence of the novel is poignant in itself, but it would make more sense if followed by a trailing pen line. . .it feels completely unfinished. I suppose the only point is that there is none. When you search for answers from Wittgenstein in the midst of deep relational distrust and psychological breakdown, your story rightly ends by dismantling itself. Makes complete sense, but it’s not every satisfying.

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David Foster Wallace On Empathy

Bill Watterson On The Importance Of Playtime

J.R.R. Tolkien On Creativity And Death

55 Classics Review #15 – Middlemarch By George Eliot


I have put off writing this review for some time now. It took me about a year to complete the book, but I just found out that it was originally published in 8 volumes over the span of a year, so I was apparently reading it on schedule. I wanted to take some time to process it in retrospect before I jumped into discussing it here. I am still finding it hard to describe most of my reactions to the text, but at this point I don’t think it will get much easier.

It would be difficult to give a reader of this blog any succinct description of the both intimate and voluminous Middlemarch. I’m certain that any quick descriptive attempt could be easily torn apart under another fan’s scrutiny, but I will be so bold as to attempt to give some passing impressions about the nature of the book. Middlemarch is the story of life for many intertwined characters and families, written around 1870 as historical fiction on provincial English life in the early 1830s. At heart, it is plotted to be a romance novel (or a handful of intermingled romance novels), but one that carries throughout a wide array of story arcs, romantic and non. It constantly emphasizes the psychology and environmental motivations of the characters.

_________

Here are some examples of the high opinions of the book from throughout its history.

– Henry James praised the book for it’s psychological depth and evolution of intimate relationships

– Nietzsche praised it for it’s role of revealing the anxieties and motivations at play underneath the common social constraints of the time.

– Virginia Woolf described the novel in 1919 as “the magnificent book that, with all its imperfections, is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people.”

– Emily Dickenson responded to the question… “What do I think of ‘Middlemarch’?” What do I think of glory – except that in a few instances this “mortal has already put on immortality.” George Eliot was one. The mysteries of human nature surpass the “mysteries of redemption,” for the infinite we only suppose, while we see the finite.”

– F.R. Leavis said “The necessary part of great intellectual powers in such a success as Middlemarch is obvious […] the sheer informedness about society, its mechanisms, the ways in which people of different classes live […] a novelist whose genius manifests itself in a profound analysis of the individual.”

– V.S. Pritchett wrote, “No Victorian novel approaches Middlemarch in its width of reference, its intellectual power, or the imperturbable spaciousness of its narrative […] I doubt if any Victorian novelist has as much to teach the modern novelists as George Eliot […] No writer has ever represented the ambiguities of moral choice so fully.”

_________

Personally, I was continually shocked to recognize that one author could be so capable of interpreting the diverse perspectives of so many characters as to explain the logic and faith behind their actions. The reader is given insight into everyone’s most inner perspectives, and rarely could you find such a large and diverse cast of characters anywhere apart from a real neighborhood.

The plots are many, and among come falls from grace, tragically mistaken marriages, love at first sight, religious and spiritual struggles, kindly benefactors helping along the youths around them, falls into addictions, sudden wealth, sudden poverty, political turmoil, class struggle, and questions of work ethic. You have sympathetic characters who become embroiled in undeserved scandal, characters whom you despise but are gradually made to understand (if not appreciate) through the author’s constant insights, and overall the book is so life-like as to keep you from being certain of what outcomes would be best.

Perhaps that is the highest praise I can give Middlemarch. It is so life like that the characters you love feel as complex as real siblings. The characters you hate you grow accustom to and eventually possibly sympathetic toward, and the events are so realistically mundane and cumulatively riveting that you don’t always know where things are headed or even where you want them to go.

The first hundred pages or so of Middlemarch were a constant battle for me. I had to continually convince myself that the uphill battle would pay off with sweeping vistas in the end. I wasn’t disappointed in the least. As I came upon the last hundred pages or so, I consciously felt myself slowing down, bracing for the inevitability of the end. A couple of suspenseful plots were still hanging in the balance, urging my forward, but I was afraid to finish. I was afraid to have to leave the characters that had become more like real friends. The story spans a few years in Middlemarch and, when I closed the book, I couldn’t help but feel like the story continued on without me somewhere.

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Further Reading

Bill Watterson Makes A Case For Art

The Railway Children By Edith Nesbit

Neil Gaiman On The Value Of The Library

A Poem By Landor, Revised


While reading through The Razor’s Edge by W. Somerset Maugham, I came across a reference to this short poetic work.

_________

I strove with none, for none was worth my strife.
Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

_________

I loved it immediately and, after thinking on it a few minutes, decided that I would have only changed it slightly to find it perfect.

_________

 

I strove with none, my strife found aim at none.
Nature I loved and, next to Nature, Art:
I warm’d both hands before the fire of life;
It sinks, and I am ready to depart.

A Revision Of Landor, by M. Landers
_________

 

Further Reading

How To Raise Life-Long Learners.


All things considered, my educational experience was a good one marked by privilege. I can look back now and wish that I had been given stronger theory by more passionate educators in some arenas, but overall I had the world handed to me. The most regrettable aspect of my formal education was my own perspective on its purpose. To me, paying attention in school was always more of an obligation, part daily work day grind and part proving my own capability or normalcy amongst my peers. Rarely was I ever self-motivated toward the ideas or subjects to which I was being introduced. It took leaving college and spending a year or two without any kind of spoon-fed, intentional learning before I began to become a self-motivated learning. Now I’m constantly on the learning offensive, looking out for new ideas to readily devour.

Why is it that learning is such a touchy cultivation? There are a thousand factors at hand in growing as a person who wants to understand. For many of us the education we are handed forever dims any idea that we would actually pursue learning of our own accord. An education system involves all sorts of standardization, enforced subject matters, and comparison, both in grading and in social interactions. As someone who didn’t care then and loves learning now, I have an immense passion to pass on to my own children the internal fire and confidence needed to find their places through self-motivated learning.

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My Process

Step 1: Get to know your child personally so well that you understand what they are passionate about and why.

– It’s easy to know what they love, but a life time can be devoted to understanding why it excites them. It’s never to early to start this.

Step 2: Get them more of what they love.

– Books, relevant experiences, games, tutors. Don’t put all of your energy into diversifying their interests, focus on new ways for them to experience what they love.

Step 3: Repeat Step 1.

– Emphasis on learning their passions in the context of the new experiences.

Step 4: Repeat Step 2.

– Diversify and stretch your imagination and theirs concerning how they perceive what they are comprehending. Let them establish a launching pad and give them vision for directions they can take things.

Step 5: Ad Infinitum, Phasing Yourself Out Over Time.

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Obviously, this isn’t to say that people who don’t like math shouldn’t learn to add or multiply. There are certain skill sets that are universally useful, regardless of your tastes or trade, and learning to push through to understand things that are of little personal interest is also a valuable skill in and of itself.

My end game goal is to have children who are confident in who they are and capable of seeking out and processing information. They would never had a capacity for all available information and to attempt to cram it in them would only snuff out their own desires. Don’t beat yourself and your kids up about reaching outside standards if the experience at hand indicates they are learning and flourishing.

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Further Reading

Mary Berry’s Thoughts On Her Father’s Lasting Legacy

C.S. Lewis On Modern Education Theory

Masanobu Fukuoka On The Philosophy Fueling Our Science

Book Review: George MacDonald and His Wife, by Greville MacDonald


It is an uncomfortable and disquieting thing to read an intimate, posthumous biography. One learns quickly of the experiences, perspectives, reactions, and pursuits of some previous individual and, despite the conclusions reached, is alarmed and jolted by the sudden ending or slow, spiral decay of the once thinking, reacting, dynamic subject of the text. For myself at least, death seems alway too close at hand to lose its freshness.

George MacDonald was a Scottish poet, author, and lecturer who wrote many novels, religious texts, and books of poetry. His most lasting impressions include The Princess and The Goblins, At The Back Of The North Wind, Phantastes, and Lilith. He directly influenced Lewis Carroll’s writing and publishing of Alice In Wonderland and C.S. Lewis would one day claim that Phantastes provided a baptism for his imagination.

Greville MacDonald’s biography of his father (and mother) is extensive. It is a step-by-step look at every turn of events leading to and throughout their lives, and it’s really a good read for anyone with a knack for history in general. It also provides great insights not only to MacDonald’s faith and perspectives, but as to the hard artist’s lifestyle that he chose and which sometimes seems to have chosen him. He was a starving artist most of his life, even with friends like Twain, Ruskin, Carroll, and Tennyson and a pension from the Queen.

Unlike most artists, he raised about a dozen kids, along with and occasional orphan or street urchin. MacDonald’s family life was his world, and one into which he and his wife brought dozens of lifelong friends, who play heavily throughout the text.

The obvious flaw of the text is that the author inundates the reader with a sacred defense for nearly every questionable or confusing action his father ever took, whether personal, theological, or artistic. He tells us why his father’s ideas on all subjects were the best available at the time, even when his father’s own demeanor in his texts and letters implies that he questioned his own judgement. While it can make for grating reading, it’s worth recognizing that a son’s undying devotion is a pretty great legacy, perhaps the one of which MacDonald would be most proud.

Luckily, the book is heavy laden with text from many personal letters, both to an from MacDonald, so that the bias opinions of Greville MacDonald can be easily seen around to get the fuller picture, often from MacDonald Sr. himself. He deals often with poverty, often with death close at hand, often with disabling sickness, and often with misunderstanding of his work. Yet always he maintains an otherworldly self-possession, a capacity at least toward outward insistence on the rejuvenation of all things through the cleansing of death that brings new life.

As I read this book, I couldn’t help marveling at how much I could use a MacDonald in my daily life, coaching me on through my trials, my misgivings, and my fear of death. This book may hit close to home.

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Futher Reading

C.S. Lewis On Good Reading Materials For Children

Thomas Merton On The Fear Of Suffering

Bill Watterson On Creativity

David Foster Wallace On Empathy


“A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded. Here’s one example of the utter wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: Everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe, the realest, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely talk about this sort of natural, basic self- centeredness, because it’s so socially repulsive, but it’s pretty much the same for all of us, deep down. It is our default-setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth. Think about it: There is no experience you’ve had that you were not at the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is right there in front of you, or behind you, to the left or right of you, on your TV, or your monitor, or whatever. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real — you get the idea.”

– David Foster Wallace, excerpt from The Is Water

_________

Occasionally, I’ll read a claim here or there that we learn empathy from reading fiction. While I love reading fiction and I think that most people will agree that there is something of understanding gained through reading about and relating to diverse personalities, I also think we can easily deceive ourselves about how well this serves us. More often than not, it can delude us about our practical capacity for compassion.

If I don’t know how to relate to my downstairs neighbors, is this thing I call empathy valuable? Is assuming I can fully understand someone else’s life experiences respectful of them? Is understanding and comprehension really the goal?

David Foster Wallace goes on to claim that learning to consider others and serve them mentally is the point of higher education, what he describes as being well-adjusted. I have a difficult time knowing what to think here, because I find myself wanting to agree with him and also feeling that empathy, or perceived comprehension of another’s circumstance, is perhaps not the best resource for learning to care for them. Perhaps intellectual assent is useful, but is it the most genuine and natural route to caring?

_________

Further Reading

Mary Berry Reflects On Her Heritage

Want to change the world? Shake Someone’s Hand!

Wendell Berry On His Children

55 Classics Review # 14 – Watership Downs by Richard Adams


Watership Downs. I was about two-thirds of the way through it when my family moved cross country a few months ago. It stands along side Thomas Merton’s The Seven Story Mountain as the only two books I can visualize reading in my favorite chair in both living rooms. With both these, I rested on a period, move everything a thousand miles across the map, then took up the armchair and the books once more.

Watership Downs was a surprising experience for me. Like The Phantom Tollbooth, the root concept was something I had never imagined before and therefore it was all the more exciting to take in. While The Phantom Tollbooth only had a handful of passages with which I felt a deep personal connection (the orchestrating of the colors of the day was moving and masterfully written), I was fully engaged by most of Watership Downs, especially as the book began to come to a climax.

Watership Downs is a mystical book. It is the tale of two brothers, Hazel and Fiver. Fiver is a generally weak and distracted rabbit who has a tendency toward hallucinatory dreams of a prophetically accurate nature. The book follows Hazel’s development as the unlikely de facto leader of a rag-tag group of rabbits, who flee through the wild after Fiver senses that their largely peaceful home warren is in danger. Throughout the text they meet adversaries of every sort imaginable to a real group of rabbits who have no holes to protect them, while also making encounters with the alien cultures among other rabbit warrens. The events of the book are frequently broken up by chapter-length stories told amongst the rabbits, passing oral tradition down in a manner Joseph Campbell would be proud of. The rabbits, bolstered often by heroic tales of the clever forebear to the rabbit race, must time and again gather their wits and fight against their biological makeup to exercise sound judgement when their instincts pressure them to fly in blind fear.

The uniqueness of Richard Adams’ concept here lies in the distinct form of his anthropomorphism and in the central nature of cultural mythologies. It has elsewhere been accepted that if we choose to write books on talking animals, they must naturally exist in a world so magically foreign that they walk upright, wear clothes tailored to our liking, and eat foods similar to our own preferences. The Wind In The Willows is a perfect example of this type of book (and also one of my all-time favorite titles). Watership Downs goes the extreme opposite route, unearthing animals in a world that is so much our own that at times I felt like I needed a veterinarian or wildlife expert at hand to verify the minute details of rabbit life presented in the text. The only thing Adams’ toys with in his rabbits’ nature is their capability to communicate verbally and their social capacity to rely on shared histories and plan for a future.

This book is great. It really does stand in its own realm. I think it would probably surprise most people one way or the other, enjoying it far more or less than they would assume from the outset. Richard Adams proves himself to be a student of both science and myth, a great respecter of both biology and the intangible that requires pure faith. The book feels a bit long at points, and these days I could see a publisher trying to force the book into multiple titles in a series, but I think it works well as it is, even if the momentum is a bit erratic at times. I will say that the last 150 pages or so are pure gold. In many ways the ebb and flow of the momentum works in the favor the reader’s identify with the rabbits all the more at the end. From the start you have an epic struggle that really brings you in, lulls a bit here and there in the midst of an uncertain middle, and then hits full force in the final stages.

Watership Downs is one part tribal survival saga, one part homage to oral tradition and sacred myths, and one part fanciful tale of the lives of the rabbits living just beyond the hedge. If you don’t think you would enjoy a book about talking rabbits, I challenge you that perhaps this is exactly what you should read next.

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Further Reading

Heavy Weather by P.G. Wodehouse

Norton Juster On The Agony Of Creating

Dave Eggers On Why Publishing Is Scary