Listen to the wild river toads
ENTHUSIASM and the willingness to try something new are great qualities. I often think that we are too reluctant to take advantage of some of the innocent pleasures and experiences that come our way. Recently my wife returned from the children's library with a charming book relating the adventures of a hedgehog and his prosaic but kindly friend, the woodchuck.
The hedgehog is, in his ingenious and poetic way, an enlarger of horizons. He is a nocturnal creature, while his friend is firmly and happily a daylight animal. However, Hedgehog is convinced that his friend is missing out and arranges to introduce Woodchuck to his nighttime world. ``I will show you the stars and the moon in the sky. I will show you the earth with no shadows. We will dance in the meadows and creep through the woods and sing with the wild river toads.''
There is something disarming about a true enthusiast, whether the subject is postage stamps, gardening, carpentry, or the pastoral pleasure of dancing in the meadows and caroling to an amphibian descant.
I recall in my university days a fellow student who used to travel from Glasgow to Edinburgh by train with a tape recorder for the sole purpose of cap-turing the music of a disappearing breed of steam locomotive. He did not see himself as part of an eccentric minority. Instead, he was convinced that anyone who shared his experience must inevitably share his enthusiasm, and so he invited me to listen to the first half-hour of his tape.
Although I had read and enjoyed Kip-ling's engineering stories, I was not otherwise attracted to things mechanical, and life would not have been a desert without them. But I almost came to understand his absorption as he lay stretched out on the ancient carpet, beating time to the rugged poetry of the belching smoke and the hissing steam and the metallic roar of the driving wheels.
Almost, but not quite, and so to my real regret some months later I missed the epic and legendary last train from Leuchars to St. Andrews when they closed down the line. Many students traveled back to university during the vacation specially for the experience, and members of the university railway club pulled the communication cord a dozen times in the five-mile journey in a boisterous but affectionate farewell.
In the story, Hedgehog eventually persuades Woodchuck to get out of bed, at a time when he is normally snug and well organized for a long sleep, and stumble grumbling into the chilly darkness with him. ``Woodchuck shivered and stamped his feet. `It is awfully cold' he said, `and awfully, awfully dark.''' At the critical moment it starts to rain and the two flee back indoors.
A few years ago I attended a seminar at a country hotel in the eastern highlands of Zimbabwe. It was June, and winter there, and we wore thick jerseys and logs crackled in the stone hearth of the sitting room. At dinner one evening, my neighbor and I found ourselves talking about fishing. As a boy in Malawi, I had fished in a coarse but satisfactory fashion with a handline from a dinghy rowed by my brother. The latter used to double our chances by winding a second line around his big toe, with the un-spoken prayer that he should not catch anything large, such as a turtle or crocodile.
I shared my experiences, except for the bit about the big toe, with my acquaintance. He was in a different league and fished exclusively for trout in the approved manner, with dry flies which he tied himself. He fixed me with a compelling eye, like the Sea Rat in ``The Wind in the Willows.'' He asked me if I had ever cast for trout. I confessed that I had not. As it happened, he had brought a spare rod, and he invited me to join him before breakfast the next morning on the lake in front of the hotel. I had a vision of myself casting with the ease of a champion to the amazement and admiration of my neighbor, and accepted without a second thought.
At 5 o'clock the following morning, the idea lacked genius. Mist blotted out the surrounding hills and the pine trees, and frost lay like a thick crust of sparkling sugar on the stubbly grass. I crunched up and down on the lawn waiting for my colleague, who emerged at last from a frigid cloud bank with a friendly greeting. The jetty was covered in glittering crystals and in the boat there was solid ice on the thwarts and under the duckboards. My companion seemed not to notice.
In the middle of the lake the water was dark and dead and bleak, and we sat in our boat encircled by freezing mist, unable to see the shore. I did not achieve the perfect cast, and even now I find the vision of lengthening coils of wet line whipping backward and forward out of the fog, 2 feet above the gunwales, disturbing. We caught no fish, but breakfast never tasted better, and I rediscovered a fundamental truth. A little innocent lunacy makes experiences memorable.
In the book, Woodchuck understands Hedgehog's disappointment and thinks of ways of cheering him up until the rain stops. Unfortunately dawn comes first, and the friendly Woodchuck can last no longer and falls fast asleep. But tomorrow is another day and Hedgehog is ever hopeful as he tucks a pillow under Woodchuck's head. ```Night-time will come again,' whispered Hedgehog. `It always has before. We shall have to wait some more.'''
There the story closes, but I am sure that in the end the two animals are rewarded with a rainless evening and make their way expectantly down to the water's edge, there to raise their voices with those phlegmatic choristers of the night, the wild river toads.
And perhaps you and I should be there, too.