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Posts Tagged ‘Wind in the Willows’

I love children’s books. They are my “go-to” source for straightforward explanations of difficult scientific concepts as well as a reassuring fount of seemingly simple but actually quite astute and often great wisdom.

Bottles and Waves from Dorling Kindersley "Ocean" p. 13

Consider this: A few weeks ago we were down at the beach watching waves. Digging deep into my graduate school education (what was I thinking? A marine biologist who’s afraid of water?) I remembered the physical oceanography course that spent weeks,  and countless words and diagrams trying to explain waves. At the library I was reminded of the very complicated (and incomprehensible to me) nature of waves by an entire 267 page book devoted to the subject called Waves and Beaches by Willard Bascom (1964). In the textbook An Introduction to the World’s Oceans (fifth edition, 1997) all of Chapter Nine deals with the topic, “The Waves.” I looked, I pondered, I scratched my head. As they used to say, It’s all Greek to me.

Waves © SR Euston

But a quick tour of the children’s room landed me Ocean, a Dorling Kindersley Eyewitness Book. This is truly a remarkable YA series—now covering over 120 subjects from Epidemics to Baseball, Shipwrecks to Climate Change. And DK did it again. In two sentences they told me just what I needed to know: “Waves are formed by wind causing friction on the surface of the water….Waves that are driven by winds toward a beach, break when the water becomes too shallow.” Oh. I get it now.

Quiet Water © S.R. Euston

As for great pearls of wisdom, whenever the world gets just too crazy (think Republican “debates” or bombing Iran) I can always turn to Wind in the Willows. In the very first chapter, “The River Bank”, Mole is drawn up from his underground spring cleaning into a warm grassy swale. And then he finds the river! By its side “he trotted as one trots, when very small, by the side of a man who holds one spellbound by exciting stories; and when tired at last, he sat on the bank while the river still chattered on to him, a babbling procession of the best stories in the world, sent from the heart of the earth to be told at last by the insatiable sea.”

And back at the beach, the waves. We, who live next to the ocean, are gifted to listen to their “insatiable stories”. Who cares if  we “understand” what waves are or not.

At the Beach © SR Euston

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Today marks the first anniversary of owning our Port Orford home on the southern Oregon coast.

Late August Shadows © SR Euston

It also marks that day when, like all the other living creatures around us, I stuck my nose in the wind and sensed that change, that under-note of coolness. The sun is noticeably lower in the sky, it sets earlier. Last night’s low was 50°.

Yes, fall is in the air.

I go down to the garden and encourage our tomatoes and zucchini to make haste. You don’t have much longer, I tell them. The golden field which is our yard is ripe and the blackberries are coming on along the roadsides. The solstice is just a few weeks away.

Near the Equinox © SR Euston

And, of course, as is our annual tradition, last night we read “Wayfarers All”, Chapter 9 of  Kenneth Grahame’s wonderful story Wind in the Willows. What a perfect summation of all that mysterious subterranean “urge for going” (OK thank you too, Tom Rush.) As Ratty listens to three swallows comparing southbound route notes, “…his heart burned within him. In himself, too he knew that it was vibrating at last, that chord hitherto dormant and unsuspected.”

Now I know that some worry about children’s stories that anthropomorphize animal characters. And that chapter about Pan? Some religious teaching guides suggest it’s necessary to point out to small children that it’s a pagan paean. (God forbid we should see God’s Face in Nature.) Personally, I rejoice in it. To me all these dismissals are, quite honestly, silly. I mean it’s true Ratty may thrust his brace of pistols into his waistcoat. But he uses his paws for heaven’s sake. It’s a story.

Here’s what I wonder sometimes when all these grown-up concerns cast a pall over the magical truth which is Wind in the Willows:

Could it be we acted on that urge last September 1st? And that children (following the rhythm of the seasons) approach, with simultaneous dread and delight, the first day of a new school year? What about the ritual fall exodus to college? Why do (human) snowbirds fly southward from Alberta to Tucson to winter over? Does this field mouse reply to Ratty’s querulous inquiry about why plan so early sound (even a little) familiar: “…you know, the best flats get picked up so quickly nowadays, and if you’re late you have to put up with anything…”

Wayfarers All.

A Portion of Michael Hague's Beautiful Illustration © Holt, Reinhart and Winston, Ariel 1980

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“The Water Rat was restless, and he did not exactly know why….ever observant of all winged movement, [he] saw that it was taking daily a southing tendency….It was difficult to settle down to anything seriously, with all this flitting going on.”  from Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame.

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Journey's End: Backyard Leaves

All this “flitting going on,” as Ratty describes it, isn’t limited just to his little piece of English countryside. Here in Albuquerque, we’ve been noticing a great deal of flitting ourselves.

Throughout the summer our backyard birds are limited to the usual southwest urban suspects: white-winged doves, sparrows, the occasional thrasher.

But since last week, as the air has turned ever crisper, autumn blue, new visitors have arrived at our waterbath. Migrating flocks of tiny plump Audubon warblers, yellow rumps with white wing bars catching the early morning sun, flit around the terra cotta bowl, snatching quick drinks with their pointed beaks. Larger rufous-sided towhees work the ground, their orange and black perfectly timed for Halloween. Their cousins, the less showy brown towhees have reappeared as well. Robins arrive in messy flocks, throwing water around, ruffling their wet feathers as they bathe. There are chubby black-capped chickadees, and rosy throated house finches. Tiny bushtits in small flocks strip the arborvitae clean of insects.  Raucous scrub jays shout from juniper hedges, and an occasional woodpecker, always somehow on the far side of the trunk, taps away.

Perfect backyard birdwatching. Still, like Ratty, I can feel they will soon be gone. That “southing tendency” is definitely in the air.

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Backyard Pyrocantha

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Backyard geometry

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