Monday, 8 May 2017

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad by George Orwell.

Common Toad by Dave Kilbey.
I want to start by saying I'm very excited that this week's Deal Me In title is George Orwell's Some Thoughts on the Common Toad. I have some affection for toads and see them quite frequently: we live in a forest near a river and a neighbour has a pond, so they are common visitors. I remember one particular incident that made me love them all the more: one evening a few months ago when it was fairly dark I was walking home and found one in the middle of the pavement: I could barely make it out such was the gloom and I knew it had a high chance of being stood on, so I bent down to pick it up to move it somewhere safer and as I did the poor frightened thing ducked down and covered it's head with its little hands (paws?). I remember being quite struck by that. And we get them quite a lot in our garden: the hens are fascinated by them and though they've never hurt one they crowd around to look at it, so I've often had to rescue toads when they've been cornered and stared at! I do imagine they have rather stoic personalities - when I pick them up they seem to endure it with some dignity. Frogs on the other hand seem more excitable and buoyant, and refuse to be cornered by hens, picked up by me, or in a situation they need to be rescued from. I've no doubt that that isn't really true, it's just my experience. But yes, I love toads.

And so, it seems, did Orwell. I was quite surprised that George Orwell, of Nineteen Eighty-Four fame, could write such a beautiful and gentle essay on nature, but I've since learned that Orwell was very fond of rambling and nature walks, and I've read that his diaries and letters were often concerned with nature notes observations from his walks. Some Thoughts on the Common Toad is one such example, and it was first published in the Tribune on 12th April 1946. It begins,
Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something – some kind of shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the temperature – has told him that it is time to wake up: though a few toads appear to sleep the clock round and miss out a year from time to time – at any rate, I have more than once dug them up, alive and apparently well, in the middle of the summer.
Chrysoberyl by Joel E. Arem.
Orwell goes on to describe its appearance having just emerged, likening it to a "strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent", and gives a perfect description of its eyes:
It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet rings, and which I think is called a chrysoberyl.
Orwell then writes on how the toad regains its strength, and a little on the mating rituals, before remarking that the emergence of the toad, for Orwell, is a marker of spring: "I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of Spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets." After this rhapsody on the toad, Orwell begins to become more familiar to me: he writes on how spring manifests everywhere, from kestrels "flying over the Deptford gasworks" to "the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of England": the point, he says, "is that the pleasures of spring are available to everybody, and cost nothing." He continues,
Is it wicked to take a pleasure in Spring and other seasonal changes? To put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living because of a blackbird’s song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle.
He denies such notions, and claims that spring, nature, toads, and all such associations are what makes life bearable:
I think that by retaining one’s childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and – to return to my first instance – toads, one makes a peaceful and decent future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus energy except in hatred and leader worship. 
He concludes,
At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can’t stop you enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who would stop me enjoying this if they could. But luckily they can’t. So long as you are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a holiday camp, Spring is still Spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.
The politics of loving nature is an interesting one and one I hadn't considered. One may well ask why bring politics into it at all, but this is George Orwell. He is a political writer and this angle is important to discuss. He argues that it is not sentimental or self-indulgent, or merely a reaction to the unnatural and mechanic way we find ourselves today, it is natural, desirable, and even necessary.

George Orwell wrote this essay seventy-one years ago but it is still relevant and it really does speak to me. There's an awful lot to be angry about at present, which I won't go into now but I am considering a post in the next few weeks before the General Election, and I did think to myself a few times this week I've been so concerned with wondering where the swallows are (they finally arrived on the 5th, by the way) I asked myself if it was better to put the energy into battling some of the gloomier Tory policies. But if our world is becoming more unjust, more mechanical, and more unnatural part of resisting that is to maintain an interest in nature. And even if not, even if the world appears to be perfectly just and pleasant, I will always believe one should look after nature because it is right to do so, not for political reasons, nor especially for our own pleasure (though these are perfectly good reasons for it), but because sometimes it needs our interest. On the subject of the common toad, their numbers are down now by 68% since 1985. Aside from toads being good for us and good for our gardens, I simply don't think it's right to watch a species decline when we're perfectly capable of helping. You can find ways to help on the Royal Horticultural Society's website, the Wildlife Gardener's website, and on Froglife

And that was my 19th title for the Deal Me In Challenge. Next week: The Reluctant Dragon by Kenneth Grahame.

2 comments:

  1. a pinhole in the weft of time, peering into the heart of the real GO... with us it's frogs, large brown and green ones that are apt to show themselves at any time... also owls: the ones here have a habit of sitting on the ground and uttering tiger like sounds if one approaches too close... and i have to mention the very small tits and wrens that come up to the window and peer in with a disapproving look if Mary is late provisioning the feeders...
    another look backward was provided this week by "A Boy at the Hogarth Press"; Richard Kennedy was 16 when he started helping out at Leonard and Virginia's publishing house; a very small book, with many illustrations by the author, it's descriptions of the pair rather violently bring their personalities into a sharper focus, showing their human sides, as it were... V comes across as occasionally rather cruel, and Leopold displays a tendency toward screaming when things go wrong... i'm not quite finished with it(i've been preoccupied with Perec's "Life: A User
    s Manual") but will be by the end of the day...

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I love owls! We have them here: we can hear them, and I once saw one flying past my window - once and only once have I seen one near the house. We get a lot of bats to make up for it though :)

      Boy at the Hogarth Press is a fascinating book, it's great to see the Woolfs from that new angle (that not entirely flattering new angle...). Glad you're reading it!

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