Saturday, May 03, 2008

On the river

You may remember the wonderful chapter in Kenneth Grahame's The Wind In the Willows -- The Piper at the Gates of Dawn -- when Rat and Mole go rowing on the night river in search of the young otter. As first light tints the horizon, Rat hears a delicious piping: "O, Mole! ," cries Rat. "The beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us." And Mole, greatly wondering, obeys. "I hear nothing myself," he said, "but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers."

Remember? Remember the piping? We heard it as children, until the adults closed our ears by filling our heads with useful sense. We heard the piping, which is the unfathomable mystery of the world, beautiful and distant, until our parents and teachers and pastors stopped up our ears with answers. What they did was necessary, I suppose. We can't go through the world in a dreamy reverie, not this world, with its rush and certainty and bother. Soon we were made to believe that the magical music we heard as children is only the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.

Only! The piping that Rat hears on the river is indeed the wind playing in the reeds, but it is not only. Nothing is only. When we get caught up in the only we cease to wonder. And when we cease to wonder, we might as well not be on the river at all.

"I believe that the analogy between childhood wonder and adult creativity is good biology, not metaphor," said Stephen Jay Gould. I wrote on the same theme myself many years ago, in a 1992 article for Horn Book, the children's literature journal, called "Dr. Seuss and Dr. Einstein." I suggested that the most creative scientists retain an ear for the piping that is the wind -- and more than the wind. I ended that essay with these words: "In children's books we are at the roots of science -- pure, childlike curiosity, eyes open with wonder to the fresh and new, and powers of invention still unfettered by convention and expectation."

And now I enter upon a second childhood of sorts. I have time to idle on the river. A pension check arrives in my bank account each month. The children are grown and independent. I've had a lifetime to extract the cotton of only from my ears. And I strain to hear again the piping I heard as a child, the merry bubble and joy that sets the world alight. "Clearer and nearer still," cried Rat joyously. "Now you must surely hear it! Ah -- at last -- I see you do!"

(I wasn't able to find a copy of the Horn Book essay on the internet, but I did find it using Stonehill Library's electronic data bases. I will post it tomorrow as my Sunday Musing.)