Friday, October 02, 2009

The rural Pan

When Mole and Rat are rowing on the night river in search of the lost baby otter, and listening to the wind in the reeds, they have a vision -- exhilarating, terrifying -- of the great god Pan, helper, healer, with his panpipes and horns and cloven feet. Pan, who embodies all that is beautiful and dangerous about the natural world. Who vanishes with the first rays of dawn, leaving Mole and Rat wondering what it was they saw.

In 1891, seventeen years before the publication of The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame published an essay titled "The Rural Pan," in which he lamented the violation of the English countryside by railroads, steam launches, and the buzz and bother of modernity. A few haunts remain, he wrote, where "the rural Pan is hiding, and piping the low, sweet strain that reaches only the ears of a chosen few." In these places "Pan and his following may hide their heads for yet a little longer, until the growing tyranny has invaded the last common, spinney, and sheep-down, and driven the kindly god, the well-wisher to man -- whither?"

Well, a little while longer yet. In recent years I have twice walked a hundred miles across England, first solo along the Prime Meridian, and then this past spring along the Ridgeway with sons Dan and Tom. Grahame took his inspiration for his chapter on "The Open Road" -- in which Toad takes Mole and Rat for an excursion in a horse-drawn gypsy wagon "over grassy downs and along narrow by-lanes" -- from his own walks along the Ridgeway. As you can see from the Gallery pics of our Ridgeway walk, much of the English countryside remains pretty much as Grahame knew it, due to the remarkable preservation efforts of the Brits.

Little did Grahame know when he wrote his "Rural Pan" essay that in only a few years the first motorcars would begin their invasion of his beloved countryside. By the time The Wind in the Willows appeared in 1906, a motorcar ("Poop-poop!") was there to drive Mr. Toad's gypsy caravan into the ditch, an event that led the irrepressible Toad to rush out and buy his own machine.

Both of my walks took me over grassy downs and along narrow by-lanes, along the banks of reedy rivers and canals, through wild woods dense with bluebells. My hat is off to the British, who against a surging tide of technology-obsessed humanity, have preserved those commons. spinneys and sheep-downs where the rural Pan can still find refuge, piping the low, sweet strain that reaches the ears of those few who seek it.