One of those small blessings I have been enjoying recently — and really, for the past five or six years — has been rediscovering the literature of childhood as I get to reread old books to my kids. Having delighted in Beatrix Potter and Harry Potter, Narnia and Middle Earth, Roald Dahl and E.B. White as a child, I can appreciate them as an adult, identifying a bit more with the parent’s perspective, even though the parent is often the butt of the joke. (If you know the book "Matilda" at all, you can imagine I was worried that the hijinks of the title character would be repeated at our house; as it happens, my hat has not yet been super-glued to my head.)
All these books bear rereading; but they also shed some light on the experience of childhood itself. For instance, I have wondered why in every Beatrix Potter story, from Peter Rabbit on down, why the primary conflict is that the protagonist is going to get eaten. Maybe it’s an expression of the vulnerability of childhood confronting the often deceptive and dangerous characters of the adult world. I’ll have to think about it now because that’s certainly not what I was thinking about when I was 5. (Don’t worry, I’ve kept these thoughts to myself.)
Despite my memories, my favorite children’s book is new to me. It’s a book I didn’t discover until adulthood; and I am positive that I like it better than my kids. I’ve decided that my favorite children’s book is "The Wind in the Willows."
If I’ve just given you an unfortunate flashback to fourth grade English then you have my apologies. But I think the book is the most fascinating depiction of childhood I know. Another children’s trope — why are the characters always animals? — it follows the story of a young mole, who emerges from his hole in the ground because of the divine restlessness of spring that calls him out of the earth.
Maybe that’s a familiar feeling right now — emerging into something new. After a year of change and uncertainty, what are we emerging into?
Some have wondered if the story represents some of the experiences of its author, Kenneth Grahame. Grahame was one of five children. Born in Edinburgh in the 1860s, his mother died of illness, and his father’s inability to care for the children meant they spent most of their growing up years in a cold and decrepit house owned by his grandmother called, forbiddingly, “The Mount.” Understandably the children didn’t want to spend much time indoors, and so they explored the grounds, the woods and the waters. The river Thames flowed by the property, with willows at the banks. It was said, then, that the willows on the riverbank became the driving image and impetus for his book in later life.
The willows are at the heart of the story, as Mole and Rat, while looking for the missing child of their friend, otter, row to the banks of a mysterious island, that defies description or understanding. And among the trees planted by the riverbank, the story goes: “Then suddenly the Mole felt a great awe fall upon him, an awe that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his feet to the ground. It was neither panic nor terror — indeed he felt wonderfully at peace and happy — but is was an awe that smote and held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that some august Presence was very, very near.”
It’s the image I’m after. Mole is rooted to the spot, like one of the trees that sit on the shore. Accident or no, it’s an important image in the first Psalm, which imagines a life of righteousness as being rooted nest to a life-giving stream.
The Psalm tells us that we are confronted with two paths in life, the path of righteousness and the path of wickedness. And if that seems a bit binary to us sophisticates who know all shades of gray, know that this is a well-worn Biblical trope. Righteousness has to do with things like care of the poor — right relationship with God, and with others. The psalm views the righteous meditating on the law of the Lord, reading the scriptures, drinking deep, sinking roots, becoming trees planted by streams of water.
The Israelites would have been familiar with the image. Walking through the desert on the way home after their captivity in Babylon, they must have been struck by the channels and canals that the Babylonians dug there — streams of water. The Babylonians planted trees there, which bore fruit. The image carries throughout Scripture. It’s something they would have seen or known — that even a living tree can bear fruit in the desert when it is planted by a stream of water. The psalm, then, is an affirmation that faith can grow in dry or inhospitable places (or maybe, in our own lives, in dry or inhospitable seasons). The prophet Isaiah elsewhere thinks of the return of God as the wilderness, the desert, bursting into bloom.
The two paths may still be there — those choices that face us. Which way will we walk? The Psalmist invites us to rest, to be still, planted, drinking in God’s Spirit, even in dry or desert places. And if you do that, you can’t go very far down the wrong path.
Will Scott is the pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Dalton. His column appears the fourth Friday of the month.