From time to time, I like to see the world through a different lens. My own lens is typically addled by excess caffeine and the morning headlines (a diabolical combination), or, worse, my Instagram feed. Literature is thus my rescue raft, so long as I avoid Chuck Palahniuk.
In an intentional escapist move, I picked up a copy of Watership Down, because one might assume that classic children’s literature would be a refreshing journey to a time before . . . well . . . all this. I suppose Roald Dahl terrified a fair few of us and Dickens reminded us that before our kids fretted about having the latest iPhone, they fretted about having shoes in the winter. No matter what literature we may be drawn to, they reveal the constant truth that the struggle is part of the human (or rabbit) condition.
If Watership Down were to be summarized in one sentence: A group of rabbits leave their warren and survive various social, environmental, and predatory challenges as they find and establish a new home. But there’s hidden wisdom in the way they move through the world and even how they graze here or there, interrupt work with play, and how so much of their connection to each other is (obviously) without conversation.
When Richard Adams began this book in the early 70s, it was inspired by a demand for storytelling from his young daughters and a 1964 book on the habits of rabbits. And while greatly anthropomorphized (even to his blatant infusion of a patriarchal structure—rabbits are matriarchal), Adams did something remarkable in his writing: He gave us a lens of life from a few inches off the ground.
It makes me want to go find a field, lay prostrate in it, and watch the tiny civilizations of fauna and flora going about their wonderful business. Or crawl through a forest floor and look beneath the heavy boughs of trees to discover the other world existing there. Or learn the names of the plants I smell perfuming the breeze or leaves I so callously tromp over. It brings fresh to the senses the incredible palette of experiences available to us simply by going outside and standing still or paying attention.
The observations the rabbits make about their environment are the product of that silence and their attention to the rhythms of nature. How Adams managed to imagine life as a rabbit is beyond me, but I guess he spent a lot of time being quiet in a field and taking in the world: The sounds different birds make and how they crescendo early in the morning (birds sing more when the cool, damp air is more conducive to carrying their song), the textural difference between this or that shrubbery, how insects respond to rain.
What the book instills is a sense of wonder and curiosity about nature that is often lost with our childhood. We’re too busy wondering if our bikes need a little more pressure in the tires, trying to finish that podcast on optimizing hormones, blabbing incessantly at our companions because we have too little time to socialize and we’ve forgotten how to just share quiet space, or thinking and over-thinking the incredible amount of content in our lives.
I can’t help but think we ought to be more like rabbits (patriarchy aside). Matters of significance would be living in harmony with the environment, when the bees start pollinating and what the birds are saying, how to care for community, how to avoid snares (of humanity: depression, tax debt, low-fat yogurt), and where to find the most delicious lettuces. In the very least, we’d learn to listen to nature better, and this could only benefit us all.