Not so very long ago, Best Beloved, it was a gray February afternoon, near about tea-time. The winter seemed to have ended, but the spring had not quite arrived; and so there, at the edge of the forest, the animals were in a quandary.
The crocus had come and gone; while, running late from somewhere, surely the narcissus glanced nervously at her watch. It was too early for the carnivores to begin hunting, because most of the animals that had only recently awakened after the snows had melted, or, those who had grazed poorly throughout the long winter, were still too skinny to be worth eating; while the others remained fast asleep, deep within their safe and cosy burrows. The herbivores, meanwhile, knew that it would be some time before tasty green shoots appeared in the meadow; while the rodents, particularly the squirrels, who were somewhat absent-minded, knew that they had little chance of recalling precisely where they had buried last autumn’s stores of delicious acorns and chestnuts. For those no longer hibernating, it was too late to sleep and too early to eat. So they began to get on one another’s nerves.
After careful consideration, the animals agreed that it was far too early to start gathering berries in the forest; and that it would be at least a month before it became time to form committees and produce proper, hand-written invitations to the Post-Hibernation Ball. Meanwhile, they were decidedly bored. Moreover, they realised that their tedium would soon grow quite intolerable, lest they found something interesting to do. Being somewhat short of ideas, they decided to ask the owl.
“I have just the thing,” volunteered the owl, “I have composed a Horatian Ode on the passing of the seasons, and I could recite it to you. It is nearly two thousand lines long, it took me much of the winter to write, and it is in Latin, of course. But I think that you will like it immeasurably.” The animals begged him not to even begin, but the owl mistook their pleas for good manners. He seemed certain to continue, but the bear threatened to shake the owl’s tree until he fell out and landed on his head.
“Very well, I shall tell you a story instead,” the wise bird offered kindly. This sounded better. “It is a tale that I once wrote for a tweedy and very donnish human professor, and it made him quite famous,” the owl explained. Go on, the animals replied, rather more cautiously. “It begins in a meadow, beside a forest very much like our own,” the bird intoned. “But, instead of animals, it was populated by miniature people with furry feet. One of them acquired a magic ring, and asked the advice of a wise and powerful wizard…” The animals interrupted him.
“Not that bilge about hobbits, again!” bawled the roe deer, butting their velvet antlers up against his tree. All of the animals claimed to have heard it before, even had they not; and the rabbits complained that, by the time that the desperately long story had finally finished, it would be early winter when hibernation season started again. The bear merely rolled on the forest floor and groaned loudly; while one of the hedgehogs turned onto his back, opened his legs, and begged the fox to eat him now and get it all over with. Barely retaining his sense of his equipoise, the owl shut his eyes and fell into a petulant silence.
After a long while, the owl cautiously opened one eye and discovered that the animals had not gone away. Indeed, they were still staring straight at him, and gave every indication of doing so until he came up with an entertaining idea. While hooting softly to himself, he cogitated and then spoke. “We shall have a contest,” he declared. “Each entrant will deliver a short talk, in order to determine which animal is the wisest beast in the forest. Since I am already known to be the wisest, I shall excuse myself and serve as the judge. Wisdom notwithstanding, twenty per cent of the points shall be awarded for eloquence, and five each for the most perspicacious rejoinders.” Then he paused for effect, and blinked his eyes annoyingly.
The other animals looked at one another, thinking more or less as one. A race or a treasure hunt would have been more fun, they considered; but anything, even this, was better than staring at one another until spring rolled around. “What are the prizes?” asked the badger. The owl offered one of the bear’s honeycombs, until the ursine bruiser growled ferociously and tried to scale the tree. Whereupon the owl declared that the greatest prize of all would be the widespread admiration afforded to the wisest of beasts—apart from the judge, of course.
“Is there a topic?” asked the tortoise, and a meadowlark trilled her support. The owl thought for a few moments more. “Yes,” he said finally. “We are wiser than the humans, and our precious traditions are much older, while we keep ever mindful of our environment, and of Our Maker who entrusts it to our safekeeping. So the topic shall be the Meaning of Conservatism, and I will give you a clue. The answer involves Goodness, Truth, and Beauty.”
Well, Best Beloved, the animals were unsure of what to make of all this. Many had hoped that the topic might touch upon their favoured pastimes of eating or napping, or possibly going for a swim on a hot summer’s day, or, most popular of all, the mating season. This involved none of it. However, and rather half-heartedly, the animals agreed and preparation for the contest began.
A number of similarly grim days followed, but the animals paid no attention: they were too busy making ready for the contest. The crane stalked through the forest clearing, on elegantly long legs, gesticulating with one snowy wing as she tried to memorize her oration. Within what survived of the bare bushes, rabbits helped one another to rehearse. Even the rather solitary bear sought the advice of the hedgehog; who, in a cave overlooking the leafless trees, instructed his dour friend in rhetoric and elocution. Finally the day arrived, the animals all gathered in the meadow, and the owl assumed the judicial perch atop an old stump.
The mallard began by reciting a litany of the woes and threats affecting every animal in the forest: the mercurial weather, the unreliable quality and quantity of food, and the former collegiality among predator and prey, which was purportedly deteriorating apace. The only solution, she declared—for lady mallards are always their best speakers—was Conservatism renewed; to return to the original vision of the earliest Founders of the taxonomic Kingdom Animalia. Only they had understood, and only that would suffice.
She concluded to polite applause, but many animals were doubtful. The ancient beasts, to which she referred, had been extinct for a very long time; whatever advice they once offered was long since forgotten; and—for good or ill—new habits had evolved. “We do not even know what dinosaurs ate,” a buck complained, and many of the beasts nodded thoughtfully.
The leader of the squirrels came next, explaining that the most important thing to be conserved was faith. That alone, he insisted, once undergirded their recently eroding traditions and values. Required was a movement supported by every animal, and a solemn ceremony dedicating the entire forest to a fervent and single-minded expression of belief.
But the rooks shook their heads. Long ago, all of the animals may have shared a common perception of the forest’s eternal order and from whence it came, one crow said. But, for as long as anyone could remember, each species had acquired its own vision, values, and practices. The animals nodded again; either recalling their own beloved family festivals, that might be eclipsed by uniformity; or, fearing that they would be compelled to sit through some dreadful folderol, rather than eat a snack, and then take a welcome nap beneath the ferns of summer.
The beasts nonetheless applauded politely, as the squirrel stepped down and a mole replaced him. He raised his mighty fist to at least a half-inch above his diminutive head, and thundered at the top of his tiny lungs; which still made many animals lean forward in order to hear him. Once, animals were equally powerless and happy. Now almost nothing is worth preserving, he declared, squeaking rhetorically, of course, because the squirrels have taken everything worth having! Their vast stockpiles of nuts must be shared, he peeped mightily; and the means of production distributed equally among every animal! Everyone must dig the earth with its claws as moles do; none should lounge in penthouse treetops, growing fat on assets. Only then can the forest return to that long-forgotten, happy, and cooperative place. The worried squirrels chattered nervously among themselves, and even the wise old owl raised a single, dubious eyebrow.
A roe deer explained that, while he enjoyed eating nuts and acorns, his hooves were quite incapable of digging the holes needed to protect and preserve such treats—squirrels are better suited to that. Prim and superior, a lady stork declared that many well-bred animals were far too refined to dine on such common fare, preferring juicy slugs or tender green shoots in season. The badger scratched his furry head, wondering if such a radical and materialistic proposal resembled conservatism at all. Finally a brave squirrel raised her voice from the back, noting how hard her whole scurry worked to collect edibles, in order to protect their children from hunger. Would not the mole’s so-called distributism be dangerous and deeply unfair?
The owl braced himself for raucous disagreement, but, as the mole stepped down, the animals merely reflected on the young squirrel’s motherly concern. Surely such proposals had nothing to do with conservatism, thought the deeply traditional beasts. The mole, they agreed, was most assuredly not the wisest animal in the forest, not at all.
A rabbit took the floor, insisting that what was needed in order to conserve everything, including tradition, including change to destroy tradition on a moment’s notice, was politics, and lots of it; particularly party-politics, controlled democratically by whomever won the most votes. This, the other animals knew, would inevitably be a rabbit, because rabbits were the most numerous. That, plus the animals’ deep-seated distaste for imposed boredom, and their history of survival free from any politics thus far, got him jeered into silence.
The elegant crane followed the rabbit. When soaring high above the forest, she claimed to see far and observe much. What should be conserved, and even expanded upon, she said, was enterprise and productivity. While humans use such things to transform and conquer the earth, they learnt it from animals; from bees, ants, and termites in particular. Far from the meadow and even the valley, she had watched enterprise spread commercial virtues, while productivity reduced the vices associated with indolence; the two together encouraged faith and all three united to create an ever newer and better, constantly changing culture. Desire and consumption drove the dynamic process, and entrepreneurs were the heroes.
Her thoughts appealed to the squirrel, who advocated religious revival; to the mallard, who thought, rather vaguely, that the Founding dinosaurs must have been more productive in order to grow so large; and to the mole, who hoped that change might get his claws on the squirrels’ supposed riches and somehow save the forest as he passed them around. It also appealed to many female animals, perhaps justifiably so, who were upset with their mates doing little more than eating and dozing, while they performed the hard work of raising their young.
A sparrow worried that she was already as industrious and productive as she knew how be; while a dormouse feared that industriousness might put an end to hibernation. Some animals felt that their food supply was sufficient already, but the beautiful crane asked if they would appreciate just a little more, or a reserve for next winter, or for even ten winters after that. Some animals had never thought of it before, and felt tempted. The fox asked her if conservatism meant uprooting animal society to replace it with just one or two minor virtues, but foxes are tricky like that. Discussion grew heated until the owl called a halt. Then the bear lumbered to the front, and surprised his friends with a thoughtful beginning.
The very best way in which to conserve our similarities, as well as our cherished differences, he believed, was to strengthen the greatness of the forest. The beasts nodded supportively. This demanded three steps, he continued; and the animals, while impressed, were mildly surprised that the bear could count as high as three, but they were far too polite to ever say so. The complexity of his arguments proved them wrong, perhaps.
First, the bear explained, they must substantially expand and improve the forest infrastructure and governance. Even on its own, that would create jobs, he pledged; but many animals considered themselves to be sufficiently busy already. Next, the newly mighty forest state must prevent crime; halt immigration; and develop internal security that allowed the administrators to overhear the conversations of every animal family, in every species, in order to ferret out disloyalty and even treachery. The ferrets were upset to be mentioned in that way; while others doubted if their forest really suffered from a crime-wave or an invasion of outsiders; and wondered how they could undertake so many new tasks and still have time for eating, napping, and frolicking with their young.
The bear grew more emotional as he reached his third and final point. Just keeping the forest strong was not enough, he warned. To be truly safe, they needed to implant their values across the meadow, throughout the valley, and into regions so remote that only the birds had ever seen them. Otherwise they remained in peril. Humans, fishes, and other species of which they had no knowledge so far, must be brought under a New Forest Order. Their lives, and even their very thoughts and animal instincts, must become the same as ours. This means war, he insisted; suggesting that vast numbers of animals be recruited, from among their own numbers, and as mercenaries from far and near.
Many of the smaller beasts, especially the chipmunks, for some reason, began hopping up and down, eagerly crying out for war as loud as they could manage. Some of the female animals goaded their mates to enlist, loudly questioning their manhood and commitment to family safety. Some bigger and stronger beasts wondered if this was quite necessary, how they could afford the time, and whether even the squirrels’ nuts and acorns could pay for it all. Besides, they puzzled, do our supposed elephant allies even eat acorns, and how near do they live? If we went there, they worried, could we return home in time for tea? But it was impossible to guess how many animals shared those doubts, because a minority made so much noise.
Restoring order, flying helter-skelter, this way and that, the owl sacrificed several of his feathers. An immature stoat spoke next, fidgeting with his enormous puppy-paws, as he described a long chain of what was meant to be pure logic. The beasts had trouble understanding it, but reason seemed to insist that the only thing worthy of conservation was each individual animal’s freedom, to do whatever it wanted, whenever it felt so inclined. Traditions were tyranny and ancient instinct was unchallenged stupidity, he mumbled; while, throughout the forest and without coercion, order would arise spontaneously.
The animals ignored him, having just seen how much effort it took for the owl to restore order, just once and only within their little gathering. If deprived of their family traditions and cross-species cooperation, their forest would soon become a nightmare, in which it was animal-against-animal and every beast for himself. They presumed that, eventually, the young stoat would either grow up or be eaten, and no one minded which. So they returned to bickering over the bear’s proposal.
The owl sighed from his perch. Did anyone else wish to speak, he asked. After a nasty cough, and the sound of a long and rumbling expectoration, a voice grumbled yes. The crowd turned, just as an unexpected shaft of sunlight shone upon the face and forearms of the groundhog, protruding from his burrow. Had he heard the debate so far, asked the judge. The groundhog reached behind and scratched thoughtfully. Then, before replying, he excavated one ear and examined the results on his claw.
“Phooey!” he muttered unpleasantly. “Who could sleep through that racket? And I never heard such rank idiocy in all my life. I will only say that none of you fools would understand conservatism, even if you sat in a wet puddle of it; that I am going back to sleep; and that you are in for at least six more weeks of winter, if not years. And, by the way, I hope it chokes you!” Clearing his throat disagreeably, the groundhog returned to his burrow, as all of the other animals stood paralysed in shocked silence.
The owl slowly clambered down from the stump; hopping through the crowd of stunned animals, until he reached the mouth of the groundhog’s burrow. There, beside it, he lay the prize ribbon and turned to the crowd. “He is right. Not one of you defined conservatism or mentioned Truth, Beauty, or Goodness,” he began. “You only defiled them with cheap politics, impossible prescriptions and even more tawdry ideology. No observer offered more than unoriginal, second-hand analysis of worn-out proposals; and not one of you uttered even a single word in favour of grumpiness. Even I never saw that coming. Surely, the groundhog is the greatest among us, the wisest animal in all the forest.”
The owl declared the Second of February to be Groundhog’s Day forever after, in the hope that the animal’s noble, conservative, grumpy virtues might be understood at home, spread to other forests and meadows, among other species in search of wisdom; until the whole planet becomes a somewhat marginally better place, after a fashion, but without any unrealistic expectations in a deeply imperfect world.
With that, all of the other animals burst into vigorous applause, because they were honest enough to recognise the truth. Deep in his cosy burrow, returning to his interrupted slumber, the groundhog may even have overheard the distant cheers from his fellow beasts, who were grateful for their newfound wisdom. He may even have learnt of his great honour, being the first animal ever to be awarded his very own day, across the forest, the meadow, the valley, and everywhere beyond. He may have heard all of those things, as he plumped up his favourite pillow, slipped beneath his coverlet and sighed softly with joy.
But we will not know until he finishes his nap. And now, Best Beloved, it is time for yours.
Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.