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George Orwell > Some Thoughts on the Common Toad > Essay

Some Thoughts on the Common Toad

Essay


Before the swallow, before the daffodil, and not much later than the
snowdrop, the common toad salutes the coming of spring after his own
fashion, which is to emerge from a hole in the ground, where he has lain
buried since the previous autumn, and crawl as rapidly as possible
towards the nearest suitable patch of water. Something--some kind of
shudder in the earth, or perhaps merely a rise of a few degrees in the
temperature--has told him that it is time to wake up: though a few toads
appear to sleep the clock round and miss out a year from time to time--
at any rate, I have more than once dug them up, alive and apparently
well, in the middle of the summer.

At this period, after his long fast, the toad has a very spiritual look,
like a strict Anglo-Catholic towards the end of Lent. His movements are
languid but purposeful, his body is shrunken, and by contrast his eyes
look abnormally large. This allows one to notice, what one might not at
another time, that a toad has about the most beautiful eye of any living
creature. It is like gold, or more exactly it is like the golden-coloured
semi-precious stone which one sometimes sees in signet-rings, and which I
think is called a chrysoberyl.

For a few days after getting into the water the toad concentrates on
building up his strength by eating small insects. Presently he has
swollen to his normal size again, and then he hoes through a phase of
intense sexiness. All he knows, at least if he is a male toad, is that he
wants to get his arms round something, and if you offer him a stick, or
even your finger, he will cling to it with surprising strength and take a
long time to discover that it is not a female toad. Frequently one comes
upon shapeless masses of ten or twenty toads rolling over and over in the
water, one clinging to another without distinction of sex. By degrees,
however, they sort themselves out into couples, with the male duly
sitting on the female's back. You can now distinguish males from females,
because the male is smaller, darker and sits on top, with his arms
tightly clasped round the female's neck. After a day or two the spawn is
laid in long strings which wind themselves in and out of the reeds and
soon become invisible. A few more weeks, and the water is alive with
masses of tiny tadpoles which rapidly grow larger, sprout hind-legs, then
forelegs, then shed their tails: and finally, about the middle of the
summer, the new generation of toads, smaller than one's thumb-nail but
perfect in every particular, crawl out of the water to begin the game
anew.

I mention the spawning of the toads because it is one of the phenomena of
spring which most deeply appeal to me, and because the toad, unlike the
skylark and the primrose, has never had much of a boost from poets. But I
am aware that many people do not like reptiles or amphibians, and I am
not suggesting that in order to enjoy the spring you have to take an
interest in toads. There are also the crocus, the missel-thrush, the
cuckoo, the blackthorn, etc. The point is that the pleasures of spring
are available to everybody, and cost nothing. Even in the most sordid
street the coming of spring will register itself by some sign or other,
if it is only a brighter blue between the chimney pots or the vivid green
of an elder sprouting on a blitzed site. Indeed it is remarkable how
Nature goes on existing unofficially, as it were, in the very heart of
London. I have seen a kestrel flying over the Deptford gasworks, and I
have heard a first-rate performance by a blackbird in the Euston Road.
There must be some hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of birds
living inside the four-mile radius, and it is rather a pleasing thought
that none of them pays a halfpenny of rent.

As for spring, not even the narrow and gloomy streets round the Bank of
England are quite able to exclude it. It comes seeping in everywhere,
like one of those new poison gases which pass through all filters. The
spring is commonly referred to as "a miracle", and during the past five
or six years this worn-out figure of speech has taken on a new lease of
life. After the sorts of winters we have had to endure recently, the
spring does seem miraculous, because it has become gradually harder and
harder to believe that it is actually going to happen. Every February
since 1940 I have found myself thinking that this time winter is going to
be permanent. But Persephone, like the toads, always rises from the dead
at about the same moment. Suddenly, towards the end of March, the miracle
happens and the decaying slum in which I live is transfigured. Down in
the square the sooty privets have turned bright green, the leaves are
thickening on the chestnut trees, the daffodils are out, the wallflowers
are budding, the policeman's tunic looks positively a pleasant shade of
blue, the fishmonger greets his customers with a smile, and even the
sparrows are quite a different colour, having felt the balminess of the
air and nerved themselves to take a bath, their first since last
September.

Is it wicked to take a pleasure in spring and other seasonal changes? To
put it more precisely, is it politically reprehensible, while we are all
groaning, or at any rate ought to be groaning, under the shackles of the
capitalist system, to point out that life is frequently more worth living
because of a blackbird's song, a yellow elm tree in October, or some
other natural phenomenon which does not cost money and does not have what
the editors of left-wing newspapers call a class angle? There is not
doubt that many people think so. I know by experience that a favourable
reference to "Nature" in one of my articles is liable to bring me abusive
letters, and though the key-word in these letters is usually
"sentimental", two ideas seem to be mixed up in them. One is that any
pleasure in the actual process of life encourages a sort of political
quietism. People, so the thought runs, ought to be discontented, and it
is our job to multiply our wants and not simply to increase our enjoyment
of the things we have already. The other idea is that this is the age of
machines and that to dislike the machine, or even to want to limit its
domination, is backward-looking, reactionary and slightly ridiculous.
This is often backed up by the statement that a love of Nature is a
foible of urbanized people who have no notion what Nature is really like.
Those who really have to deal with the soil, so it is argued, do not love
the soil, and do not take the faintest interest in birds or flowers,
except from a strictly utilitarian point of view. To love the country one
must live in the town, merely taking an occasional week-end ramble at the
warmer times of year.

This last idea is demonstrably false. Medieval literature, for instance,
including the popular ballads, is full of an almost Georgian enthusiasm
for Nature, and the art of agricultural peoples such as the Chinese and
Japanese centre always round trees, birds, flowers, rivers, mountains.
The other idea seems to me to be wrong in a subtler way. Certainly we
ought to be discontented, we ought not simply to find out ways of making
the best of a bad job, and yet if we kill all pleasure in the actual
process of life, what sort of future are we preparing for ourselves? If a
man cannot enjoy the return of spring, why should he be happy in a
labour-saving Utopia? What will he do with the leisure that the machine
will give him? I have always suspected that if our economic and political
problems are ever really solved, life will become simpler instead of more
complex, and that the sort of pleasure one gets from finding the first
primrose will loom larger than the sort of pleasure one gets from eating
an ice to the tune of a Wurlitzer. I think that by retaining one's
childhood love of such things as trees, fishes, butterflies and--to
return to my first instance--toads, one makes a peaceful and decent
future a little more probable, and that by preaching the doctrine that
nothing is to be admired except steel and concrete, one merely makes it a
little surer that human beings will have no outlet for their surplus
energy except in hatred and leader worship.

At any rate, spring is here, even in London N.1, and they can't stop you
enjoying it. This is a satisfying reflection. How many a time have I
stood watching the toads mating, or a pair of hares having a boxing match
in the young corn, and thought of all the important persons who as you
are not actually ill, hungry, frightened or immured in a prison or a
holiday camp, spring is still spring. The atom bombs are piling up in the
factories, the police are prowling through the cities, the lies are
streaming from the loudspeakers, but the earth is still going round the
sun, and neither the dictators nor the bureaucrats, deeply as they
disapprove of the process, are able to prevent it.















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