The Wind in the Willows as Eco Story

Today I’m taking a page from one of my favorite blogs, Isaac Yuen’s Ekostories, putting an eco-lens to one of my favorite childhood books, Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows.

wind in the willowsAs with many children’s books, the main characters are animals, but the way Grahame portrays his animal characters and their environment sets Wind in the Willows apart from the crowd. To begin with, none of the animals has human names: we know them as Mole, the Water Rat (or, more familiarly, “Ratty”), Otter, the Badger, and Toad. Only Toad and Badger are ever addressed as “Mr.”—Badger because of his superior wisdom and Toad because of his wealth and pretensions.

Like the animals’ names, the natural environment in Grahame’s book is treated very much from an animal’s point of view, and the world, though lovely and charming, contains dangers as well, and is described without cloying sentimentality. The Wild Wood occasions the most harrowing scenes in the book, and the tension as Mole becomes lost and hears unfamiliar and threatening whistles and sounds is far greater for me than the scene at the end where the animals band together to retake Toad Hall from the weasels. At the opposite pole is the wonderful chapter where Mole encounters the numinous, when he and Ratty set out to help Otter find his little, lost son.

illustration by Leah Palmer Preiss, found on alphabooks.tumblr.com

illustration by Leah Palmer Preiss, found on alphabooks.tumblr.com

Toad in many ways is given more human attributes than the others, a fact that sets him apart—and seldom in a good way. In fact, I now wonder if Grahame’s rather satiric portrayal of Toad is meant as a comment on human foibles, particularly our fascination with technology, which we see all too often as a toy for our own gratification rather than a tool to benefit society at large. In hindsight, Mr. Toad’s ill-fated love of motorcars seems a prophetic parody of the way the automobile has come to dominate nearly every aspect of life in more economically “advanced” countries. If we are unable to halt global warming, it will be in large part because we, like Toad, have become oblivious to all else but the lure of high speed, forgetful of the realities that lie in the here and now—and the consequences of our actions. “Poop-poop,” indeed.

Lest I sound too somber a note, taken at face value, Toad’s adventures provide a comic counterpoint to the rest of the book, and they are often the chapters that small children enjoy the most. Yet, for me, the real heart of the book lies elsewhere, in the friendship of Mole and Rat, their gentle meanderings through the landscape, Mole’s brief but chilling journey into the Wild Wood, Ratty’s inchoate longings that are awakened as he bids farewell to the migratory  animals who pick up and leave as the seasons change, and the magical moment when Mole meets Nature’s god.

illustration by Paul Bransom from the 1913 ed. via Wikimedia Commons

illustration by Paul Bransom from the 1913 ed. via Wikimedia Commons

What about you? What childhood books influenced your attitude toward Nature?

15 Comments

  1. Shari said,

    September 19, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    Nancy – learned about this post while I was on the Yahoo Guppy digest. Loved it. Some adults don’t think much of children’s literature, but there is so much wisdom there for everyone of every age. I have a special fondness for Miss Rumphius by Barbara Cooney, about a woman’s journey through life and her desire to make the world a more beautiful place.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      September 19, 2013 at 4:24 pm

      Thanks, Shari! Yes, the best of children’s literature is timeless, and ageless as well. I’ve never heard of Miss Rumphius, but now I’ll be sure to look it up.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  2. acuriousgal said,

    September 19, 2013 at 3:59 pm

    Charlotte’s Web….spiders and barn animals, somewhat nature!!

    • Nancy Adams said,

      September 19, 2013 at 4:26 pm

      Oh, yes, I loved that book, too. I still try to leave indoor spiders alone (after all, they catch the really bad bugs!) and if an outside spider gets inside, we always try to catch it under a plastic cup and cardboard and take it back out.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  3. Isaac Yuen said,

    September 20, 2013 at 8:57 pm

    Lovely post, Nancy!

    My experience with Wind in the Willows as a kid actually came from the TV show. Just a great element of whimsy to the characters I still remember fondly.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      September 21, 2013 at 11:27 am

      You should definitely read the book, too! There’s such a richness in the way Grahame depicts and characters and their relationships, and the prose is just lovely.

      Thanks so much for being my inspiration and thanks for stopping by!

  4. Gloria Alden said,

    September 21, 2013 at 11:05 am

    I love children’s literature and as a 3rd grade teacher I had at least 3 or 4 chapter books going at a time depending on the time of the day. I had some I thought were so great that I read them every year and never tired of them. As a child, I never read Wind in the Willows. I read every horse book that was in the library and when I ran out of those I started on books about collies. Later, of course, I went to mysteries. My love of nature and the environment comes from living in the country and at that time the freedom to explore the fields and woods with my brother and cousins who lived nearby. I’m not afraid of snakes, insects, spiders or much of anything in nature, nor do I use insecticides unless it’s to spray a nest of yellow-jackets. They kill bees and can be quite dangerous.

    • Nancy Adams said,

      September 21, 2013 at 11:30 am

      I bet you were a wonderful teacher, Gloria! I was a huge fan of horse books, too. I’m not terribly afraid of snakes or spiders (unless they get too close!), but I have been known to run from wasps and yellow-jackets. Didn’t know the yellow-jackets kill bees, too. Another reason to put them on the “bad bug” list.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  5. September 23, 2013 at 6:22 am

    Ozma of Oz, is a favorite.

    I missed out on Frog & Toad & Co. as a kid but was so fortunate to first enjoy them, overhearing my hubby with his special time reading out loud to our daughter – an enchantment. That sense of cozy & delight in home at the end is palpable.
    We will be visiting her at college in Nov. & I’m going to ask her memories of that.

    Also, I am a MIss R. fan.
    There are hundreds of titles I came to know as our daughter grew up & later as I went back to college to spend time with children’s lit. My favorites tend to be illustrated books, as that’s the age I read to in school as a volunteer.
    For a quiet picture book, I love All the World
    For a silly read-aloud I love Double Trouble in Walla Walla
    For a fun tie in to class topics I like, I Want My Own Country or the elegantly simple, Eight Days Gone (moon landing topic) or on civil rights Martin’s Big Words or Sit -In.
    A children’s book-art fan, here. I cringe to mention a few knowing later I’ve overlooked some (& even some by colleagues/pals.) Can’t name them all…

    Thanks for the time travel.

    • September 23, 2013 at 6:35 am

      ps on the eco-angle –

      especially for illustrated books that connect children to the natural world I follow
      Debra Frazier (Out of the Ocean & many others)
      Denise Fleming – anything
      Molly Bang (ditto)
      Everyone I recommend the non-fiction Snowflake Bentley to, just loves it & I first heard about it from an editor who was a fan of it

      In YA/middle grade I would see Hole in the Wall/Fraustino &
      Tangerine/ Bloor. Both are more activist oriented & are egology warnings.
      The publisher Milkweed Editions offers a young lit. prize for eco-themed fiction.
      Today there are a world of wonderful illustrated books on nature themes & also there are awards to recognize the best nature books.
      Every time we visit our regional nat. wildlife refuge I’m cheered to see in their bookshop the vast selection of good nature books for children.

      • Nancy Adams said,

        September 23, 2013 at 11:27 am

        Thanks, Jan. Looks like there are loads of great titles out there that I have never heard of. Back when my nephew was smaller, it was wonderful to look through the picture-book section with him. One I loved so much that I bought a copy for myself is The Salamander Room by Anne Mazer, illustrated by Steve Johnson & Lou Fancher. Hmm…maybe there’s a future blog post in that! Absolutely enchanting story with beautiful prose that takes an unexpectedly surreal turn (a bit like Maurice Sendak so often does) and gorgeous illustrations. Worth checking out!

        Thanks for reminding me of it, and thanks for stopping by.

  6. September 27, 2013 at 5:55 pm

    […] I was delighted to discover a fascinating post by Nancy Adams, a fellow wordpress blogger over at Saints and Trees, exploring The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s tale. A brief […]

    • September 30, 2013 at 3:46 pm

      Thank you so much, Isaac. I am so flattered and honored to be featured on your blog!

  7. October 26, 2013 at 2:19 pm

    […] downfall due to his motoring obsession is a warning about the dangers of technological obsession (The Wind in the Willows as Eco Story) – a lesson that Mr Fry may want to […]

  8. July 6, 2016 at 11:10 pm

    I love The Wind in the Willows and it’s 1996 film version. It’s so heartwarming, child-at-heart, feel-good.


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