Skip to main content

A favourite horse of mine, Panda, was known for her nuzzle. When you were patting her head she would nuzzle up to your shoulder and give you a gentle nod that all was well with the world. It wasn’t a conversation, just a sniffle of reassurance. It didn’t mean ‘you deserve it’ because horses don’t talk. It wasn’t a beg for something to eat – Panda was well fed anyway. The nearest I could get to interpreting it was ‘What the heck?’

Even when they are frightened, ferocious or defensive, animals often talk more simply, more honestly than humans. I’m sure many of them are aware of life’s little passage, of the inevitable end, of the hardships along the way. Many communicate with each other, often by instinct, a few by reason. They do so with simple purposes – survival and procreative ability – in their sights. Some bask in the sunshine, others wallow in the rain. One even swims onshore.

Even when we are sentimental about them, animals are never sentimental about themselves. They don’t think of their lives as  ‘hard’ or ‘easy’ but as ’worthwhile’. Whatever ball the Good Creator bowls to them they play with all the vigour and skill at their disposal. Even though we don’t sentimentalise them, they are remarkable examples of common sense. Now and then we think we would like to have such touching simplicity in our lives.

That doesn’t mean we can’t be happy. Our complexities are there to help us, to entertain our imaginations, to stir us to greater creativity. We invent marvellous things, have stunning friendships, enjoy discoveries few animals can achieve and make our mark in the world in a way no other living creature can. When we have dealt with a difficult time successfully we can pause to see a beautiful view, to hold an intelligent and amusing conversation or simply to rest our slightly weary heads on a pillow of peace.

I knew a man called Charlie Waterfall when I was very young. He was a farm labourer. Tall, handsome, with a truly winsome smile, all the girls wanted to get to know Charlie. He married the gentlest and kindest of his admirers and they raised three children who became very worldly successful. Charlie and Janet never lost their simplicity. When I saw them many years later they were still enchanted with their rural life, they still held hands as they walked down the lane for an evening stroll before sleeping.

When I asked Charlie what he had enjoyed most about his work he replied that learning the ways of sheep and understanding their interesting social behaviour had given him a lot of satisfaction. He was getting near retiring age but said he would never retire. His flock of sheep would keep him occupied for the rest of his days. Contentment is a rare, enchanting gift.

We don’t need accolades, praise or endorsement to achieve that. We need a purpose ‘beyond the single need’, as John Steinbeck put it in The Grapes of Wrath. We need vision to see the beauty of what we create. We need to dig deeper for meaning than we usually do.

Above all, we need to appreciate what we have. Glance at the sunset, rest on a grassy knoll, stretch the limbs to let them take in the whole universe. And when others press you to be more assertive, more proactive, just occasionally say quietly to yourself ‘What the heck?’

All sensible animals do that.

Good morning

John Bittleston

[email protected] 

Have you learnt occasionally to say ‘What the heck? Do let us know at [email protected]

Accepting generously is more difficult than giving voraciously. –John Bittleston

20 August 2023