I took a walk through our neighborhood this morning, past the golf course, and nearly to Alex’s high school. It’s about a mile to get there.
I “discovered” the trail about a week ago, on a perfectly beautiful April evening when I wanted to get out of the house just relax. Discovered is a bit of a misleading term because I could hit Lake Audubon Trail with a pine cone from our bedroom window. I just never bothered. We’ve lived here sixteen months, and I hadn’t yet felt energetic enough,to explore our neighborhood. I’ve been using the CPAP machine for 2 weeks. It took about 7 days before I felt enough energy to get out and enjoy the day.
Anyway… that’s all in parentheses. I went for a walk today, through the hardwood forest, and past the golf course. I tried taking a picture of a couple male cardinals flitting about. They’re all over the place recently, and they’re incredibly hard to get a picture of. By the time I get a camera ready, they’ve already hopped to a new perch, and usually flown off.
The bridge by the swampy creek that pours into Lake Anne provided decent scenery. I saw a couple trout lazily meandering around in the sunny, shallow part of the lake. And a mysterious bubbly bloop coming out of the mud.
Those always fascinated me. I know gases under lake mud is formed from rotting leaves and stuff, but it got me to thinking about Doctor Dolittle. Remember the Great Glass Sea Snail? Thus the bubbles. Thus, my thought train is derailed again.
I remember so many of these characters like I read them a month ago, even though it’s been, what, close to 40 years since I read them. Polynesia the parrot. Chee Chee the monkey. Jip the dog, Dab Dab the duck.
What made the animals come alive was how author Hugh Lofting endowed each of the critters with personalities. When Stubbins first meets the talking parrot Polynesia, for example: “The parrot, on the Doctor’s shoulder, nodded gravely towards me and then, to my great surprise, said quite plainly in English, ‘How do you do? I remember the night you were born. It was a terribly cold winter. You were a very ugly baby.'” In a few words we establish that Polynesia is proper, intelligent, and very, very forthright.
Why? Because when I was a kid, I read about 10 of those novels. I loved them, even though they probably quite a few years under my reading level. The good Doctor and his talking animals hit on a bunch of themes that captured my imagination back then.
First, the character Stubbins was a little boy with working class parents, who came to be apprenticed by the smartest guy in town. The family was excited, but saddened, to hear that he would be helping. I immersed myself in that kid’s learning-and-living experience with the kindly doctor. Here’s a quote from early chapters of the book Voyages of Doctor Dolittle: “Already I was beginning to be very fond of this funny little man who called me “Stubbins,” instead of “Tommy” or “little lad” (I did so hate to be called “little lad”!) This man seemed to begin right away treating me as though I were a grown-up friend of his. And when he asked me to stop and have supper with him I felt terribly proud and happy.” Even then, I guess I wanted respect.
Then, the languages. I knew, of course, that it was ridiculous to try to talk to a deer, or a duck, or even a parrot. But the sheer romance of being able to speak with those around me, even the animals, seemed to captivate my pre-teen thoughts. The animals were a little too human at times: “For there, craning her neck round the bend of the landing, hopping down the stairs on one leg, came a spotless white duck. And in her right foot she carried a lighted candle!” Even as a kid I thought, “Riiiiiight… That’s pretty unlikely.” I wasn’t a zoologist, but I knew duck feet didn’t work that way. But the fact they could talk to one another? That was important to me.
There have been a couple movies made from Doctor Dolittle over the years; I never saw them until I was quite a bit older. Rex Harrison’s musical was a embarrassingly bad, even for musical standards. And Harrison was nothing like the doctor in the books. And Eddie Murphy’s Doctor Dolittle… Well, we won’t even talk about that one.
The books have received a lot of backlash due to Lofting’s illustrations of “natives” of various kinds, but he always seemed to treat people of color (in his text) with a great measure of equality, given that the Doctor was supposed to be living in 1830s England, and british colonialism at the time was rampant. The names of africans were ridiculous of course: Prince Bumpo, Princess BumPAH (with an accent on the second syllable) King Jollikingki; but I believe that was a relic of the thinking of the times, and possibly naivete on the part of the Lofting.
Now that I reminisce a bit, there is probably not a single series of books more important to my early years, deeply fashioning my way of thinking. Individual scenes still stand out: Dolittle brokering peace between warring native factions of the floating island. He rescued a bull from the barbarism of a Spanish bullfight. Defending an imprisoned man (Bob) from a hostile mob.
Because of Hugh Lofting, I was urged to be compassionate to living creatures, and to cheer for the little guy. I was shown that you can learn a lot, and forge your own path, if you study hard, and you can do all this with kindness. And of course, it made me want to speak duck. I think that’s the real takeaway here: duck, and not shellfish, is the language of the future.