Wednesday, March 30, 2011

A Timely Lesson from Mr. Squirrel

The downturn in the economy, government debt, conflicts abroad and natural disasters are forcing many Americans relearn many of the lessons taught to their grandparents and great-grandparents during the great depression and subsequent war.

Perhaps it is not too late to learn from Old Mr. Squirrel’s experience “when the world was young” as told by my favorite author of children’s books. The parallels to today are surprising in the following  tale from Thornton W. Burgess’s book, Mother West Wind “How” Stories.


Grandfather Frog sat on his big green lily-pad in the Smiling Pool and shook his head reprovingly at Peter Rabbit. Peter is such a happy-go-lucky little fellow that he never thinks of anything but the good time he can have in the present. He never looks ahead to the future. So of course Peter seldom worries. If the sun shines today, Peter takes it for granted that it will shine tomorrow; so he hops and skips and has a good time and just trusts to luck.

Now Grandfather Frog is very old and very wise, and he doesn’t believe in luck. No, Sir, Grandfather Frog doesn’t believe in luck.

“Chug-a-rum!” says Grandfather Frog, “Luck never just happens. What people call bad luck is just the result of their own foolishness or carelessness or both, and what people call good luck is just the result of their own wisdom and carefulness and common sense.”

Peter Rabbit had been making fun of Happy Jack Squirrel because Happy Jack said that he had too much to do to stop and play that morning. Here it was summer, and winter was a long way off. What was summer for if not to play in and have a good time? Yet Happy Jack was already thinking of winter and was hunting for a new storehouse so as to have it ready when the time to fill it with nuts should come. It was much better to play and take sun-naps among the buttercups and daisies and just have a good time all day long.

“Chug-a-rum!” said Grandfather Frog, “Did you ever hear how old Mr. Squirrel learned thrift?”

“No,” cried Peter Rabbit, stretching himself out in the soft grass on the edge of the Smiling Pool. “Do tell us about it. Please do, Grandfather Frog!”

You know Peter dearly loves a story.

All the other little meadow and forest people who were about the Smiling Pool joined Peter Rabbit in begging Grandfather Frog for the story, and after they had teased for it a long time (Grandfather Frog dearly loves to be teased), he cleared his throat and began.

“Once upon a time when the world was young, in the days when old King Bear ruled in the Green Forest, everybody had to take King Bear presents of things to eat. That was because he was king. You know kings never have to work like other people to get enough to eat; everybody brings them a little of their best, and so kings have the best in the land without the trouble of working for it. It was just this way with old King Bear. That was before he grew so fat and lazy and selfish that Old Mother Nature declared that he should be king no longer.

“Now in those days lived old Mr. Squirrel, the grandfather a thousand times removed of Happy Jack Squirrel whom you all know. Of course, he wasn’t old then. He was young and frisky, just like Happy Jack, and he was a great favorite with old King Bear. He was a saucy fellow, was Mr. Squirrel, and he used to spend most of his time playing tricks on the other meadow and forest people. He even dared to play jokes on old King Bear. Sometimes old King Bear would lose his temper, and then Mr. Squirrel would whisk up in the top of a tall tree and keep out of sight until old King Bear had recovered his good nature.

“Those were happy days, very happy days indeed, and old King Bear was a very wise ruler. There was plenty of everything to eat, and so nobody missed the little they brought to old King Bear. Having so much brought to him, he grew very particular. Yes, Sir, old King Bear grew very particular indeed. Some began to whisper behind his back that he was fussy. He would pick out the very best of everything for himself and give the rest to his family and special friends or else just let it go to waste.

“Now old King Bear was very fond of lively little Mr. Squirrel, and often he would give Mr. Squirrel some of the good things for which he had no room in his own stomach. Mr. Squirrel was smart. He soon found out that the more he amused old King Bear, the more of King Bear’s good things he had. It was a lot easier to get his living this way than to hunt for his food as he always had in the past. Besides, it was a lot more fun. So little Mr. Squirrel studied how to please old King Bear, and he grew fat on the good things which other people had earned.

“One day old King Bear gave little Mr. Squirrel six big, fat nuts. You see, old King Bear didn’t care for nuts himself, not the kind with the hard shells, anyway, so he really wasn’t as generous as he seemed, which is the way with a great many people. It is easy to give what you don’t want yourself. Little Mr. Squirrel bowed very low and thanked old King Bear in his best manner. He really didn’t want those nuts, for his stomach was full at the time, but it wouldn’t do to refuse a gift from the king. So he took the nuts and pretended to be delighted with them.

“‘What shall I do with them?’ said little Mr. Squirrel as soon as he was alone. ‘It won’t do for me to leave them where old King Bear will find them, for it might make him very angry.’ At last he remembered a certain hollow tree. ‘The very place!’ cried little Mr. Squirrel. ‘I’ll drop them in there, and no one will be any the wiser.’

“No sooner thought of than it was done, and little Mr. Squirrel frisked away in his usual happy-go-lucky fashion and forgot all about the nuts in the hollow tree. It wasn’t very long after this that Old Mother Nature began to hear complaints of old King Bear and his rule in the Green Forest. He had grown fat and lazy, and all his relatives had grown fat and lazy because, you see, none of them had to work for the things they ate. The little forest and meadow people were growing tired of feeding the Bear family. It was just at the beginning of winter when Old Mother Nature came to see for herself what the trouble was. It didn’t take her long to find out. No, Sir, it didn’t take her long. You can’t fool Old Mother Nature, and it’s of no use to try. She took one good look at old King Bear nodding in the cave where he used to sleep. He was so fat he looked as if he would burst his skin.

“Old Mother Nature frowned. ‘You are such a lazy fellow that you shall be king no longer. Instead, you shall sleep all winter and grow thin and thinner till you awake in the spring, and then you will have to hunt for your own food, for never again shall you live on the gifts of others,’ said she.

“All the little forest and meadow people who had been bringing tribute, that is things to eat, to old King Bear rejoiced that they need do so no longer and went about their business. All of old King Bear’s family, including his cousin Mr. Coon, had been put to sleep just like old King Bear himself. Yes, Sir, they were all asleep, fast asleep.

“Little Mr. Squirrel felt lonesome. He grew more lonesome every day. None of the other little people would have anything to do with him because they remembered how he had lived without working when he was the favorite of King Bear. The weather was cold, and it was hard work to find anything to eat. Mr. Squirrel was hungry all the time. He couldn’t think of anything but his stomach and how empty it was. He grew thin and thinner.

“One cold day when the snow covered the earth, little Mr. Squirrel went without breakfast. Then he went without dinner. You see, he couldn’t find so much as a pine-seed to eat. Late in the afternoon he crept into a hollow tree to get away from the cold, bitter wind. He was very tired and very cold and very, very hungry. Tears filled his eyes and ran over and dripped from his nose. He curled up on the leaves at the bottom of the hollow to try to go to sleep and forget. Under him was something hard. He twisted and turned, but he couldn’t get in a comfortable position. Finally he looked to see what the trouble was caused by. What do you think he found? Six big, fat nuts! Yes, Sir, six big, fat nuts! Little Mr. Squirrel was so glad that he cried for very joy.

“When he had eaten two, he felt better and decided to keep the others for the next day. Then he began to wonder how those nuts happened to be in that hollow tree. He thought and thought, and at last he remembered how he had hidden six nuts in this very hollow a long time before, when he had had more than he knew what to do with. These were the very nuts, the present of old King Bear.

“Right then as he thought about it, little Mr. Squirrel had a bright idea. He made up his mind that thereafter he would stop his happy-go-lucky idleness, and the first time that ever he found plenty of food, he would fill that hollow tree just as full as he could pack it, and then if there should come a time when food was scarce, he would have plenty. And that is just what he did do. The next fall when nuts were plentiful, he worked from morning till night storing them away in the hollow tree, and all that winter he was happy and fat, for he had plenty to eat. He never had to beg of any one. He had learned to save.

“And ever since then the Squirrels have been among the wisest of all the little forest people and always the busiest.

The Squirrel family long since learned
That things are best when duly earned;
That play and fun are found in work
By him who does not try to shirk.

“And that’s all,” finished Grandfather Frog.

“Thank you! Thank you, Grandfather Frog!” cried Peter Rabbit.

We can’t fool Mother Nature, no indeed we cannot! There are economic principles that cannot be long violated without negative impacts. Similarly there are moral principles which if ignored have both a personal and societal impact. Mr. Squirrel learned a lesson the hard way but it benefitted him and his posterity. Hopefully, we will learn as well and thus be a blessing to our children and grandchildren … .

Mr. Burgess shares his love of nature (not just animals but natures principles) in his timeless tales. What insights can you find in the other 15 short stories in Mother West Wind “How” Stories (HTML, Word Booklet). Note, The “Word Booklet” version was designed to be produced as a booklet (printed on both sides of a sheet of paper then either folded in half and stapled in the middle or cut in half and wire bound). 

A partial list of Thornton W. Burgess’s books and links to online versions can be found in a post entitled “Books by Thornton W. Burgess”. Please refer to my other posts under the label/category Thornton W Burgess for information about the author and his stories.

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