Quite by accident, after reading Walden, I began reading Enid Blyton’s The Children of Cherry Farm – the grandchildren had been here during the holidays – and was struck by the similarities. As she takes these sickly city kids and immerses them in the ecology of the countryside, Blyton had to have read Thoreau. There’s the same detailed descriptions, the magical skip of the seasons and so on.
But as well there was some sub text to Walden concerning human relations, mere suggestions of known visitors, passers by dropping in, long talks into the night, a quiet sense of social ecology which mirrors the ecology of the natural world and which reminds me of Murray Bookchin’s belief that until we have a social ecology we will not solve environmental issues.
In Cherry Farm these social relations centre on the local ‘wild man’, the recluse who prefers the natural world and who lives in a cave during winter and a tree house in summer. Upon hearing of his existence the children seek him out. They all have a good time in the presence of the recluse, but are generally too boisterous for the animals he has befriended. But one of the children, Benjy, a quiet boy who is fond of flora and fauna, is taken under the Wild Man’s wing. When Benjy’s birthday comes around his special present is being allowed to spend a night with the man in his tree hut. Uncle and Aunt send the boy off with an oilskin sheet to keep out the damp and a large slice of birthday cake.
At this point the alarum bells are ringing. Better take the book off the library shelves. Are the uncle and aunt quite mad? What if the Wild Man is a paedophile and all along has been grooming the children? Didn’t he remove their clothes when they got wet and give them a blanket while the clothes dried? And to send off the boy alone, for the night, without a police check. And where is Benjy’s high viz jacket? Where his hand sanitiser? Where the risk assessment? Where the cell phone with the app which allows the adults to trace his whereabouts, even listen in to what’s going on? Blyton’s innocence and naivety is ridiculous. What is she teaching the reader?
Or is it? What if we’ve imposed and continue to impose, a paranoia on social relations which mirrors commodification, which mirrors the alienation of the spectacle, that pollutes child care and leads to abuse, to domestic violence, to shootings, to the degradation of life? What if this paranoia is at the core of identity politics, so that every advance is inevitably undermined?
Hard questions. Too hard for Cherry Farm. Anyway, the night went well. The Wild Man enjoyed the cake. After some interaction with a fox, they went to sleep. Benjy got a pet squirrel to take home. He didn’t get lost, nor was he run over by a truck.
Maybe we can leave the book on the library shelf?