The Tragic Fate of Squirrel Flotillas, from Oliver Goldsmith’s A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature

July 10th, 2011


I’m reading E. L. Lucas’ The Search for Good Sense. In his chapter on Oliver Goldsmith, Lucas reprints the following particularly fantastic yet wonderful passage from A History of the Earth, and Animated Nature, one of the many works written by Goldsmith in the interest of keeping a roof over his head.

In Lapland, and the extensive forests to the north, the squirrels are observed to change their habitation, and to remove in vast numbers from one country to another. In these migrations they are generally seen by thousands, travelling directly forward; while neither rocks, forests, nor even the broadest waters, can stop their progress. What I am going to relate appears so extraordinary, that were it not attested by numbers of the most credible historians, among whom are Klein and Linnaeus, it might be rejected with that scorn with which we treat imposture or credulity; however, nothing can be more true than that when these animals, in their progress, meet with broad rivers, or extensive lakes, which abound in Lapland, they take a very extraordinary method of crossing them. Upon approaching the banks, and perceiving the breadth of the water, they return, as if by common consent, into the neighbouring forest, each in quest of a piece of bark, which answers all the purposes of boats for wafting them over. When the whole company are fitted in this manner, they boldly commit their little fleet to the waves; every squirrel sitting on its own piece of bark, and fanning the air with its tail, to drive the vessel to its desired port. In this orderly manner they set forward, and often cross lakes several miles broad. But it too often happens that the poor mariners are not aware of the dangers of their navigation; for although at the edge of the water it is generally calm, in the midst it is always more turbulent. There the slightest additional gust of wind oversets the little sailor and his vessel together. The whole navy, that but a few minutes before rode proudly and securely along, is now overturned, and a shipwreck of two or three thousand sail ensues. This, which is so unfortunate for the little animal, is generally the most lucky accident in the world for the Laplander on the shore; who gathers up the dead bodies as they are thrown in by the waves, eats the flesh, and sells the skins for about a shilling the dozen.

“It may be doubted if this is very sound biology,” Lucas observes. What an understatement. But he does go on to credit that there is something sublime in this bit of ridiculousness: “Yet there is about it a charming sympathy with the little squirrels; far more genuine, I feel, than Coleridge or his Mariner really felt for albatrosses ….”

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