I am, on the whole, an early to bed sort of cove, but last night I started pootling about among the boxes in the cellar. I was looking for a piece of bone to replace the handle on a saucepan lid, but one thing rather led to another and I ended up discovering an untouched crate marked MOLEX. And, well, I couldn’t resist prising up the nails and taking a quick peak. Incense, trapped for a hundred years or so rose from the cracks. Folds of silk and cotton and sawdust spilled onto the floor. I peered at the papers lying at the top – something to do with Wu Xing. ‘Not now’, my Higher Self commanded as my paws itched to fossick. The chimes of midnight reverberated from the Grandfather clock upstairs, and with an enormous effort of will I hammered the nails down again.
I only tell you this because you would think that after such a late night, I would be as unwilling as a sloth to rise again in the morning, but – Oh blissful day. You should have seen the mole at dawn. I had barely opened my eyes before my paws were on the ground, the door of my burrow opened, the gate reached. The sun was shining but the air was cool – so cool I thought I might see snow on the mountain. I was, as you might imagine, in my element again. As I bounced my way towards Knocklofty I couldn’t help but remember the way I had waded, almost treacled my weary self up the same path the morning before. The air had been heavy with the heat of the previous day. An anticipated thunderstorm had broken spectacularly behind the mountain but left this side with a few drips of rain and the weight of unburst clouds. The reward silent stillness, only broken by birdsong, and the only other beings I saw were wallabies – and their innocent, not yet cautious joeys who were grazing at the side of the path.
Today there was not a wallaby to be seen. I had hardly embarked on the upward path when I heard shouts and grunts and the pounding of large human feet, and when I reached the first point where the paths intersect, I was confronted by a squad of footballers blocking the way.
When I am surrounded by men, en masse, exerting their physical strength, I feel like a very, very small mole indeed. I scuttled off the path to manoeuvre myself around them to move on and up and beyond, but their voices filled the natural amphitheatre of Knocklofty, and I knew that they might either catch me up, or round on me from the other direction and meet me head on. No wallabies were to be seen. Hiding behind trees, perhaps, holding their paws to their ears and quaking in mortal terror. I felt a degree or two separated from the element I had been in when I first strode out of my burrow.
It made me ponder about elements, not the Chinese ones, but the occidental variety: the figurative ones which give us such satisfaction to be in, and the meteorological ones we boldly choose to brave – and what happens to us if we are neither in them or facing them.
Some creatures seem to live entirely within their elements. I am sure that is one of the reasons I so often take my bearings from Great Uncle Mole and Uncle Ratty when I find myself out of sorts or too loosely scattered. Great Uncle Mole travelled from time to time but always underground; it would never have entered his mind to fly in an aeroplane. Uncle Ratty, on the other hand, strayed a long way from the riverbank but he was always at home wherever he went. He braved new elements and made them his own.
As a wee mole I was rather tumbled about by the elements, uprooted and plonked and uprooted again. The times when I was in my element could be counted on the claws of one paw, and perhaps you need to experience being in your own element to brave the others.
This morning, when I had reached the summit of Knocklofty, and was well beyond sight or sound of the footballers; when I was breathing the mountain air and eucalyptus, and was enwrapt in my element again, I came across a forlorn wanderer. ‘I’m lost’, he said, his lips quivering. ‘I don’t know where I am. I’ve never been here before.’ He was, he told me, from across the river, and had lost his team.
I was reminded that an element is part of a complex whole. I’ll not be able to look at a squad of footballers again without remembering the one who was so out of his own element when he was in mine. And in so doing maybe I can take a leaf out of Uncle Ratty’s book, and make more elements my own.
But now, back to the cellar.