A few weeks ago, I sat listening to Charlotte’s Web on the radio. The house was full of children but I couldn’t tether any of them to a kitchen chair. The 16-year-old rolls his eyes heavenward and goes back to The Da Vinci Code. Even Miles, aged nine, is glued to Anthony Horowitz. Not for them the story of a large, grey spider called Charlotte, ‘about the size of a gumdrop’, and a spring pig with a sweet nature, called Wilbur.
Most of Charlotte’s Web takes place in the Zuckerman barn, through the passing of the four seasons. ‘Life in the barn was very good?night and day, winter and summer, spring and fall, dull days and bright days. It was the best place to be. . . with the garrulous geese, the changing seasons, the heat of the sun, the passage of swallows, the nearness of rats, the sameness of sheep, the love of spiders, the smell of manure, and the glory of everything.’
I’ve been thinking about the Zuckerman farm all week as I watched lambs play tag in Kitchen Meadow, listened to the peacock and guinea fowl chorus, and succumbed to the tenderness and humour of my Call ducks. The glory of everything.
Almost everything. This morning I buried Brother, my bashful Buff Orpington cockerel, decapitated at dawn by a fox. His death was my fault. Shutting up the hens last night I suddenly heard a nightingale and sank into the sweet-smelling straw of the chicken house. When the concert ended I forgot to cross the yard to shut the door in Brother’s solitary sleeping quarters. He never had a chance.
It was as much the timing as the beauty of the nightingale’s song that distracted me. I don’t remember ever hearing this creature so early. But then, everything is early now; cherry blossom, daffodils, wheat, barley, the dawn chorus.
It’s what happens when, according to Sir David King, Britain’s most senior scientist, the 10 hottest years on record have occurred since 1990, including the past five. Sir David warns that it may be too late to reverse the effects of global warming.
Even the Pentagon is alarmed about the melt of the Arctic that seems to be releasing so much fresh water into the North Atlantic. They know that a weakening Gulf Stream could yield abrupt and overwhelming change, the kind of climate change that would make the policy battles over education, pensions, hospitals and tax futile. But there is something cynical about politicians who say that climate change is the most serious problem facing the world today and have no policy, no vision, no commitment to tackle it.
Charlotte’s Web is a book about trust and treachery, adventure and miracle, life and death, the seasons?and a spider who cannot stand hysterics: ‘Slowly, slowly,’ says Charlotte. ‘Never hurry, and never worry.’ Our relationship with planet Earth has been one of trust and treachery, life and death, the seasons, but if we are going to save our planet we must worry, we must hurry.
Charlotte saves Wilbur because she can write?can and does.
‘It is not often that someone comes along who is a true friend and a good writer. Charlotte was both.’ Maybe it’s stretching it to see E. B. White’s book as a mission statement, a prophetic tale for our time, but it’s more convincing than the party manifestos. I’ve now had a look at all three. Frankly, I couldn’t call any of the party leaders persuasive writers or true friends of the Earth. My vote will go for the heroine who writes ‘Earth First’ in her web.
This article first appeared in Country Life magazine on April 28, 2005.