Donkeys and wisdom

Reading Andy Merrifield’s The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquility in a Chaotic World. Merrifield is British, once a warehouse clerk, then a geography professor in New York City, and now a writer residing in Auvergne, in southern France, where he lives with wife and daughters.

He is on a walking tour of Auvergne. The setting of his travels is reminiscent of The Man Who Planted Trees by Jean Giono, as is the sense of quiet and solitude. Merrifield has his donkey Gribouille with whom to converse and think aloud. Merrifield readily conveys the experience of being with a donkey and the lessons that being with a donkey convey: patience, observation, reflection.

With a donkey, I’m compelled to go at their pace, to enter into their way of doing things. It’s stop-and-go all the while. That’s how it is with a donkey. I have to learn patience, to quell my impatience and frustration, my desire to hurtle along, to overtake … Things work differently with a donkey on a dirt trail: patience becomes a daydream that gently rocks from side to side, like a baby’s cradle, or like a sailboat out on a windless sea. It’s the gift of relishing the rhythm of precise steps, of treading slower yet going farther, of treasuring the present moment, making it endure longer, stretching it out in all its glorious fullness …

Merrifield frequently evokes the many donkeys of literature and lore, especially Sancho Panza’s Dapple and Juan Ramon Jimenez’s Plato. Now, Platero and I happens to be one of my favorite books, (Don Quixote is a close rival). Plato and I is dubbed a children’s book only because an adult conversing with a donkey would be considered of juvenile interest. It is no coincidence that both Cervantes and Jimenez are Spanish, for Spain has that celebrated tendency to turn out what the (Spanish) writer Azorín called el filosofo pequeno, the “little philosopher.” This contrasts to those “big” philosophers of Britain and Germany and ancient Greece with their mighty theories, abstractions, and constructs. But living with a donkey only evokes thoughts of nature, food, trees, sky, stars, and fresh air.

Along the way, Merrifield talks about Dostoevsky, Spinoza, Heidegger, Gaston Bachelard, Guy Debord, Anne Sexton, Greek myths — always in the context of donkeys. He tells us about other donkeys: the elderly Benjamin of Orwell’s Animal Farm, the all-suffering donkey of Robert Bresson’s classic film Au hasard Balthazar. This is a wonderful intellectual feast. To be able to relate it to something natural but a little unexpected like a donkey is both clever and insightful. We don’t want the journey to end, the book to finish. We want to get more insights from Gribouille, from Merrifield. We want the book to go slow, at the pace of a donkey, and to enjoy the quiet solitude of the ancient countryside.