Every other Tuesday in Storied, K. B. Hoyle explores the ways our cultural narratives act on us individually and in society as a whole.
“Mommy, do animals cry?”
A calf on our television screen is sick, and my six-year-old turns and whispers the words against my cheek, concern and curiosity battling bright in his eyes.
“Yes, baby. Animals cry.” It’s the simplest answer I can offer my young child to explain the pain and sadness that animals can feel. It’s the only answer he really needs at age six. But deep inside I want to whisper back, “All of creation is groaning, but one day, it will all be restored.”
We’ve been watching together, as a family, PBS’s All Creatures Great and Small, an adaptation of James Herriot’s autobiographical book by the same title. Herriot was a country vet in Yorkshire, England, in the years following World War I, and his life and work have become legendary thanks to the publication and extreme popularity of his books. I grew up reading Herriot’s Treasury for Children (select illustrated stories from his books) and—every summer in the pristine wilderness of northern Michigan—singing the hymn from which Herriot took the titles of four of his books:
“All things bright and beautiful,
All creatures great and small,
All things wise and wonderful:
The Lord God made them all.”
It doesn’t seem to make much sense that a country vet would garner so much interest or (as we might say today) celebrity, but Herriot’s books have sold over 80 million copies worldwide. This despite being generally tame stories, especially by modern standards. There is no sex, no violence, no drugs, no scandal. If there was ever an appropriate time to use the word wholesome, it would be in the same sentence with All Creatures Great and Small.What James Herriot did as a vet—and what he does as a storyteller—he shows us the healing nature of healing nature.
That is not to say, however, that Herriot’s stories are without gravitas, and writing as he was in the years following the Great War, I feel certain James Herriot had a full and firm grasp on the darkness of the world.
It’s a darkness that feels distant in All Creatures Great and Small, as the show takes place long enough after WWI for England to have healed a great deal already, but as a young Herriot (Nicholas Ralph) starts his first job as a veterinary assistant in Yorkshire, the seriousness of what it will mean to treat animals in the post-war years settles in. Many of the villagers’ attitudes toward their animals are caught between old farmer superstitions, pragmatism, and modern indulgences, and the vets often show greater care and concern for the animals than the owners of the animals do.
Early in the show, seasoned vet Siegfried Farnon (Samuel West) tells Herriot that it’s not the animals that are problematic, but the people who own them. Most of the time, those trained to heal give the animals what they need when the owners can’t or won’t. A greater love is shown through healing, a process which is often accompanied by momentary discomfort or pain. Beyond the momentary discomfort, though, is peace for the animals—a sense of resolution that comes only through setting something right that can’t be made right without some aid or interference from man. We can breathe a collective sigh of relief when Herriot heals a sick calf on our television screen, because the calf can’t heal itself. It needs a healer, or it will surely die.
What James Herriot did as a vet—and what he does as a storyteller—he shows us the healing nature of healing nature. There doesn’t need to be any manufactured drama in his stories because he’s telling us about real life, and the world is broken enough all on its own. Herriot’s call was to go into the countryside and heal animals, who are innocent but who suffer many of the same travails humanity suffers—animals, upon whom are visited the same groanings of this fallen earth.
“Mommy, do animals cry?”
Yes, animals cry. We all have a share of suffering in this broken world.
We’ve heard often throughout this pandemic, and most particularly during the lockdown phase, that “nature is healing.” From a misanthropic perspective, man is the real plague on the earth—without us, nature would flourish and the animal kingdom would heal itself of its downward extinction spiral. But this perspective only allows for enmity between us and the natural world, and although there is some truth to aspects of it, I think we must reject it as a worldview. We need the animal kingdom, as the animal kingdom needs us.
Yes, nature heals to a degree when we leave it alone, but that’s only because our relationship with it has become so disordered. We spend far too much time mired in an abusive relationship with nature—taking from, exploiting, and harming it rather than stewarding it as we were first told to do in the Garden.
Man and beast are supposed to live together in harmony, but there is a hierarchy to creation. Humans are meant to care for the animals on this earth, especially those that are in our care. The work of a vet, when the task is one of healing, is the work of setting back to a Genesis 1 state what went wrong in Genesis 3. It’s a reminder of a coming, greater, restoration.
Not even a sparrow falls to the earth outside of God’s will, and as I watch All Creatures Great and Small, I recollect the words of St. Francis of Assisi in another great hymn of the Church. One that also reminds us that all of creation—the animals, the hills, and the heavens—will one day be fully healed. The first and last stanzas are my favorite:
“All creatures of our God and King,
Lift up your voice and with us sing,
Thou burning sun with golden beam,
Thou silver moon with softer gleam!
O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!
Let all things their Creator bless,
And worship Him in humbleness,
O praise Him! Alleluia!
Praise, praise the Father, praise the Son,
And praise the Spirit, Three in One!
O praise Him! O praise Him!
Alleluia! Alleluia! Alleluia!”
Nature is healing, and stories of nature are healing stories. But not because of scientism or an environmentalism that elevates nature above humanity. Nor because man actually is the real plague—but because our posture toward “all creatures great and small” should be one of humility and obedience to the great God who made them all.