Tuesday, March 1, 2016

The Lost World of All Creatures Great and Small

Picture by Psyche
There probably aren’t very many people who aren’t familiar with James Herriot, the country vet who motored around the Yorkshire Dales, saving the lives of sick animals and encountering their eccentric, hard-bitten, but entirely lovable owners. The veterinary world has changed a lot since then; now there are shining operating tables, plastic gloves and x-ray machines. In contrast James Herriot describes practicing in the most primitive conditions…traveling in cars without heaters, operating on tables that had to be propped up during surgeries, stripping half-naked to deliver a calf in the middle of the night.
In reality, of course, the name was Alf Wight, and the stories, though based on his experiences, are mostly fictional…which probably makes them all the more remarkable, considering what the author was able to achieve.
Picture by Psyche

My first encounter with All Creatures Great and Small, was with the television series, which ran intermittently from 1978-1990 and starred the magnificent Robert Hardy (who, aside from being an expert on the long bow, studied under both C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien). Watching the shows became a family tradition; I laughed my way through them, but didn't really understand them. I was too young, I guess; but from that moment forward, I wanted to be a vet. As a little girl, I gathered odds and ends from around the house which struck me as doctoring equipment; we didn’t have a dog, but stuffed animals worked just as well. So I started my own practice, and ran it until I grew out of it.
Picture by Psyche
But then, I was old enough to pick up the books. They opened up a world, a world which many of us will never see, a world of hard work; dirty, but clean; heartbreaking, but full of joy; a whole race of people who lived according to the cycles of the land and (pardon the expression) very close to nature. And that, I think, is the real treasure of James Herriot…because the books aren’t about the animals he saved, they are about the fast disappearing Dales farmers he admired so much.
Picture by Psyche
In the sterile, artificial society which we now live in, we tend to forget that at one time, most of the population lived in the great rolling countryside, hidden away among the hills, nearly isolated from the Great World Outside. It’s only in recent centuries that people have poured into cities. Of course there were always the great cities like Rome or Constantinople, but they were small in comparison with the cities we have today. Once upon a time- indeed, for thousands of years, people lived with their livestock, very close to the land.

Picture by Psyche
Life seems to have become very clinical now-a-days. Kids go to school, mother and father both work; there are electric bills, grocery bills, care repair bills...in between family members hardly get to see each other, or form any kind of relationship. Sometimes they go on vacation, but jobs, friends and exciting happenings are distracting. In contrast, James Herriot describes families that live and work together, learning together, laughing together and weeping together. These Dales families did the same things every year in a never ending cycle, but they never grew tired of it; they were staunch and steadfast and remembered that blood is thicker than water. Relationships had to work, because the people had to work together; there was no option of backing out, or trying something different, because the abyss of foreclosure and starvation was always just around the corner.

All Creatures Great...and Small
Picture by Psyche
Of course, the books probably paint that bygone world in rosier hues than it really was. The work was really hard and car heaters and WiFi and televisions are nice to have, but I can’t help thinking something has been lost. I only partially know what it is like to have loving grandparents…aunts and uncles live thousands of miles away and my extended family have fragmented beyond repair. James Herriot wrote about families, great families that were powerful, but very humble, and that’s the reason I get a small ache every time I read his books, because I have a longing for something I can only hope to experience.


  1. Oh yes, I get the same feeling sometimes. Everything is rush rush rush. Even in our family, where we don't really go out and do a whole lot, it seems like we're forever doing this or that.
    Maybe that's why I like knitting so much. Knitting forces you to slow down and pay attention. You can do it almost anywhere. You can make beautiful, useful things from it. It also seems to connect me to the past a little (sounds corny, I know, but especially when I'm knitting Fair Isle colorwork, a big part of the appeal is how traditional it is). I've always been a little nostalgic for 'the past', though I know I probably couldn't survive there :)

    1. I don't think that sounds corny at all...the idea of making something useful for yourself, or other people, is extremely satisfying. I think that's why a lot of people like to make their own clothes and grow their own vegetables. I think we all have a desire to make things and be productive.

      Anyway, thanks for your lovely comment and sorry I took to so long to publish it. :)