The Piper at the Gates of Dawn: Wind from the MidWest Edition

Around two in the morning, an incredibly loud gust of wind — the tail end of the terrible storms that hit the MidWest — woke me up here, near the shores of the Potomac. At first, I assumed that, if I were awake, it must be nearly five o’clock, so when I checked and saw that it was only two, I experienced one of life’s great comforts: going back to bed for a few hours’ extra sleep.

But, facing a deadline, I was still up really early. I stepped out onto the deck with my mug (the one that says “You pray. I dance naked in the woods.”) of tea and listened to the now-gentle wind and rain on the Autumn leaves. I rarely step outside in the early morning without remembering one of my earliest Pagan texts, the Wind in the Willows chapter, The Piper at the Gates of Dawn.

Then a change began slowly to declare itself. The horizon became clearer, field and tree came more into sight, and somehow with a different look; the mystery began to drop away from them. A bird piped suddenly, and was still; and a light breeze sprang up and set the reeds and bulrushes rustling. Rat, who was in the stern of the boat, while Mole sculled, sat up suddenly and listened with a passionate intentness. Mole, who with gentle strokes was just keeping the boat moving while he scanned the banks with care, looked at him with curiosity. `It’s gone!’ sighed the Rat, sinking back in his seat again. `So beautiful and strange and new. Since it was to end so soon, I almost wish I had never heard it. For it has roused a longing in me that is pain, and nothing seems worth while but just to hear that sound once more and go on listening to it for ever. No! There it is again!’ he cried, alert once more. Entranced, he was silent for a long space, spellbound. `Now it passes on and I begin to lose it,’ he said presently. `O Mole! the beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on, Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.’

The Mole, greatly wondering, obeyed. `I hear nothing myself,’ he
said, `but the wind playing in the reeds and rushes and osiers.’
The Rat never answered, if indeed he heard. Rapt, transported,
trembling, he was possessed in all his senses by this new divine
thing that caught up his helpless soul and swung and dandled it,
a powerless but happy infant in a strong sustaining grasp.
In silence Mole rowed steadily, and soon they came to a point
where the river divided, a long backwater branching off to
one side. With a slight movement of his head Rat, who had long
dropped the rudder-lines, directed the rower to take the
backwater. The creeping tide of light gained and gained, and now
they could see the colour of the flowers that gemmed the water’s
edge.

`Clearer and nearer still,’ cried the Rat joyously. `Now you
must surely hear it! Ah–at last–I see you do!’

Breathless and transfixed the Mole stopped rowing as the liquid
run of that glad piping broke on him like a wave, caught him up,
and possessed him utterly. He saw the tears on his comrade’s
cheeks, and bowed his head and understood. For a space they hung
there, brushed by the purple loose-strife that fringed the bank;
then the clear imperious summons that marched hand-in-hand with
the intoxicating melody imposed its will on Mole, and
mechanically he bent to his oars again. And the light grew
steadily stronger, but no birds sang as they were wont to do at
the approach of dawn; and but for the heavenly music all was
marvellously still.

On either side of them, as they glided onwards, the rich
meadow-grass seemed that morning of a freshness and a greenness
unsurpassable. Never had they noticed the roses so vivid, the
willow-herb so riotous, the meadow-sweet so odorous and
pervading. Then the murmur of the approaching weir began to hold
the air, and they felt a consciousness that they were nearing the
end, whatever it might be, that surely awaited their expedition.
A wide half-circle of foam and glinting lights and shining
shoulders of green water, the great weir closed the backwater
from bank to bank, troubled all the quiet surface with twirling
eddies and floating foam-streaks, and deadened all other sounds
with its solemn and soothing rumble. In midmost of the stream,
embraced in the weir’s shimmering arm-spread, a small island lay
anchored, fringed close with willow and silver birch and alder.
Reserved, shy, but full of significance, it hid whatever it might
hold behind a veil, keeping it till the hour should come, and,
with the hour, those who were called and chosen.

Slowly, but with no doubt or hesitation whatever, and in
something of a solemn expectancy, the two animals passed through
the broken tumultuous water and moored their boat at the
flowery margin of the island. In silence they landed, and pushed
through the blossom and scented herbage and undergrowth that led
up to the level ground, till they stood on a little lawn of a
marvellous green, set round with Nature’s own orchard-trees–
crab-apple, wild cherry, and sloe.

`This is the place of my song-dream, the place the music played
to me,’ whispered the Rat, as if in a trance. `Here, in this
holy place, here if anywhere, surely we shall find Him!’
Then suddenly the Mole felt a great Awe fall upon him, an awe
that turned his muscles to water, bowed his head, and rooted his
feet to the ground. It was no panic terror–indeed he felt
wonderfully at peace and happy–but it was an awe that smote and
held him and, without seeing, he knew it could only mean that
some august Presence was very, very near. With difficulty he
turned to look for his friend. and saw him at his side cowed,
stricken, and trembling violently. And still there was utter
silence in the populous bird-haunted branches around them; and
still the light grew and grew.

Perhaps he would never have dared to raise his eyes, but that,
though the piping was now hushed, the call and the summons seemed
still dominant and imperious. He might not refuse, were Death
himself waiting to strike him instantly, once he had looked with
mortal eye on things rightly kept hidden. Trembling he obeyed,
and raised his humble head; and then, in that utter clearness of
the imminent dawn, while Nature, flushed with fulness of
incredible colour, seemed to hold her breath for the event, he
looked in the very eyes of the Friend and Helper; saw the
backward sweep of the curved horns, gleaming in the growing
daylight; saw the stern, hooked nose between the kindly eyes that
were looking down on them humourously, while the bearded mouth
broke into a half-smile at the corners; saw the rippling muscles
on the arm that lay across the broad chest, the long supple hand
still holding the pan-pipes only just fallen away from the parted
lips; saw the splendid curves of the shaggy limbs disposed in
majestic ease on the sward; saw, last of all, nestling between
his very hooves, sleeping soundly in entire peace and
contentment, the little, round, podgy, childish form of the
baby otter. All this he saw, for one moment breathless and
intense, vivid on the morning sky; and still, as he looked, he
lived; and still, as he lived, he wondered.

`Rat!’ he found breath to whisper, shaking. `Are you afraid?’
`Afraid?’ murmured the Rat, his eyes shining with unutterable
love. `Afraid! Of HIM? O, never, never! And yet–and yet–
O, Mole, I am afraid!’

Then the two animals, crouching to the earth, bowed their heads
and did worship.

Sudden and magnificent, the sun’s broad golden disc showed itself
over the horizon facing them; and the first rays, shooting across
the level water-meadows, took the animals full in the eyes and
dazzled them. When they were able to look once more, the Vision
had vanished, and the air was full of the carol of birds that
hailed the dawn.

As they stared blankly. In dumb misery deepening as they slowly
realised all they had seen and all they had lost, a capricious
little breeze, dancing up from the surface of the water, tossed
the aspens, shook the dewy roses and blew lightly and caressingly
in their faces; and with its soft touch came instant
oblivion. For this is the last best gift that the kindly demi-
god is careful to bestow on those to whom he has revealed himself
in their helping: the gift of forgetfulness. Lest the awful
remembrance should remain and grow, and overshadow mirth and
pleasure, and the great haunting memory should spoil all the
after-lives of little animals helped out of difficulties, in
order that they should be happy and lighthearted as before.
Mole rubbed his eyes and stared at Rat, who was looking about him
in a puzzled sort of way. `I beg your pardon; what did you say,
Rat?’ he asked.

`I think I was only remarking,’ said Rat slowly, `that this was
the right sort of place, and that here, if anywhere, we should
find him. And look! Why, there he is, the little fellow!’ And
with a cry of delight he ran towards the slumbering Portly.

But Mole stood still a moment, held in thought. As one wakened
suddenly from a beautiful dream, who struggles to recall it, and
can re-capture nothing but a dim sense of the beauty of it, the
beauty! Till that, too, fades away in its turn, and the
dreamer bitterly accepts the hard, cold waking and all its
penalties; so Mole, after struggling with his memory for a brief
space, shook his head sadly and followed the Rat.

May it be so for you.

/hat tip to Jan for the YouTube

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4 responses to “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn: Wind from the MidWest Edition

  1. I remember the first time I read this passage, I had to stop at almost every paragraph’s end and wipe my eyes so I could continue reading through my tears.

  2. Glad you enjoyed the video! :)

    One of those odd co-incidences when I was searching through YouTube after thinking about your posting and The Wind in The Willows (I was looking for episodes from the old live-action TV show) and it came up on the sidebar … and I had not seen it nor heard the tune before ….

    It IS that moment — so well described! :) That passage is one that you can take into yourself — and let the words flow through … and just leave the meaning so you can recognize that moment again ….

  3. I had never thought of ‘The Wind in the Willows’ (one of my earliest and fondest reads – I still have the book my immediate ancestors purchased for me so long ago) as a Pagan text until now – thank you for pointing to that.

    I will be exposing my Grandgirls to it soon.

  4. One of my transcendent moments as a boy – and still a favorite memory and passage. And yes, I knew it was pagan. And glorious.

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