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The Wisdom of Donkeys: Finding Tranquillity in a Chaotic World – Merrifield, Andy

September 28, 2018

“The demon of speed is often associated with forgetting, with avoidance…and slowness with memory and confronting,” observes Milan Kundera in his novel Slowness. With that purpose in mind–a search for slowness and tranquillity–Andy Merrifield set out on a journey of the soul with a friend’s donkey, to walk amid the ruins and spectacular vistas of southern France’s Haute-Auvergne. The purposeful pace of the journey and the understated nobility of Gribouille, his humble donkey companion, allowed him to confront himself as well as to consider the larger mysteries of life. As Merrifield contemplates literature, science, truth and beauty, and the universality of nature amid the French countryside, Gribouille surprises him with his subtle wisdom, reminding him time and again that enlightenment is all around us if we but seek it. Travelling with Andy Merrifield and Gribouille, we’re reminded of the contemplative and exquisite benefits of nature, passive adventuring, and wild spaces.

Donkeys, says the author, can have a “profound presence”. Merrifield would spend hours watching them graze: it was “a sort of meditation, hypnotic and addictive”.

Before long, in the manner of Robert Louis Stevenson, who rode a donkey in the Cévennes, or even Our Lord, who rode one into Jerusalem, Merrifield has taken his sacred beast to rural France. “We ponder, we wait, we meditate,” he says.

The inscrutability of the donkey is praised again and again. “You can’t make a donkey walk faster. We have to learn to go at its pace.” The animals are patient, sensitive and intelligent. “It is hard to forget their innocent gaze,” we are told. A donkey has “the gravest and most reasonable eyes the world has seen”.

Apparently donkeys can get depressed and die of grief – or possibly of embarrassment should they read this book, with its pretentious imputations and fortune-cookie philosophy.

Merrifield pictures himself as a medieval troubadour, plodding around the Auvergne, with its fragrance of camomile mixed with wild lemon and thyme.

“I’m no longer the same person I was before this trip,” confesses Merrifield. Until recently, he was an academic in New York (details are irritatingly vague), who has cracked up over “an iron in my soul”. He says that in his daily doings he “was nasty and rude and I enjoyed being nasty and rude”. Life became “too much to bear” – crowded sidewalks, pollution and screeching sirens. Merrifield was sunk in “a world gone awry, a world I’d already decided to shun”.

So he exchanges it for church bells, birdsong and the sainted, chocolate-brown donkey, which eats dandelions, thistles and “everything that stings”.

The book is at its best when outlining the history of man’s relationship with his ass. Though donkeys have been domesticated for 8,000 years, we have not treated them well.

In the Bible donkeys can speak with a human voice and see angels, but normally they “take the brunt of human ridicule” – and violence. Because they have a high pain threshold, people beat them mercilessly, trying to get a reaction.

While in the West donkeys can live to be 40, in Ethiopia, on average, they seldom live nine years, and in Egypt 11; in Kenya, Mexico and China they are lucky to reach 14. Owners use poorly fitting harnesses and heavy loads, which leave donkeys raw and bleeding.

After a life of slavery, the creature is tipped on to a rubbish dump “and the village dogs have torn its guts out before it is cold”. In one horrifying episode, a farmer cuts a donkey’s ears off for eating a neighbour’s corn.

As Merrifield says, it is good to know that the Donkey Sanctuary in Devon campaigns against such treatment.


Donkeys usually figure in a positive light in the Old and New Testaments, and in the Koran. They shine as loyal and intelligent creatures, as the bearers of wisdom, as trusty mounts of prophets, sometimes even cleverer than the prophets themselves. In the Bible, like in the Koran, donkeys are frequently called asses. But not in the popular, pejorative guise that associates ass with fool. The Oxford English Dictionary says that polite people use “donkey” euphemistically, should they want to avoid the cruder-sounding “ass”. Cervantes has Sancho Panza explain that Dapple is how he wanted his donkey known, since Dapple, the apple of his eye, his grey, was no ass, only the loyal friend of a simple squire.

The root of the word “ass” is classical: asinus from the Latin. Since the ancient Greeks, who were as ambivalent about the donkey as they were about everything else, in fables and parables, the ass has come to exemplify clumsiness and stupid­ity. The word “asshead” dates from 1550, 44 years before Shakespeare had Bottom wear one in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, turning the wandering, easygoing clown-weaver into a dumb nincompoop. “To make an ass of oneself ” harks back 1590. Ass as an idiom for “backside” hails from 1860, from nautical argot, and became common parlance in the 1930s. Initiall.

the expression was “arse”, a word still used in British English.

loss of the “r” in American English is traced to 1785, glimpsed in other uses, e.g. burst/bust, curse/cuss. “Asshole” first appeared in 1935.

Even though the Koran says “the ugliest voice is the ass’s voice,” donkeys verbalise insightfully with Muslim prophets — or, more accurately, Muhammad verbalises with donkeys. Miracles in the Koran aren’t so much that Allah enables animals to speak the language of man as that Allah permits Muhammad to speak the language of animals. Allah preserves a man, his food and his ass for one hundred years. “We shall bring forth a beast of the earth to speak unto them because mankind had not faith in our revelations.” One “black, haggard donkey”, Ya’foor, actually responded to Allah’s questions, swore loyalty to the prophet, and eventually became Muhammad’s right-hand donkey. Muhammad rode Ya’foor everywhere. After he’d dismount, at the prophet’s behest Ya’foor would knock at peo­ples’ doors with his muzzle;- and when an owner came to answer, the donkey would signal, by nodding his head, that the prophet.

PERHAPS YOU KNOW, Gribouille, how we humans have all too often revealed ourselves as collective Judases? Stevenson, the enlightened wordsmith with a donkey, spoke about his “Last Supper” with Modestine, whom he was soon to betray, selling her off just as they’d finally developed a mutual affection, just as she was eating out of his hand in the moonlight. Perhaps you know, too, Balaam’s parable, Gribouille, Balaam the prophet­for-hire from the Old Testament Book of Numbers? He betrayed and chastised his donkey, but, like in Bosco’s Culotte, his donkey talks — or rather talks back — tells her master why she acts the way she does, confronts him about his cruelty, about his blindness; thus the Bible dispels chestnuts about any “dumb ass.”

The only asshead around was Balaam; his donkey was the clever one: she awakened Balaam from_ his apostasy, from his conceit and search for pecuniary gain. In the parable, the hum­ble donkey saw, was spiritually enlightened, and glimpsed the angel, while her master didn’t. She acted apparently bizarrely, strangely, irrationally; and yet inside the donkey brain, by stub­bornly wandering off the road, she acted rationally, intelli­gently, and faithfully. It was a faith soon betrayed. Balaam was corrupt and beat his companion, mistrusted her loyalty, saw dollars rather than good sense.

God told Balaam not to go with the Moabites and betray his people, and himself. Yet he’s promised great honour and wealth — the “wages of unrighteousness” — so, unsurprisingly, Balaam succumbs and leaves. “Let nothing stand in the way of your coming. I will confer great honour upon you.” He saddles up his donkey, departs next morning with the Moabite bigwig% until an angel with a drawn sword blocks his path. The donkey sees the angel and turns off into a field. Balaam beats his don-lazy to bring her back on track. Then the angel “stood where the road ran through the hollow, with fenced vineyards on either side.” Once again the donkey sees what’s ahead, and, “crushing herself against the wall, crushed Balaam’s foot against it, and he beat her again.” Soon the angel moved on and blocked a narrow path where there was no room to turn either right or left. So the donkey lay down under Balaam. “At that Balaam lost his temper and beat his ass with his stick.”

Henceforth the real action begins, the awful truth: “The Lord made the donkey speak, and she said to Balaam, ‘What have I done? This is the third time you have beaten me.’ Balaam answered the ass, ‘You have been mocking me. If I had had a sword here, I should have killed you on the spot.’ ” Then his donkey asks, querying Balaam’s trust, “Am I not still the ass which you have ridden all your life? Have I ever taken such a liberty with you before?” “No,” replies Balaam, only for God to open his eyes, to make him see at last the angel with the drawn sword. The donkey is vindicated. Balaam bows his head solemnly, shamefully. The angel takes up his donkey’s cause: “What do you mean by beating your ass three times like this? I came out to bar your way but you made straight for me, and three times your ass saw me and turned aside. If she had not turned aside, I should by now have killed you and spared her.” Thus, “a speechless donkey”, recalled the Gospels, “spoke with human voice, and restrained the prophet’s madness.”

I love the parable of Balaam’s donkey because I can really imagine a donkey veering off the roadside, really imagine you, Gribouille, veering off the roadside, nudging your frizzy muz­zle, flapping up your ears, steering your master out of harm’s way. It all seems believable to me, as realism rather than reli­gion: these actions are convincingly donkey, a model of unde­filed donkeyhood. But Balaam doesn’t see anything, doesn’t know what’s happening, and, like a lot of us, in his blindness he gets mad and impatient. He’s been made a fool of, and that niggles him. So he needs to vent spleen somehow and chooses violence. In the end, it’s he who’s the fool, he who can’t see the folly of his ways, who’s blind to other kinds of insight.

real hap­piness, as happiness that’s lived out, practiced to the full. But it’s true. Real happiness comes in unforeseen places, through surprising twists and turns, through honesty. The straight and narrow is usually a lie, a lie to oneself.

The pages of the scholarly Equine Veterinary confirm as much: the lack of visible expression of pain in a donkey hampers veterinary diagnosis. Signs aren’t suspected until terminal stages of disease. Horses in severe or acute pain dem­onstrate recognisable changes in behaviour, whereas donkey behavioural changes are subtler, more restrained. Vets point to their stoic and sedate nature, to their reluctance to express signs of pains behaviourally, and to the part played by evolution: the species has survived by masking or minimising signs of pain, so reducing a predator’s advantage, so disguising possible vulnerability. Commonly reported hints of problems are lethargy and reduced alertness, self-isolation or facing away from handlers, and lower-head carriage. Violent and frequent rolling in the earth might mean severe abdominal pain, pain rather than hap­piness, perhaps colic; cautious or very slow chewing on a favoured side hints of mouth or teeth problems; altered weight distribution in standing postures and slight gait changes suggest foot or leg-joint pains.

A donkey’s emotional pain is equally subtle, especially when they’ve lost a companion or longstanding friend. Donkeys’

psychic needs are very complex. They don’t like being fielded alone and it’s very rare, and often very wrong, to see it. Donkeys forge strong bonds with other donkeys, indeed with other animals, and if that partner dies, the surviving donkey must be allowed to mourn, must be allowed to come to terms with any loss, somehow. A donkey can spend days and days searching for a missing loved one; and if too perplexed by what’s happened, by an inexplicable absence, they can go into a deep depression and eventually die themselves, tragically, of a broken heart. It’s a history of love and devotion that could fill the annals of romantic poetry; and it’s dramatised some classic pieces of prose.

Orwell’s point: the real meaning of life is found in companionship, in love and devotion, not in politics — nor in geometry and math­ematics. All that sort of gets in the way.

It was a win-win solution, if we put our minds together. I let myself go with him and he, in turn, trusts my confidence, enters into a tactile dialogue with me—We become at one with each other. I concentrate fully on my donkey, on what needs to be done to work together, to solve the problem. I don’t rush ahead. I start to mimic the donkey disposition, reach a state of calm void rather than hollow emptiness, a feeling that every­thing I have, everything I own or wear, all of it, equates to nothing. I’m just concentrating with him, alongside him. There’s no past or future, just here and now, an absolute present. I’m simply there, naked like him: a donkey who wears no clothes, who has no money, who eats and drinks, who seems to take everything in his stride. I’m what I am right there, noth­ing more, just a singular self. If you let yourself drift into that donkey world, taking simple little strides and slow deep breaths, calm reigns. Things happen with clarity, with simplicity, decisively — like eating dandelions.

Donkeys hear high-pitched sounds at frequencies closer to 30kHz, an octave higher than us, and can discriminate very small differences in tone and loudness. They can quickly distin­guish sound that isn’t part of their natural repertoire, and filter it, ignore it, or learn from it. Donkeys fielded near a main road have been known to bray when they hear the approach of their owner’s car, in anticipation of feeding, distinguishing that car from another. Like us, though, a donkey’s hearing declines with age, and certain unfamiliar noises can “spook” a donkey.

Gribouille isn’t moving, pure and simple. He doesn’t like the path beside the water’s edge, the one I want to take, the shortest route around the lake. It hugs the curvature of the  shoreline, but it’s too close to wetness for him, too adjacent to the unknown. He’s not going along there. No use tugging, getting angry. No alternative but to turn around, to go backward before going forward again, to take him where he’s happy to

step. Gribouille doesn’t let himself get dragged down any old lane, in any old — or new — manner. It’s his 8,000-year obsti­nacy,  I guess, faithfully applied, well practiced, you could say. So often, people let themselves be led down paths against their better interests, cajoled somehow, seduced into doing stuff, following because everybody else follows, does likewise, takes that path. It’s usually easier to be led and to follow than to take a different route, to stand your ground stubbornly, and go where you want to go, where you believe is right.

So often, it’s the fastest route that people want to take. They think it’s the best, the most direct. Sometimes it is the best. Yet often it gets blocked up with other people and you end up going slow, slower than the slower route. Frequently, it’s hard to turn back or take a detour. It’s gridlock.

We might say, if we used philosophical-speak, that a donkey’s philosophy is ontological, that it’s all about Being, the philosophy of permanent reverie, of daydreaming in the open air.

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