The Squirrel and the Ant

I often ask questions as part of a blog post, but I’m not sure if they’re the right ones. My point in asking them is to invite the reader to think and, I’ll be perfectly honest about it, to inspire comments. The questions should therefore invite many different interpretations. But still, there’s no way around the fact that any question and answering process invites us mainly to think rationally. Or is there?

“Judge a man by his questions rather than by his answers.” Voltaire

It’s possible to fire off a series of unanswerable questions that tears matters wide open, but on the edge of any rational Q and A you’ll find an ocean that cannot be put into words. That would be counterproductive to my objective. A rather more subtle way to ask questions is by means of a fable. Dutch poet Toon Tellegen has written many philosophical fables in a style that looks deceptively simple and without putting in any overt morals. In addition to asking you more questions, this could be about me doing my bit to promote the yearly Poetry International Festival of Rotterdam, from June 11th to 15th.

“The biggest surprise in his work is that Tellegen takes everything literally, thus creating a wealth of meanings.” Thomas Möhlmann about Tellegen’s poetry

Officially, Tellegen’s books of fables are children’s books, but that shouldn’t stop anyone reading them. Sadly, not much of his work has been translated into English. I’ll attempt to tell you one fable about the Squirrel and the Ant, two great friends:

Grey Squirrel, by [CC-BY-3.0 (]

Grey Squirrel, by [CC-BY-3.0 (

On a walk to the backside of the forest the ant and the squirrel came to a derelict house. The ant climbed on the back of the squirrel and looked inside through the broken window.

“What do you see?” the squirrel asked.

“All dust,” the ant said. “Everything is covered in dust.”

“Nobody has lived here for a long time, I guess,” the squirrel thought.

“Let’s go inside,” the ant said, jumping to the ground.

He pushed the door handle down and stepped across the threshold. It was dark inside, old and abandoned. The squirrel stepped in behind the ant and blinked.

“Who would have lived here?” he asked.

“Shush,” the ant said.

They looked around and got used to the dark. The ant took a book that had been lying on the table into his hand and blew off the dust.

“Look here,” he said.

The squirrel looked and read: “BOOK OF FORGETTING”

“What kind of book is that?” he asked.

The ant opened the book. On the first page there was a table of contents. The chapters were called: “to Unlearn, to Abandon, to Leave, to Lose, to Expire, to Dull, to Dilute, to Disappear.”

Ruin of St Michael's Church, by Evelyn Simak [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (]

Ruin of St Michael’s Church, by Evelyn Simak [CC-BY-SA-2.0 (

“to Disappear,” the squirrel muttered. “Show me that.”

He took the book and opened it at the last page. It looked as if that was the page that had been read the most.

The squirrel read: ” … and in the end, all will …”

There was a tear in the page as if it had been turned in great haste.

“Don’t read on!” the ant said. He pulled the book out of the hands of the squirrel, closed it and put it down in a corner, underneath the dust.

The beams creaked and the half-open window gave a slight rattle.

“The wind,” the squirrel said.

“No,” the ant said. There wasn’t the slightest breeze.

“Who might have lived here?” the squirrel asked.

“I think,” the ant answered, “that nobody ever lived here.”

The squirrel put on a solemn expression and stepped outside, behind the ant. They walked into the forest.

“Don’t look back,” the ant said.

The squirrel looked back and saw the house had disappeared. There was a rosebush in full bloom. And a small, dark cloud found its way into the squirrel’s thoughts and clung there, tenaciously.

Ant in flower, by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen, CCL 3.0 GNU wikimedia commons

Ant in flower, by Jens Buurgaard Nielsen, CCL 3.0 GNU wikimedia commons

If you’d like to hear more of these stories, don’t hesitate to comment.

PS: I couldn’t write about fables without mentioning Aesop:

“Aesop was such a strong personality that his contemporaries credited him with every fable ever before heard, and his successors with every fable ever told since.”
-Willis L. Parker

As many of you know, Aesop lived around the 6th century BCE and his life had a sad beginning, he was a slave, and an equally tragic ending when he was condemned to death for a crime he didn’t commit. His fables have been around for all these years. I’ve clicked a few links and this is the best collection I’ve found so far. It looks like and old-fashioned storybook. Enjoy!

About Pipteinpteron

Catch a falling feather. Don't keep it.
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24 Responses to The Squirrel and the Ant

  1. Mordanicus says:

    I really like Van Tellegen. I had once the idea to replace bible readings with reading from his fables. I have been in a protestant high school, and they have the habit to start the day with reading from some “christian” magazine, just for some inspiration. Personally, I find more inspiration in the stories of Van Tellegen.

  2. Dara says:

    Hi Lively, nice post and nice blog in general – congratulations. I found you through David Yerle’s blog in his discussion of art (more on that on the relevant post).
    I hadn’t heard of Van Tellegen but that spooky little fable is intriguing so I will try and find more to read.
    Also, I love your quote from Voltaire – when I worked as a teacher I was constantly exhorting my students never to be afraid not to know the answer; the questions they were willing to ask were far more important.


    • Thank you for your comment, Dara. I’ll check out the comments on David Yerle’s blog. I find the discussion on art very interesting.
      Sorry to mention it, but Tellegen is just plain Tellegen, without the ‘Van’.
      I’m happy to hear about your take on teaching. I think it’s often about the questions you’re willing to ask – or, to come back to Toon Tellegen, the books you’d be willing to read!

  3. makagutu says:

    I read Aesop’s fables this year and I found them very interesting.
    Asking questions is a good thing, especially if our friends don’t answer them but asks us further questions that expand our thinking.

    • Good morning, Mak. Thank you for your comment. It’s nice to hear that you’ve been reading Aesop’s fables. And I agree with you on questions. Our friends shouldn’t answer our questions but ask further questions. I like that idea.

      • makagutu says:

        But I must add the questions must be those that add value or help to build the knowledge we already have.
        A question such as, if god doesn’t exist why are we here is neither here nor there for at the end the question I will and must ask is what was god’s purpose in having me here, a question the proponent can’t answer without running into ambiguities and begging the question.

        • Thank you for your comment, Mak!
          “If god doesn’t exist why are we here” sounds more like an accusation than a question, I think! 🙂

          • makagutu says:

            The people who ask it see it as a valid question, unfortunately!

            • I honestly don’t think that this is the sort of question that you could ask someone in the hope of getting an answer that makes any sense. If somebody asked me that, the best I could come up with is: “Can you please explain why you think god exists?” And for the latter part, I think Darwin has made a good attempt to answer: “Why are we here?”

              • makagutu says:

                I understand why many people here would ask that question without thinking of the follow up questions that would be asked, and it’s especially so because most people have never for a given moment questioned their religious beliefs.

                • I see what you mean, but it’s almost impossible to imagine that people would live that way.

                  I once saw a television documentary about a class in Indonesia. The female teacher asked the children: “Darwin said we humans evolved from monkeys. So why….(pregnant pause) are there still monkeys?”
                  The child at the front of the room knew the answer: “Because Darwin was wrong.”

                  That is what I mean by asking the wrong questions…It’s not just never questioning your beliefs. It’s (and I don’t mean to criticise anyone!) not knowing how to think.

  4. That made me smile (on a dreary monday) 🙂 I often think that the challenge in learning is to find the questions. The questions imply the answers, even if we don’t have them yet. That makes answers an inevitable and slightly boring side of the duality. As you say, questions can lead into many directions and that makes them rich; pregnant with potential, richer than their answers. Or, as Douglas Adams wrote: the answer is 42 but what is the question? Enjoy your week 🙂

    • Thank you for your comment, Genetic Fractals. I remember thinking for a long time that the questions imply the answers, especially when I was still at school. So I tried to narrow the questions down. That was definitely the wrong approach. 🙂 I think no one can dispute Douglas Adams’ answer. Thank you for mentioning that. Enjoy your dreary Monday and whatever the week has on offer!

  5. Treasures are to be found in the most unexpected places…

  6. Glenyan says:

    Great story – it does seem like a question in itself…it just invites comments, interpretations, anythings. I’d love to read more.

    Re questions: I once worked with a very smart man who asked a lot of questions. He claimed that his most important ones were the questions where he already ‘knew’ the answer. It’s no wonder why he was successful at what he did.

    • Thank you for your comment, Glenyan! I’m happy to hear you like the fable.
      That is an interesting story about questions and answers. And on how to be a success (!)

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