When a donkey brays it is as though every rusted gate nearby is opening and closing at once; as though the iron seesaws and swings and roundabouts in one hundred abandoned playgrounds have begun to move by themselves: squeaking, creaking, screeching.
“Better to be born a limpet in the sea than a load-bearing donkey,” they say in Sicily. But the first load I ever heard of a donkey bearing was rather grand: Christ himself, riding a beast of burden into Jerusalem. People grabbed their cloaks, cut branches from palm trees “and strawed them in the way” for the donkeys to walk on. “Behold, thy King cometh unto thee, meek, and sitting upon an ass, and a colt the foal of an ass.”
This was what they taught us in school. This was how you knew he was a good guy: just a donkey for me, thanks. It was the late 1990s, I was younger than 10, and South Africa’s democracy was brand new. The country’s flag was brand new and we felt like we were the first children getting to draw it.
Outside of school I watched a show called Kideo: like a rainbow nation Sesame Street, but the characters were an anxious tortoise, Molly Metronome, and a donkey named Mr Chinwag. (In 1996 it won third place in Germany’s Prix Jeunesse, beating Sesame Street). Mr Chinwag was ever cheerful. He wore a green hat decorated with vegetables and operated a fruit stall shaped like an apple.
But there was Eeyore too, I suppose. And this was a better preparation for the lesson donkeys teach: gloomy and resigned to your fate. “It’s all for naught”, says Pooh’s companion. The Philosophical problem “Buridan’s Ass” imagines a hungry, thirsty donkey needing to choose between a bail of hay and a bucket of water. It dies.
I listened to Adam Curtis talking about his documentary Can’t Get You Out of My Head recently. It is about individualism, feeling helpless and the very state of the world. He described the internet as a modern ghost story: the algorithms determined to show you things based on your past behaviour and the past behaviour of others – so you are haunted by these previous clicks and word searches, and it is impossible to escape. Doomed, doomed, doomed. The ass hee-haws from its paddock. It is the pitiful, wretched cry of a beast that can grow so sick from mourning the loss of a companion that it dies. Benjamin in Animal Farm: “Life would go on as it had always gone on – that is, badly.”
Even Christ’s donkey, GK Chesterton imagines, turns bitter in its old age:
Fools! For I also had my hour;
One far fierce hour and sweet:
There was a shout about my ears,
And palms before my feet.
Everything is terrible. Even the donkeys might be terrible. They hold a strange power over people. A 2003 story in the Guardian reported that the UK charity Donkey Sanctuary “took in £13m” in a single year. “In donations, it receives more than Age Concern, Mencap and the Samaritans.” In 2017 it was £38.3m. Then again, who can blame these donors, when here is a donkey foal wagging its tail as it rocks in a hammock.
In Lebanon I once stayed at a centuries-old house that had a retired donkey living in the garden. It lay in the sun like an old dog and wore a light blue collar decorated with small flowers made from beaten tin. And there were those ears. Those hopeful, ridiculous ears, with their tuft of fur in the middle.
We have been riding on donkeys’ backs for 5,000 years. “No donkey can cart / what weighs down your heart,” goes an East African proverb. But there is something about how profoundly sad they sound that either jolts you out of your own sorry state – or, well: misery, company and so on.
“I see their knavery: this is to make an ass of me; to fright me, / if they could,” says Bottom – his head transformed into a donkey’s – in Midsummer Night’s Dream: “But I will not stir / from this place, do what they can: I will walk up / and down here, and I will sing, that they shall hear / I am not afraid.
“The Nature of … ” is a column by Helen Sullivan dedicated to interesting animals, insects, plants and natural phenomena. Is there an intriguing creature or particularly lively plant you think would delight our readers? Let us know on Twitter @helenrsullivan or via email: email@example.com