Badger died today. Or was it yesterday, I can’t be sure. He was hit by a Nissan Qashqai. That’s what Mole says, though his myopia, which is worse than ever, undoubtedly compromises any eye-witness testimony he might be called upon to give. It was generally agreed that Badger did not suffer – the damage to the car indicated as much. Alas, we were unable to perform the usual funeral rites for him. A passing TV crew spied an opportunity for a spot of ‘gastro-roadkill’ with their on-board celebrity chef, and they had old Badger trussed up on a spit before you could say endangered species. Some said it was better this way. Quicker, painless, and without all the distressing scraping we’d had with Fox the previous year. You never truly get the sound of steel on tarmac out of your ears. In any case, Badger had been suffering from dementia and was being home-nursed by a fast-depleting array of children and grandchildren. Ever since the cull had come along, badgers were on increasingly borrowed time. But then, aren’t we all in a time of mass extinction? Badger frequently regretted having lived so long to see such barbarism. Makes the stoats and ferrets look half decent, he would say brusquely.
How times change! It is spring and the river has spilled over into the fields for miles around. Mole’s cosy home has been inundated and he has been forced to take refuge in Badger’s old abode, in what remains of the Wild Wood. It had held out for a while, the wood. Like so much that was once verdant and bosky and ours, it has given way to the red brick of man. We called it the Great Diminishing. The developers came, then the protestors, until the police arrived and moved them on. One tweaked Parliamentary Bill later and eco-terrorism was born. After that, specific bits of the surrounding countryside continued to be spared whilst acres at the periphery were hewn off, as though they were superfluous limbs. Now only an arboreal enclave remains, a mere copse, on a roundabout at Junction 9 off the M40; the wilderness has finally been tamed. Its few remaining inhabitants awake to a dawn chorus of commuters.
Badger, who had become increasingly philosophical of late, cited Heidegger’s theory of Gestell or Enframing. The wild woods could not be allowed to go on simply wild-wooding, in the same way that meadows could no longer simply meadow. Heidegger was always turning nouns into verbs, said Badger, and sensibly so, for the meadow does meadow when it is allowed to simply be what it is and nothing more. Aha! he chuntered gruffly, now we were getting to the nub of it. The technological mindset of humankind always saw such things as so much ‘standing reserve’ which needed to be challenged-forth into new entities – the wild-wood into timber for new houses; the meadows into, variously, ten tonnes of wheat, a new fracking well, or six exclusive modern living solutions.
I hadn’t a clue what old Badger was on about most of the time. It all struck me as too much hassle, this thinking lark. To what end did such pontificating serve? All that huff and bluster changed nothing as far as I could tell. All I knew was that it had all got so complicated. So now when I took my boat down the Isis I had to differentiate between the river and the Islamic fundamentalists to avoid being misunderstood and held for 28 days under the 2006 Terrorism Act, as Mole had been once. The heavily-armed constabulary had thought his Mr Magoo bumbling was an act to conceal more nefarious intentions. Badger said that this was proof of why my intellectual isolationism was dangerous. The world was encroaching deeper into our territory, and extinction loomed ever larger as a – how did he put it? – yes, as an ontological fact. Why did he insist on using such long words?! I was always half-asleep by the time he’d finished saying them.
So how on earth did Badger get hit by that Nissan Qashqai? In a certain sense, he’d seen it coming. For years, us fictional entities have sat outside the perils of actual physical being, he would expound in his snug hour upon hour. A long expatiation followed, about how as imaginary beings we existed outside of time in a non-realm of non-being. And yet this supposed non-realm did exist somewhere: in the human imagination. So the imaginary and non-existent was still grounded in the real and existent. But it does sort of explain how this imaginary character got eviscerated by the concrete reality of a car.
Another elucidation of his suggested that we were drifting across the ontological divide between non-being and being: ‘Furthermore, today’s fictional entities have a readily tangible reality. Alongside our perpetual residence that the ontologists have taken to calling Meinong’s Jungle (after the great Austrian philosopher of nonexistence Alexius Meinong), we now exist as physical reproductions, as countless illustrations, human enactments in various adaptations – stage productions, musicals, stop-motion animations, films… But in the human imaginary, our constant non-being of timeless duration, we change with the historical times in which we are read. In Edwardian times, the stoats and weasels of the Wild Wood seemed like Marx’s revolution-bound proletariat ready to upend centuries of class inequality. Then they morphed into anarchists, communists, fascists. Today, the reader might read into them the current political debates around immigration. No, we literary creations are not static entities – we change with our reader’s times.’
He was always close to apoplexy at this moment in his lecture, as his wave of theorising was reaching its climax, or as Badger would have it, its climacteric. ‘The fundamental fact is this: our very existence relies on human being. As their ontological world collapses, so inevitably does our own. Meinong’s Jungle is steadily being razed, as the sum total of human imagination diminishes. Their extinction means our extinction. In truth, we are doomed.’
Despite his verbose way of putting things, it had to be said that Badger had a very good point, one he would come to feel first hand, as the Qashqai’s bumper smashed into his skull and tore away his lower mandible, before the front offside tyre sheared the piebald fur off his spine. Even before this luridly violent example, there could be no doubting that real-world incidents of flooding were now affecting even non-being. I had long since been forced to leave the river bank, becoming what modern parlance calls an eco-migrant in the process.
Badger’s amateur essay On the Peculiar Nature of Nonexistence, unfinished at the time of his death, developed some of these weighty existential propositions in more detail. In it, he writes of how the two ontological realities, each reliant on the other, have cross-pollinated so much in recent years thanks to publishing, Netflix, what have you, that an inevitable backwash of ontological collapse was now being felt by entities which should by rights only subsist, that is exist non-temporally as purely mental representations.
Hewn in two by the careless Qashqai, Badger’s innards became so much crow food. Such are the indignities of modern death. Now as the waters rise, our little islet of existence is yet further diminished, my own tale comes to an end. And so I look to these memoirs to speak of the end time of imaginary beings across the gulf of extinction to what or whom may come after. There are those of you who will well remember that episode with the sea rat, when I was struck down by wanderlust. Only dear Mole was able to save me from my bewitched self at that time. But he cannot save me now. He could not even save himself. Still, he had held out almost until the last and without resorting to the infamous transgressions of Toad. Therefore, I set down this, my last thoug–
Toad! Finally, I get a mention!
Toad’s fingers hovered above the keyboard.
And they weren’t transgressions. After my pioneering transvestitism as a washerwoman, I went the full ‘anthro’ and came out as transspecies. I felt myself more human than toad. This caused no end of upset among the animal community, but fucking hell…what if you feel that what you are is not what you were declared to be at birth? In any case, I had dared to be different and for this great crime against animalhood, I was to be all but abandoned by my biological confreres.
Toad sighed. Editing Ratty’s memoirs was so fucking boring. The impish spirit in him felt compelled to spice it up a bit, especially now that all the old impediments of conscience – Badger, Mole, old Ratty himself – were gone. No one could rein in his wilder fancies now. And so he flexed his warty fingers until they cracked as uglily as that adverb, excising Ratty’s last thoughts on life and replacing them with his own.
And what of Toad? Oh, Toad was all right, alright. Far too clever to allow himself to be caught out in some ontological trap. What was extinction anyway? Had not Shakespeare himself referred to it as mere oblivion? No, Toad had cleverly repositioned himself in the ontological marketplace. Yes, there had been yet more impulsive experiments with transportation: a scooter, a skateboard, and a Segway, each one ending abruptly in a smashed pedestrian and then the small claims court. His latest wheeze was a smart car, a 4×4 naturally, where at least he could not be held responsible for any incidents that occurred. Yes, he’d dallied with transspeciesism, but where some saw infamy, others felt him to be a pioneer. At a time of mass extinction, being trumped all. Besides, he’d always hated the half-way house of anthropomorphism, neither fish nor fowl, by which he meant toad or human. He would have even preferred to be an actual toad to being an anthropomorphised one, co-opted into human affairs to provide salutary moral lessons all the bloody time.
And so the ground-breaking anthro-amphibian made the ultimate sacrifice, stepping out of the human imaginary and leaving Meinong’s Jungle behind for the concrete realities of Total Human Being. He saw himself as now increasing the sum of imaginary in the world. Badger would be proud, he declared, at such a selfless act. To put it none too humbly, he saw himself as the saviour and not the destroyer of the anthropomorphic world. So whenever you sing his celebratory ode ‘When the Toad Became Human’, remember this: he became flesh so that you might not really exist a little longer.