If you want it brief: a lemming is a rat, a tundra rat.
If you want more details, obviously, it will take a little longer…
Lemmings are rodents, very closely related to common black and gray rats. If you observe them carefully, however, you’ll notice that lemmings don’t have the long tails of either kind of rat. They are also furrier, they have long coats of fur. Although very aggressive in the wild, this animal is herbivorous, unlike its omnivorous cousins. Now, the tundra is an environment so close to the north pole that it lacks trees, because it’s too cold most of the time for them to grow in those regions. Vegetation in those areas is made of shrubs, sedges and grasses, plus all the smaller stuff. There are many predators in these regions, and most have ‘lemming’ in their respective menus. (Photo: crop of a photograph taken by Andreaze)
But, few people are interested in rodents, this means chances are you’re here because of the legend: The legend of the mass lemming suicide. According to ‘Animal Planet’, the lemming mass suicide legend dates back to the fifteen hundreds (1500), by then, some man of science started paying attention to the issue and coming with some outlandish theories (there was a geographer that stated the lemmings fell off the sky, really?). But why was there a need to explain anything, what was the phenomena? Dead lemmings, dead creatures everywhere, and in large numbers. Imagine being a fisherman in Sweden, Norway or Finland, and then you catch a… rat, a dead lemming, eeeeew, you throw it away in disgust, but, then another dead rat gets hooked, it’s eeeeew all over again. Maybe you caught two dead lemmings, but that’s enough to tell the story at the local pub, and then another fisherman will tell of finding a dead lemming in other part of the river… and that’s enough to create a legend. Just remember, a silver colored weather balloon over New Mexico generated zillions of dollars in literature, movies, tourism and pathetic programming on History Channel. Unlike the once in a lifetime alien invasion, the dead lemming findings happened every few years, hence the legend.
In the XXth century this legend was so well established that no one suspected foul play when the award-winning documentary “White Wilderness” showed lemmings jumping off cliffs and drowning in the sea, or lake, or something. What had happened is that the documentary’s crew had set out to find the legend, by either patience or acting. James R. Simon, the main photographer of this sequence, tricked the shots in many ways, to make it appear that the lemmings were hurling themselves off cliffs—the hurlers themselves were left out of the shot—and drowning in the sea, where the poor creatures were just trying to get away from their captors (confirmed in snopes.com). Have you ever seen the end credits of a movie that included animals performing tricks? They have a disclaimer that started back in the 80’s, I think, it reads: ‘No animals were hurt during the production of this movie’, or pretty close to that. The “White Wilderness” wouldn’t have been able to include such a disclaimer, not without a guilty grin on their faces. Who knows how many lemmings were killed during that production, they only wanted images of what is a compelling animal legend, their lack of rigor allowed them to fake the shots. Facts are different, though.
Rodents have a particularity humans noticed in rabbits since the early days, they breed in large quantities. Rats and lemmings, living in burrows or hidden from human eyes and not being part of our gastronomical interests, breed in numbers that really boggle the mind. According to whatthefacts.com, if you let a couple of rats breed in peace in a perfect environment, they’ll have 2 million descendants in 18 months. A year and a little more and we have rataggedon. This is the sort of number that explains all the dark legends of invading rats and disappearing crops. Lemmings can breed just as fast, but there are no crops for them to raze, no large cities to invade, there’s only the tundra, the cold, the snow and the wind, and, when their numbers swell beyond what a given area can hold, the animals, by instinct, venture forth, move away, just go… and it’s not that they draw lots, with some staying and the others going, they just go away, probably all, or nearly all, and huge numbers die on this journey to nowhere. That’s what happens, and this repeats itself every four years or so.
And that’s all I can say concerning lemmings… check out my comic book about them. You may buy it here, on Amazon.com, a kindle book: “It’s just a river”
Now, think about it, the lemmings are animals and can’t modify the environment around them, humans, on the other hand, are extremely apt at doing that. We build cities, huge dams, cars, all sorts of machines, and, yet, every single empire and human society has faced its demise. Why? Lemmings die because they can’t find a solution for their problems—which is always the same, too many of them on a given area—why couldn’t our ancestors find a way to prevent a collapse? I mean, we are so clever, aren’t we, we’re building skyscrapers, for crying out loud, why have we ALWAYS failed to find a solution to the particular problems each empire or society faced?
Most of you probably think that this only happened a long time ago, well, the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, that’s 21 years ago; Yugoslavia collapsed in the 90’s; Libya, muammar Gadhafi’s Libya, last year; Syria, Assad’s Syria, collapsing, right now; how about the EU? Does it look healthy to you? Lemmings don’t go extinct, they just collapse in numbers. The end of societies, or an empire, only means big changes, not the extinction of its inhabitants. Although, in most cases, a reduction in numbers is unavoidable.
Truth people won’t face is that we are animals, skilled and capable, but just animals, and there’s a lot that we can learn by observing their behavior. And, sometimes, like lemmings, we just follow the herd trying to survive.
Fables, like my own, are never about the animals depicted, it’s always about us, about what humans do, or don’t. ‘It’s just a river’ is a story that wants to teach something, with dark humor and silliness, it will be up to you to tell me whether I succeeded or not. Propose real solutions, don’t be lemmings… good luck to you all, and thanks for reading!
Image credits: Other than the first photo, the drawings are mine, all mine.