Tuesday, October 8, 2019

The Rage of Lemmings

We all know what lemmings are.

They are cute little rodents, native to Norway, that sometimes reach a point of such massive overpopulation that they create huge herds.  Those herds race about, and eventually fling themselves blindly off of cliffs.  It's one of those factoids from the natural world that often gets applied to humanity, as we warn against "being a bunch of lemmings."  It's shorthand for blindly, mindlessly following a path to our own destruction.  It's such a familiar metaphor that it's a bit trite, and a little stale.

I'd never really studied any more about lemmings after learning about their tendency to destroy themselves, and that meant I really didn't have a sense of them as creatures.  My assumption as a child: lemmings were like mice.  They were timid, easily frightened creatures that scampered about eating crops.  They were vulnerable, and like most rodents their primary evolved defense was just to have so many babies that you couldn't eat/kill them all.   

My vision of lemmings on the march to oblivion was that of a mass of fearful creatures that had over-reproduced.  A lemming death march, or so I thought, was being driven by blind terror, hunger, and the false security of the herd.

But that's not quite right.  Norwegian lemmings aren't mice.  They're not timid.  They don't cower in their holes, or sneak about in darkness.

They have one mode: attack.  That's all they do.  If you mess with a lemming, it will fight you until you are dead.  If you're a cat?  A bird of prey?  A towering higher primate?  Lemmings don't care.  Lemmings never, ever, ever back down.  Lemmings, like Bruce Banner, are always angry.

They scream, their black eyes a pit of fury. They crouch, ready to strike, teeth bared.  They leap at you, ready to take a chunk of your flesh.

They wear their aggression on their bodies, their brightly colored pelts serving as a threat display.  Those bright colors against the snow and rock snarl to the world that if you even think about [fornicating] with it, a lemming will [fornicate] you up,  mother[fornicator].

This puts their self-annihilating behavior in an entirely different light.  They don't destroy themselves because they are hungry or afraid or herd animals. 

They destroy themselves because they cannot ever, ever turn off their rage.  

If they see a cliff, a great void before them?  They hurl themselves over it with the fearlessness that comes from fury.  If they encounter the North Sea, with its towering waves and bittercold waters?  They attack.  They fling themselves into the sea and swim until they perish not because they have a death wish, but because they will not back down in the face of anything, not even the sea.

This, to be honest, makes the lemming an even more pungent metaphor.