The slow, easy end of summer brings a certain relaxation, not least because we can stop pretending to relax. Very soon we can cast aside those heavy, never-finished books from the “Summer Reading” lists, and consign them back to the library or the garage sale. Soon we can abandon the uncertain pleasures of the beach, hide the barbecue under its black cover, put away the insect repellants, and live normally for a few weeks, at least until The Holidays arrive.
Relaxation is never easy when it comes with a time limit. Americans have such short vacations that they can never really wind down before they have to wind up again. Germans enjoy thirty days of paid vacation time each year, the French get five weeks (and a thirty-five hour work week), and the Italians have six weeks of paid vacation. The average American, by contrast, gets a miserable thirteen days, and not even by legal right. Even our more fortunate friends, who could take long holidays, often take only a few days claiming that they just don’t have the time. But they have exactly the same amount of time as Europeans – namely twenty four hours in every day. Americans even sleep less than citizens of other nations, as if even sleep is a kind of wicked indulgence. Do I detect a whiff of old-time Puritanism? Are we afraid of Sloth – the fourth of the Seven Deadly Sins?
Let us consider the Bradypus, who is one of the most ancient and amiable mammals. His common name, the Sloth, comes from that same deadly sin because, to put it mildly, the Sloth sleeps a lot. Nevertheless he and his kind have survived for sixty million years. Sometimes I wonder if evolution is working the way he imagined it should. If you accidentally switch on daytime television, for example, it’s hard to believe that we humans are at the summit of a long upward evolution towards greater intelligence. But we humans have been around for only two or three million years. We still have time to slow down and adopt a more rational way of life. If competition and furious activity were the keys to survival the poor old Sloth would have been extinct long ago. But he’s still here, still taking it easy, and doing rather well.
I met a sloth once, in an animal park in Florida, and was allowed to stroke his rough brown fur and offer a few encouraging remarks about his lifestyle. He was hanging upside down from a branch and didn’t bother to wake up, but I like to think that he sensed a sympathetic touch.
Sloths have many admirers. Michael Flanders and Donald Swann wrote a charming song about them, and I just heard of a new children’s book called Magic in the Kingdom of the Sloth, by E.J.Anderson, which sounds like a good read if you can stay awake for it. The author suggests that their relaxed habits and gift for co-operation helped sloths to survive all these years. Sloths move slowly, hypnotically, and not often. They spend much of their time hanging upside down, gazing at the sky or sleeping, and allowing the rest of the world to rush by below.
What is the rest of the world doing in such a hurry? The sloth doesn’t know. The sloth doesn’t care. Today, as on every other day, the sloth is on vacation.