New Trail 100

Lawnmowers and Rabbits: A Tale of Progress

What does a grad from 1953 imagine he would find at the U of A in the 21st century? Giant Rabbits

By G.P.

Illustration by Marie Bergeron

What does a grad from 1953 imagine he would find at the U of A in the 21st century? Giant Rabbits

By G.P.

February 18, 2021 •

New Trail is 100! To celebrate our centenary year, we went back into the archives and dug up 100 weird and wonderful moments from our past issues. On our hunt, we got glimpses of life on campus through the decades, came across grads and researchers trying to make a difference in the world and found a century-long collection of snippets and stories like the one that you’re about to read. “Whiskeyjack” was a recurring column that appeared in the magazine in the 1940s and 1950s. These two stories appeared in two issues from 1953.

Part I

“Eh?” said Whiskeyjack.

It was a warm July day and a lawnmower was putt-putt-puttering up and down the campus, sending out a spray of fine-cut grass and drowning out the lazy voice of summer school instructors.

“That lawnmower,” I said in desperation.

“Eh?” said Whiskeyjack, cupping his hand to his ear.

“It has followed me around all day,” I complained. “If only someone would invent a dwarf grass that never needed the attention of a lawnmower.”

It doesn’t do to speak idle words to Whiskeyjack.

“Come with me,” he said, “and I will show you what.”

“Come where?” I asked.

“But we’ll have to break through the time barrier,” explained Whiskeyjack.

“Time barrier — time barrier?” I asked, as the idea darkened in my mind. “What’s a time barrier?”

“Even were I Einstein,” Whiskeyjack said, “I couldn’t explain that to you with all this lawnmowing in the background.”

“But come,” he said, “let us break through the time barrier into the future. What time do you want to land up in? Fifty years from now? Eh?”

“Can you do that?” I asked.

“You’ll see,” he said. “Now, take a good hold upon yourself. The dislocation will be more mental than physical.”

I was about to question further when — well, Whiskeyjack did one of his funny little swoops. And — there we were in the year 2000.

“Look,” said Whiskeyjack. “Just look about you.”

I looked about me all right. The campus was familiar and yet unfamiliar. Do y’see?” Whiskeyjack asked, bending down and picking up a blade of grass. It was not more than half an inch long. But it wasn’t cut. It had a perfectly formed, blunt nose.

“It’s dwarf grass,” he said. “And observe the grass flower. It grows at the end of a stem not more than an inch long.”

“Dwarf grass?”

“Yes,” he assured me. “It was developed right here in our own school of agriculture — in 1972.”

“No,” I said.

“Let us see,” Whiskeyjack suggested, “what summer school students are doing in the year 2000.” We strolled over to where a group of students were sprawling in the grass and soaking in the hot July sun.

“Better not interrupt them,” Whiskeyjack cautioned me. “They are probably attending lecture right now. Each,” he explained, “has his personalized portable television set. Do y’see?”

I did note that they were looking more or less intently at the screen of a small camera-like article each seemed to possess. I glanced from screen to screen. The subject matter, though different, seemed, for the most part, to be of an academic nature. Some of the students, however, must have been skipping lectures.

I peered over the shoulder of a brunette-headed girl so intent upon the screen of her set that she didn’t notice us. A low, monotonous murmur was purling forth from the set — a very academic murmur. She was taking voluminous notes — this part of education seems not to have changed. From time to time, line drawings zig-zagged across the screen. And the just audible voice was saying “… now the humor of Al Capp can be construed as having definite social implications, despite the seemingly asocial structure of the fable of LITTLE ABNER, this cartoonist’s most significant work, and though all too insufficiently realized, the greatest achievement of the Age of Democracy that preceded our own age ...”

“Al Capp,” I whispered to Whiskeyjack — “surely they don’t have to study Al Capp?”

“Apparently they take him very seriously,” smiled Whiskeyjack, indicating the brunette, who, intent upon her screen, smiled not at all. “But,” he suggested, “let us wander over the campus buildings.”

The red brick Arts and Science building of 1953 was gone. In its place gleamed a building that must have been made of semi-opaque plastic. At first, I couldn’t locate any doors. But then I realized that the tall red panels there must be the entrances.

A student, laden with all the paraphernalia of learning — microfilm containing portable shorthand machine, makeup kit, etc. — and gazing intently at the screen of her portable television set, seemed about to be walking smack into the south door. She didn’t raise her eyes. When I thought she must bang wham into the red panel, this panel very knowledgeably opened and, having let her in, closed after her.

“Isn’t that wonderful?” cried Whiskeyjack. “Here one can sit in on lectures even while one is walking about. And one needn’t take one’s eyes off one’s studies even to open the door.

“Phew!” he whistled, “That’s progress.”

“Well — yes,” I agreed.

“But,” I demurred, “we had door-opening devices even in 1953.”

“Not at Varsity,” chirped Whiskeyjack.


“And you think that’s progress?” asked Whiskeyjack.

“I supposed so.”

A glint of the old Socrates came into Whiskeyjack’s eyes. “Do they study any harder now that they’ve got — educated doors?”

“I don’t know,” I answered.

“Then why are you so sure it’s progress?”

“Well,” I said, “at least there aren’t any lawnmowers to interrupt us with their chatter.”

“Let us,” proposed Whiskeyjack, “break through the time barrier again and follow the progress of progress for another 25 years — if it really is progress.”

Whiskeyjack made his little swoop and, after my head had cleared, Whiskeyjack was gone. Gone, too, was the sleek look of the University of Alberta campus, A.D. 2000, with its dwarf grass, its summer school students gazing into the screens of personalized portable television sets, its educated doors. All around cabbage, only much taller. This was all I could see.

“Where are you?” sang out Whiskeyjack.

Scrambling through the gigantic cabbage plants, which showered down a yellow acrid dust that must have been either pollen or seeds, we located one another.

“You are in the year 2025,” Whiskeyjack announced, answering his own question.

Part II: 2025

“So this is what the University of Alberta campus looks like — in the year 2025,” I remarked to Whiskeyjack. A dense, rank, skunk-cabbage-like undergrowth surrounded us on all sides. Some of the thick, succulent, strong-smelling leaves rose so high they flopped over on my head.

“And if this is the campus, where’s the university?”

“Hey you,” a voice called out in a tone of outraged warning. “Watch out for those rabbits.”

I turned to see an outlandish figure. He had a rifle in the crook of his arm; he was dressed in an ill-fitting suit of brown, coarse felt; and he walked clumsily in felt boots. He was writing in a notebook.

“Where is the university?” I asked him, feeling some embarrassment at the thought of my being a citizen of 1954 and of his being a — well, belonging to 2025.

“It must have been a large one,” said the man in felt boots. “The buildings are still standing — they’re over in that direction.” He pointed with his pencil. He looked up and down without showing curiosity. “I suppose,” he said, “you’re the new research people from the south? Well, we’re all camped in the main building — we’ll be seeing you. By the way, there’s a town here, name of Edmonton, according to the map. But we’ve not reconnoitred it properly — them beasts have been too thick for us.”

“Oh,” was all I said.

“I’ve got a job of work to do — sorry I can’t stop to show you about — the camp’s straight ahead. And watch out for the rabbits.” He walked off into the undergrowth, his felt boots flopping clumsily. 

“Rabbits,” I said, “rabbits?”

“Look, look,” pointed Whiskeyjack.

I thought at first, when I looked in the direction indicated by Whiskeyjack, that they were prehistoric monsters. But they bounded like rabbits, they were clad in pelt with some resemblance to rabbit fur, and they nibbled with cleft palate faces at the giant cabbage. Undoubtedly, they were rabbits — but, rabbits of monstrous size. The larger adults stood at least eight foot high.

“What are they?” asked Whiskeyjack.

I counted a dozen of them. “They look like rabbis,” I hesitated.

“They are rabbits,” he said. “And, what do you think of them? Eh?”

I admit I was more than a little nervous, especially when they came bounding toward us with great sickening thuds at the end of each leap. Imagine a herd of cows leaping six or eight feet in the air.

“Not much, at first sight,” I told Whiskeyjack.

“Do you know this place?” Whiskeyjack asked me.

“I believe it’s the University of Alberta campus,” I said.

He smiled. “It was — in the year 1954; and it still was, in the year 2000. But,” he said, pausing, “what is it now — in the year 2025?”

“Where is the university?” I asked.

“There isn’t one,” Whiskeyjack told me. “There is no Edmonton, either. And no Calgary, no Saskatoon, no Winnipeg. There is no Canadian prairie. And no American prairie, either. The whole interior of the continent has been evacuated. It is merely a rabbit-infested wilderness of rabbit grass. And the rabbits are eight foot high.”

“Well,” I said — it was all I could say.

“It’s not very well.”

“Are they dangerous?” I asked.

“They are not carnivorous,” Whiskeyjack said. I thought, however, of our acquaintance in felt boots — he was carrying a rifle.

“At least,” I said, “these eight-foot rabbits must have enormous economic significance.”

Whiskeyjack whistled lightly. “You think they’re an economic blessing then,” he said mockingly. “Fur? Meat? Fertilizer? Eh?”

“Well, aren’t they?”

“Others thought so too, at first. But,” he told me, “the fur is used for an inferior cloth which no one has a good word for. And the meat — the meat is edible, but not palatable. No one in this age regards them as anything but a curse. Rabbit meat is consumed everywhere. But no one admits to eating rabbit. It is served as Canada beef, or prairie bacon, or American lamb.”

“Whiskeyjack — tell me about these rabbits,” I said.

“They are progress,” he said.

“How did they happen?”

“Technological progress backfired on us — a biological experiment got out of control,” said Whiskeyjack. “Now they are gradually spreading over the face of the earth — wherever rabbit grass will grow, there you will find rabbits. And rabbit grass will grow where anything will grow. Civilization is being squeezed back to the sea coasts.”

“Can’t measures be taken?” I asked.

“Experiments in genetic mutations produced the rabbits. Why, say some authorities, can’t similar experiments conjure up some rabbit enemy. But,” said Whiskeyjack, “other authorities are afraid that a plague of giant wolves could be worse or at least as bad as a plague of giant rabbits.”

“Why don’t they hunt them down?”

“Ah — there’s no ammunition. It is in such short supply that the bow and arrow is reviving. Moreover, the rabbits do provide cheap food and clothing. There are good political reasons for not getting rid of them completely. In any case, shells and rifles are hard to come by.”

“Why aren’t more shells and rifles produced?”

“Just think,” said Whiskeyjack, “the manufacturing areas are limited to the sea coasts. Commissions are always being set up to study the problem. No doubt our friend in the felt boots belongs to some commission to study the rabbit problem. In the meantime, the rabbit multiplies.”

I wanted to question Whiskeyjack further but the day was growing on. We had to think of getting back to 1954.

“Going backward in time,” Whiskeyjack warned me, “will be less pleasant than going forward.”

We broke the time barrier in reverse. I did experience a greater degree of mental blackout than I had experienced the other way. But after some minutes, my head cleared and I found myself looking at the familiar campus of 1954. The sight of the familiar red brick buildings filled me with a sense of pleasant relief.

“And there,” I called out to Whiskeyjack, “is a lawnmower.” After the dwarf grass of the year 2000, and the terrifying rabbit-grass filled me with joy. “Praise be,” I said, “for the lawnmower of 1954.”

A lawnmower was gently purring toward us. A spray of grass danced in the late afternoon sun.

“It’s an emblem,” said Whiskeyjack.

“For me, it’s nothing more than lawnmower,” I said. “A pox on all your emblems.”

“All afternoon,” persisted Whiskeyjack, “we have been pursuing progress. And here is our answer — this lawnmower is an emblem of progress.”

“I am very grateful—” I began, trying to polish up an excuse to take my leave of Whiskeyjack.

“Look,” he said “it’s a good thing, isn’t it?”

“The lawnmower?” I asked, frivolously.

“No — progress. Progress is a good thing, isn’t it?”

“If it leads to rabbits nine foot high,” I answered, “no — definitely no.”

“Then progress is a bad thing, eh?”

“Yes — no,” I began. My sympathy for the Athenians who murdered Socrates took on a new dimension. At this moment, I’d have cheerfully poured out the hemlock for Whiskeyjack.

“Phew,” whistled Whiskeyjack, “we’re getting there at last. He admits that progress can be good and bad. So that it’s not a question of progress or no progress, but a question of what sort of progress? Eh? Right?”

I agreed, for I realized I’d been “patricked,” to use a favorite expression of my father, Jeremy Patrick. He had a great soul of contention, and, like Dr. Johnson, a love of downing an opponent in argument. “I’ve patricked him,” my father would tell my mother.

Whiskeyjack did not know my father’s term, but he knew he had me “patricked.”

“And what sort of progress is good,” Whiskeyjack continued in a tone of sweetest reasonableness, “and what sort is bad?”

“I don’t know.”

“And you — you,” chortled Whiskeyjack, “are a student of philosophy, a lover of wisdom?”

“Well, just consider,” he said, after he had enjoyed his chortle at my expense, “just consider this lawnmower. It moves forward when it cuts grass, doesn’t it?”


“But the point is, the blade that cuts the grass moves backwards — it does move backward doesn’t it?”

“Yes,” I said. “But what of it?”

“False progress,” pontificated Whiskeyjack, “moves forward by abandoning all the benefits of the past — scrap the past is its motto. But true progress, it moves forward just like this lawnmower, but it incorporates a backward motion in its forward sweep. True progress not only moves forward to uncover fresh good, but it also moves backward to cherish and preserve all the good discovered in the past. True progress — ”

But the lawnmower, emblem of true progress, was by this time right on top of us, and the whir of the motor and of the blade drowned out Whiskeyjack’s words.

We at New Trail welcome your comments. Robust debate and criticism are encouraged, provided it is respectful. We reserve the right to reject comments, images or links that attack ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or sexual orientation; that include offensive language, threats, spam; are fraudulent or defamatory; infringe on copyright or trademarks; and that just generally aren’t very nice. Discussion is monitored and violation of these guidelines will result in comments being disabled.

Latest Stories