The ground sloth

It is a curious thing, an unaccountable thing, the ground sloth of our era.

Of terrestrial conditions in former eras I cannot speak with authority. Nor can any living man, of the gigantic sloths, which moved about the earth in the Americas. I never encountered one. The last of their descendants are hypothesized to have died out in the Antilles just before we were able to make their acquaintance. Nimble they could not have been, unless in slow motion. Some of their distant cousins seem to have made it up the trees to safety, in tropical South America, just as we were coming down from the trees, in Africa. But that only according to the Darwinoids, who weren’t there, either.

Xenarthrans, we may call them. That would be the super-order. Megalonychids are the family to which I’ll now refer: our fellow North Americans. Slow like molasses, we are given to understand, but some of them got as far as Alaska after the continents joined up (on an overlay of several hypotheses). For they were unstoppable, like tanks. Massive thick bones; even thicker bulging joints; and the thickest skin on a mammal, reinforced with unmammal-like bony scales. Big, very big and heavy: ten feet of creeping indifference, weighing perhaps a tonne.

Some (and we are piling hypotheses on hypotheses) lasted to the end of the last Ice Age, but I don’t see how we can blame the Indians for killing them off. Arrows wouldn’t work, nor spears of the conventional design and impulsion. You’d need explosives, or a pile driver.

Herbivores they were, almost certainly; fused, mulching teeth; fermenting hindguts like you wouldn’t believe. Foolish was the man who got behind one. I surmise that, like a certain class of Englishman, they (the Sloths, not the Indians) lived on wet cabbage.

And presidential: Thomas Jefferson famously named an excavated species, and told Lewis and Clark to look out for a live one in the American West. And there is a great plop of fossilized ground-sloth dung in the American Museum of Natural History, with the memorable caption:

“Deposited by Theodore Roosevelt.”


But that was not the Sloth I was thinking about, not Jefferson’s Megalonyx (“giant claw,” designed for stripping vegetation in the cabbage patch), nor anything to do with the large but quick and lively Teddy R.

The ground sloth I have in mind this morning is instead the condition of our current North American masses. They are hard to get through to — not because they are so well armoured, but for that related “dietary” reason, living as they do on the moral, aesthetic, intellectual and finally, spiritual equivalent of soggy, overboiled cabbage.

A mysterious Sloth hangs over our continent; over the whole contemporary world for all I can tell. It is the opposite of what I call Idleness, in fact it is working, functioning in a sense, without any perceptible imagination. It does not so much seek as expect to get things (flattery, titillation, good health, wide-screen TVs), in which it can nevertheless find little pleasure.

This Sloth, or slothfulness, persistently chooses the path which may or may not be safest, but is unquestionably the easiest and most boring. It avoids all sports which require participation, all enterprise which requires thought, confining itself to what it calls “no brainers.” It does not even try to justify itself, beyond stating that it is tired. There is a terrible slothful undefeatable yawn, that frightens me more than an armed enemy, who could at least be frightened in return. How to reason with, let alone inspire, a creature who appears in every gesture to be, if not sleeping, then nodding off?

This, I think, is the central challenge of evangelization for the Church in our time: How to awaken people from this ground, or background, condition of Sloth? How, as it were, to administer the Sacraments to a congregation that is apparently comatose? How to feed them anything else, when they seem perfectly satisfied with their watery cabbage pulp?

A Washington friend reminds me of W.H. Auden’s suggestion on this, in his “Aphorisms on Reading.” It does no good to tell them that what they eat is disgusting, it will only confirm them in their prejudices.

Instead, we might try to stir-fry their cabbage, with spice and oil in the alert Chinese manner; or advance in a flourish of sauerkraut. Put it under their noses, see if they will twitch. Tell them stories about steak au poivre.


Appropriately, today’s feast is that of Saint Augustine of Canterbury, monk of Mount Coelius, sent from Rome with a party of forty or so, to wake the Anglo-Saxons; first Primate of England, consecrated bishop in the year 601; stir-fry chef to the wet cabbage eaters.