They begin their lives by falling out of the sky.
Plummeting down with increasing velocity, gathering momentum, the freezing wind whistles past a lemming’s tiny ears until at last, he (or she) lands on the snowy wastes of the arctic to begin their little four-legged existence.
And they land, and lo, there are about ten thousand lemmings living in instant harmony. Paralemmings, if you will. Except that no-one ever sees where they came from. They arrive mysteriously, as if from some great silent airship lemming carrier in the sky.
My source for this early piece of ecology (coined, cybermyth has it, in 1530) is sketchy. It is said to come from Zeigler of Strasbourg, who was a geographer at the time, states ABC news.
I can find no trace of him or his lemming- based text: this makes me sad. I want to read more of his theories. He said lemmings would fall down in stormy weather and then, as the first blades of grass pushed through in the Arctic Spring, the vast majority of them would simply shuffle off this mortal coil.
No, no, no, said Olaus Wormius (1558-1665), the improbably named physician and antiquary: you’ve got it all wrong. You can’t just have lemmings falling unaccountably from the sky.
They must have been blown there.
It is the wind, Worm expounded, which brings tens of thousands of lemmings to one place at one time all at once.
There are holes in these theories, given. They’re not perfect.
But why theorise in the first place?
It is simple. Lemmings beggar belief: for how can there be so many one minute, and so few the next?
It’s now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t. One minute, there are thousands upon thousands of lemmings in a given habitat. The next, they are a sparse little group huddling together against the Arctic cold, watching the first blades of grass grow.
And this has puzzled man ever since they stopped contemplating their ancient navels and started watching lemmings.
The scientists have worked out what really happens now: but not before Walt Disney got hold of them and maligned them so thoroughly that they have entered popular culture as little suicides.
In the 1920s, Charles Elton chronicled the puzzled Norwegians, observing lemmings in their thousands plunge into the sea. He put it down to migration. He coined the phrase The Lemming Cycle, and began to look at how you could use mathematics to express the rises and falls of the critters’ population.
Lemmings reproduce very quickly: and when their population becomes too dense, they migrate elsewhere. A short Summer and a long winter tend to result in population explosion, scientists have since found, thus every three or four years it happens.
They can swim; water holds no fear for them. But sometimes they choose a stretch of water that is just too wide, and they are conquered by the waves forever.
They are not little suicides.
Walt Disney, however, branded them such.
White Wilderness is a 1958 documentary film produced as part of Disney’s True Life Adventure series. It shows our small furry friends plunging off a cliff into waters and their doom.
But in a 1983 investigation by the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, it was revealed that Disney staff purchased a large quantity of lemmings from Inuit children, and shipped them to Alberta for a photo shoot.
They used careful editing and camera angles and positioned a lazy susan at the top of the cliff: a snow-covered turntable on which the little creatures ran.
So, almost 500 years after the first tall tales about lemmings, where they come from and where they go to, they are still fuelling improbable theories.
But the little creatures can put their parachutes away, and screw up those little suicide notes. The scientists are on the case.
Because we know now: it’s just a migration game.
Those who survive? They’ll be back with the first Winter storm.
Written in response to Side View’s theme, Those that survive: join in! You can find details here