Across the Blue Mountains
By Emma Chichester Clark
Miss Bilberry lives a peaceful life in a yellow house at the base of the Blue Mountains with her cat Chester, dog Cecilie, and two birds called Chitty and Chatty. She is happy, but she cannot stop wondering if she would be even happier on the other side of the Blue Mountains. One day she simply cannot stand it any longer! She packs her bags to journey to the other side. On the other side she finds a yellow house peculiarly similar to the one she had before. Her life seems better than before, but it bothers her that the mountains are in front of the house, when they really should be at the back of the house...
Guidelines for Philosophical Discussion
Because of the insatiable nature of humans, complete happiness is something that is rarely attained. This story raises issues of whether humans can be happy, the difference between contentment and happiness, how our perception on life can change our attitudes towards it, and how we should go about attaining happiness.
Why are people often not completely happy in their lives?
In Across the Blue Mountains Miss Bilberry’s life is portrayed as wonderful. Miss Bilberry lives in a nice house with her animal friends and does what she loves, like gardening and playing violin. When doing this module I thought that some children would not recognize Miss Bilberry’s life as enviable as their interests might differ. However, the pictures and nuances in the text clearly show that Miss Bilberry has a fulfilling life, but is nevertheless not completely happy. It is important to note that there are many fair reasons as to why some people are not completely happy, such as poverty etc. But the focus of the conversation should be discussing why people are often not completely happy despite good circumstances in their lives. A way to discuss this is to try to get people to be able to relate to Miss Bilberry by asking if anyone has ever wished they lived another person’s life, or if they had ever envied someone else for something they could have lived without. Try to get people to see themselves in the situation of wanting to know what is on the other side of the mountains. Why cannot Miss Bilberry “stop wondering”? Why cannot we?
How can our perception on our lives change how happy we are? Why?
Although Miss Bilberry winds up in the same place, everything that she once enjoyed seems better than before because she believes she has reached the “other side of the mountains.” Perhaps there is something about going on a journey or actually getting what we desire that is a fundamental part of happiness. Introduce this subtlety at the outset by asking if they would rather go hiking in a loop, or actually be going somewhere. Why or Why not? But give the children the chance to figure out that she has wound up in the same place. Have a debate as to whether Miss Bilberry’s trip was a waste of time since she ends up in the same place, or if there was value in her leaving home as she became happier through leaving. Because of the short length of the story, some people find it more obvious that Miss Bilberry should have stayed home because she ended up in the same place. Remind people that when Miss Bilberry got to the “other side” she thought things were “perfect” which she did not before. Try to get people to think of real life situations of things that did not actually change but in which they changed the way they felt about them. Asking people to predict what Miss Bilberry might find on the other side before it is revealed in the story is a good way to get people ease into thinking about the implications of Miss Bilberry ending up in the same place.
What do you think is the best way to be happy in life?
Chester the cat adds an interesting perspective to this story. Chester does not want to leave when Miss Bilberry gets everyone to help her pack because he is content with the life they already have. When they reach the “other side”, although he is the only one who knows that they are in the same place, he never reveals this to Miss Bilberry. Would people be better off if they did not “wonder” so much? Discuss which character they think was smarter in the story: Chester or Miss Bilberry. This should bring up the dangers of always wondering how life might be different in a different circumstance. Some children might ask “what if Miss Bilberry got to the other side and it was worse than where she was before?” Discuss the dangers of hope or “wondering what is on the other side of the mountains” and whether we possibly could live without wondering such things. Perhaps Chester has got it right as he is content with what he has and does not let his life be upturned by wonderings; on the other hand, if people did not wonder what it would be like on the other side of the mountains, how would they “have hopes and dreams” (as one child brought up), or make things in their lives better?
Questions for Philosophical Discussion