I just finished reading Watership Down (I know, a few decades late.) I will likely never think of rabbits in the same way again! When this year began, little did I know what a Year of the Rabbit it was shaping up to be for me. For the Chinese, it might be the Year of the Goat or Sheep, but for me, decidedly the year of the rabbit.
Sometime early in the year, I put an old calendar photo of a jack rabbit on my frig. It’s a beguiling creature, with its spectacular ears and piercing eye. I’ve always wanted to see a jack rabbit in the wild. I felt the photo was a good omen for the year. Aren’t rabbits considered good luck? At least their feet have been held as lucky pieces (alas, not for the rabbits).
Rabbits have been bestowed with magical powers in various cultures, art and literature. We westerners may see the Man in the Moon, but in Asian, Mexican and Native American cultures, they see the Rabbit in the Moon. It’s pretty obvious, too, that they are right! The rabbit is there plain as day, although what I see is a running rabbit, while Asians see a rabbit hunched over a mortar. For Chinese, the rabbit is the companion of the moon goddess Chang’e, and is preparing her elixir of life. For Japanese and Koreans, the rabbit is pounding ingredients for rice cake.
It’s been a subtle chain of occurrences, but I now realize that for a few years, rabbits have been coming into my life. I acquired a lovely ceramic planter with such a sweet rabbit face that I had to have it. Then, I bought a silver-colored planter type bowl, ringed with rabbits. After I moved to Seattle, I attended the Northwest Folklife Festival, where I met a potter among whose wares were some small dishes decorated with charming rabbits. I couldn’t resist and bought one for myself and another for a friend.
Scouring a thrift store on a road trip, I found a flat black metal figure of a rabbit. It would be perfect for my garden, I thought! Obviously I was feeling some affinity for with rabbits. Then, I received a gift of another rabbit-themed piece of pottery, a very small dish perhaps to hold sushi. It was a nice companion to the rabbit spoon rest from the festival. Another gift from a friend was a hand-painted rabbit-shaped box from India. What inspired her to give me a rabbit?
It was about then that I did realize I was starting something of a rabbit collection. When I went to Scotland, I picked up a small watercolor of a rabbit on the Isle of May.
Recently, at a neighbor’s yard sale, there were scads of garden rabbit figurines! Most were too cutesy, but one caught my eye. It was a rustic white-painted metal rabbit, sitting tall and looking more natural. This one would do. He told me his name was Benjamin, and he now watches over my garden.
Somehow the word got out and I noticed rabbits in my yard a couple times. One morning I opened my front blinds to find a cottontail happily munching grass. I quickly scanned my veggie garden to see whether anything was missing, but everything seemed fine. The bunny was eating grass and weeds. Had it not discovered my spinach, beet greens or the mass of leaf lettuce? Or were those not appetizing?
I had seen these small brown cottontails hopping about for a few months. I’m sure they were born in the big park next door. They come and go under the park fences. Lately they had become bolder and were wandering farther from the park. I had seen them outside my front fence a few times, and now, here was one, in my yard. Maybe when I made a home for Benjamin Bunny in my garden, I unwittingly placed a welcome sign out for other bunnies. Much like the custom of hobos leaving symbols for others [a cat meant “kind lady lives here,”] my inorganic rabbits signaled to their flesh-and-blood kin that this is a safe house.
I watched the one cottontail in my yard for as long as it was in view. It darted around nervously, briefly interacting with a squirrel. Did they talk to each other, like in Watership Down? Did the rabbit ask the squirrel, “Are there men here?” or “Is the food good?” The rabbit hopped out of the yard, and returned a short time later. I saw its buddy outside the fence. They both shot off toward the park.
Since reading Watership Down, I wonder about the social structure of rabbit warrens. How many local rabbits are there? How big are their burrows? In the book, the intelligent rabbits were able to communicate with other critters, and had exceptional senses of smell. Their sense of smell serves to alert them of potential dangers. They stamping of feet as an alarm is also noteworthy. They obviously have their own communication system, similar to birds’ raucous alarm calls.
I don’t expect that our rabbits actually “talk” to other creatures, but surely they are tuned into all the sounds around them, and do respond to bird alarm calls as well. Even I respond! Recently there was such a ruckus among the Stellers Jays, and I saw several crows fixed on something too. So I went out to investigate, and sure enough, there was something — a cat in the yard. Any rabbits would have made a beeline for their holes long before.
I haven’t noticed any of our rabbits in a while, but then again, I haven’t been looking very often. I trust they are fine and hopping about, munching away on the free buffet, and occasionally talking to the squirrels, mice and birds.