10 September 2016

Suppositions about a man and his rabbits

Suppose a man had been watching rabbits in his front paddock all summer, and on all through autumn, and into winter when most rabbits would have disappeared because they’d been killed by the cold and rain or by other men with guns who shoot rabbits because they consider them pests that eat grass that sheep could eat, or just because they like shooting things, especially things that die when you shoot them.

This man, however, doesn’t like shooting rabbits, although he used to do that when he was younger and hadn’t yet learned to think maybe rabbits were more than just meat and fur, muscle and bone, blood and brain. Now he likes to watch them: the way they scamper about, thinking rabbit thoughts and eating grass and weeds and sometimes something from the vegetable garden which now lies dormant and untended in the middle of winter, so the rabbits aren't really pests. He watches them stretch like cats, with their front paws outstretched and their bums in the air, and then the long ripple as their arses lower and their back legs stretch out, first one, then the other, and their shoulders rise up, and finally their back legs and bums catch up with the rest of the rabbit’s body and they look like real rabbits again, not cats or other yoga gurus.

Now suppose one day months ago in the summer this man saw a small rabbit, not long out of its mother’s nest — a small rabbit with a curious kink in both ears so the man knew instantly that this rabbit was the one that would appear in the paddock in front of his kitchen window — and because he never saw it actually arrive from somewhere but always saw it just the instant after it materialised like Spock being transported from the Enterprise to the paddock in front of this man’s kitchen but without the sparkly CGI effects of the transporter, so the rabbit was just there like Spock but instantly, among the sheep and a prowling magpie and the earthworms being yanked out of the damp ground and eaten by thirteen blackbirds, and suppose this man saw the rabbit grow, until by the middle of winter it was a big healthy happy rabbit still with kinked ears.

Wouldn’t this man get a little buzz of happiness every time he saw that rabbit nibbling grass there in his paddock? Wouldn’t he sometimes open the door very slowly and quietly, and softly and slowly walk along the verandah and sit on one of the old blue chairs and enjoyably and deliciously drink his bowl of Yunnan Dian Hong Ancient Wild Tree black tea and just sit there for a little while, delighted, as the evening grew dark? Wouldn’t he just sit there with the rabbit for a few minutes while nothing mattered except the warmth and taste of the tea and the soft fading light and the fresh cold of the night brushing his face and the rabbit with kinked ears not too close but not too far away either? Wouldn’t he do this? Probably he would.

Suppose, too, that this man also saw two other rabbits in his paddock, and these two were already full grown healthy rabbits when he first saw them, and neither had kinked ears but he knew these were the same rabbits because they always hung out together and one was slightly larger than the other, and when you’ve watched animals for long enough they begin to become individuals even though you can’t put your finger on exactly why this one’s that rabbit and not another one.

Suppose he sometimes saw these two and the rabbit with kinked ears in the paddock at the same time. Then he’d know he had three rabbits living healthy happy lives, month after month, in front of his house, wouldn’t he? This is undeniable because you don’t see three simultaneous rabbits and say you have only two in your front paddock. You might have more than three because, well, you know what rabbits are famous for, but we’re talking simultaneous rabbits here, so the best you can say is you have at least three rabbits living in your front paddock.

So let's suppose this man had three rabbits (at least) living in his front paddock, along with at least thirteen blackbirds, and on the small hill behind his house he had at least ten wild deer (seen on one occasion simultaneously) visiting from time to time, and let’s also suppose he had three chooks and six pigeons, and a kingfisher in the magnolia, and a pair of putangitangi in the back paddock, and a pair of spur-winged plovers in one or another of the paddocks, and magpies and tui and korimako and starlings and sparrows and yellowhammers and goldfinches, and at least one kahu cruising slowly around the edge of the terrace hoping for roadkill, and lots more birds and other animals besides, not to mention all the wonderful little armoured spineless things living everywhere (some even sharing the house with him). Let’s suppose that.

Wouldn’t he be a happy man? Probably he would. This is undeniable.

Now let’s suppose one night he’s in his kitchen with the curtains drawn, and suddenly he hears a gunshot, and, soon after, he hears another one, and he jumps up and looks out into the black night and sees a spotlight sweeping across the front paddock (which is not actually his but belongs to his neighbours) and the light’s sliding across the part of the paddock where his rabbits hang out. (He thinks of the rabbits as his now, even though he knows they’re not, but they sure as hell belong to no one else.)

Let’s suppose this, but here’s where the supposing stops, because you’d then have to suppose what the man would feel, and that’s not something anyone should have to feel, even though they’re only rabbits.

1. '...other men with guns who shoot rabbits ...'  — this is not intended as condemnation of all hunters, nor hunting in general.

1 & 2. Rabbits in this man's front paddock
3. Spur-winged plover pair at Massey University

Photos and original text © 2015 Pete McGregor


Zhoen said...

They are your rabbits, in the sense of being your friends, your neighbors. Not possession but connection. Companionship of life.

bev said...

Love the essay and photos, but especially the first one of the rabbit with the folded ears.

Liz said...

Please update us when you have conducted a daylight audit of your rabbits.

Archive hen said...

This is beautifully meditative, and reminded me of Aldo Leopold's ideas about feeling part of a community ... also of his reflections on his own re-evaluation of hunting wolves (considered by deer hunters in the US to be a pest) in 'Thinking like A Mountain'.

Love Spok rabbit and yoga rabbit, and pleased to see you managed to re-use your Nature Watch shot of the humping plovers.

The parable-style repetition of 'suppose a man...' works for this sheila reader, because although it is a bit old-school and reminiscent of mid-century male writers in its assumption of male sagacity, the reassessment of a mainstream male way of being with nature is part of the subtext here. And it wouldn't work with 'Suppose someone...'. Nor with 'Suppose a woman...' You're owning it; that's fine.


Really nice.

Lisa Emerson said...

Oh no! Please tell us Spock rabbit is OK. And archive hen, I can't for the life of me see why such a style couldn't work with "Suppose a woman" (in fact I would like to read or write the essay that used Suppose a woman).

BUT your description of an evening on the verandah with YOUR rabbits (in the sense that Zhoen describes), and of that happiness, made me smile with happiness too. So the ending still felt like a shot in the heart.

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, thanks — you've put it perfectly. That's exactly how I feel.

Bev, thank you. That photograph's a favourite of mine, too.

Liz, now I'm beginning to feel a bit like a fraud, because I've since seen two simultaneous rabbits, although I couldn't confirm they were the same pair, and I've seen one on its own, and I do know the rifle was apparently in need of being resighted, so I think it's quite likely no rabbits got shot that night. The downside is that they seem much more reluctant to show themselves.

Hen, I'm glad you like the post :-) In my defence, I'll point out I had no intention of projecting any male sagacity (which I don't have, anyway — I just observe things), but maybe that makes me more culpable ;-)

Lisa, I wish I could tell that Spock rabbit is OK, but I'm not 100% sure. I did see a lone rabbit recently, but the sighting was too brief, the light too poor, and the distance too far to confirm the ID. Its ears did look a little odd, though. As I indicated in my reply to Liz, though, I do have at least some rabbits still around.

Relatively Retiring said...

As Lisa says, that ending is like a shot in the heart. You invest so much in these creatures by your detailed observations that of course they are 'yours'.
I have 'my' distinctive robin who follows me around and almost sits on my hand when I'm gardening. I am mildly irritated when my neighbour claims him as 'hers' but I would not want to contemplate my reaction if someone killed him.

pohanginapete said...

RR, I know well that feeling of having a special relationship to a wild animal, and it's easy to feel the same way about places, too. For example, I feel like that about certain places in the Ruahine Range, but of course other people who visit those places feel the same way, and some have far more substantial claims, formed over many more visits and, in some cases, by giving back to those places through work like hut maintenance and predator control. Slowly, though, I'm beginning to understand and accept that my connection to those places is unavoidably unique and the fact that others have special (unique) relationships to those places doesn't diminish mine.

But maybe animals are different because they can choose to accept you in a way that places can't, except in the most nebulous and possibly figurative of ways?

I guess most of us, in so many circumstances, like to think we're special.

Roderick Robinson said...

The format is of course deliberate; a man at ease with his intellect, and his powers of observation using them to explore emotions which rise and fall (mainly rise, to tell the truth) and which may almost be evoked at will. A contained, controllable world.

But the story is only half told. The controllable world meets uncontrollable reality. By this time the reader has a fair impression of the thinking man; reckons he's not tempted to dump the controllable world and stagger out into much less predictable reality. Wants to stay where it's warmer or was warmer. Prefers at this moment at least to think rather than do. And if he thinks it's because he can think. So what's next? I think you owe us. You've provided warmth; now we, like you, need comfort. How did you, a John the Baptist of this revealed territory, manage to carry on? We're not talking feelings, we're talking practicalities.

Or are you just a fair weather friend?

Beth said...

And by the grace of your sensitive writing, they've become not only your rabbits but ours. I was glad to hear the good news, Pete, for your sake as well as theirs. And thanks for this.

pohanginapete said...

Roderick, I don't have any wise words about how I managed to carry on. Like everyone in every hard situation, the only option is just to carry on. Maybe I've learned to accept that — to accept that what's happened has happened, that is — and, having accepted that, to let it go however I can. In this case I was lucky because I found out a little later that at least some of the rabbits (possibly all of them) survived, but I know enough about rural life to know the reprise will be temporary. I don't know if that knowledge makes it easier or harder.

Beth, thank you. Maybe the rabbits are now to some degree immortal (but not, I admit, in any way important to them). Living here has great delights, but at some cost.