In late afternoon, when shadows grow long and thin, the rabbits come out.
Their entrance is something of a mystery, a magician’s sleight of hand: one minute the yard is empty, the next dotted with the stubby gray forms of eastern cottontails recumbent in the clover.
Sometimes I count them: two, three, five. They watch me watching them and appear indifferent so long as I keep to myself. Their long ears flick this way and that and hear things I can only imagine, a breeze plucking the golden petals of sunflowers, the faint stirring of crickets, the metallic clatter of beetles’ wings, the dull roar of a planet in endless motion through the empty wastes of a cosmic sea.
I imagine the clover soft and cool after the heat of the day. And watching them, their obvious contentment and they way they inhabit our little patch of prairie, how they seem to fill it with their presence, to embody it, parts of a whole so integral that were they to disappear the world would slow to a halt and the tides become unleashed, I imagine them the true possessors of the land. Certainly not me, whose only claim is a legal title and nine short years of stewardship. Mere caretaker. Watcher.
If anything, ours is a contested and shared domain. Mole carves meandering hillocks through the grass, voles scatter before the whirling blades of the lawn mower, deer nibble on the pines and, lately, we share the porch with a hispid cotton rat that loves mulberries dropped from the tree above. Skinks in the garden, a fat Woodhouse’s toad hiding in the tomatoes, milk snake in the basement, jumping spider in the entranceway, recluses upstairs. To claim ownership of this place is a laughable and dubious conceit.
I’m reminded of the Chiricahuas in southeastern Arizona, how when the canyon filled with shadows the javelinas would erupt from the creek bed and filter through camp like a bristly-backed horde, their faint snuffles and grunts, their ridiculously-tiny cloven hooves, their pinkish snouts. And how after they slipped away into the underbrush a single striped skunk would appear at the end of the road where it bent to span the wooden bridge, and the skunk would march through each campsite as if inspecting for permits or compliance to a protocol only it could know. Sitting at the picnic table or in our lawn chairs, we would become motionless to its tuxedoed motion, ignored as inconsequential as it went about its evening rounds. Not long after its departure, when the upper crags burned with an unseen sunset, the air filled with the falling notes of a canyon wren, a twilight nocturne, and muleys descended the rocky bajadas to drink their fill in Cave Creek.
We were transients, nothing more. And perhaps for the first time I sensed how at-home mammals are in their surroundings, not just inheritors of the land but integrated into every fold and crease, every gully and cliff and cave, as the free-tailed bats boiling from the cliffs in early dusk proved. Their movements were always assured where ours seemed unstable, our rattletrap van and flimsy canvas-sided camper no match for their sure footing and effortless gait, our maps no substitute for their intimate familiarity of terrain. They were at home more than we will ever understand the concept of home, though at times I sense it. The raven flying above the canyon rim, the rabbits lounging in the shade of early evening, know their place as we never will.