Thursday, February 24, 2011

The evidence of things unseen

For weeks I wondered about the rabbits, or the absence of rabbits. Our yard, once filled to overflowing, suddenly entered a dry spell with a dearth of bunnies, a lagomorphic erasure filling me with dread. I’d seen several feral cats about, including one nosing around the brush pile, but it fled before I could get a clear shot, and the live trap sat empty day after day and week after week until one dark night I heard the telltale snap of the gate.

Living on the edge of the country in that transition zone where houses thin and the wild intrudes—in our case a seasonal creek separating us from the town proper and only two isolated houses standing between ours and fields slanting toward the confluence of the Little and Big Blue rivers—we’re used to things that go bump in the night. And, occasionally, in full daylight. Not long ago I kept hearing a repetitious bonking coming from behind the house, almost a rooting sound but with metronomic regularity. Peering through the blinds, I saw a rabbit toying with a wide plastic hose connected to the downspout. The rabbit would bite the lip of the hose and toss it into the air, watch it fall, and repeat. It apparently derived a great deal of satisfaction from the exercise, and as I’m all about rabbits having fun I allowed it to continue its play undisturbed. 

The sound of a live trap closing is more seismic, however. Its crisp, resonant, commanding ka-chung! leaves no room for misinterpretation. It is what it is, like the distinctive slide of a shotgun racking a shell into a chamber. 

I sat there for a moment listening to the faint echo. There’s a certain grim satisfaction associated with the endeavor, though satisfaction might be the wrong term. Acceptance might be preferable, for ultimately what follows is something nobody relishes and most would not condone. Nor is it without hypocrisy. That I’ve drawn lines between wild and domestic animals is no more than an uncomfortable compromise to account for “acceptable” predation, hardly Solomonic in scope. We are at best flawed creatures ourselves. 

Slipping into a jacket, I fished out a flashlight from a drawer and went outside to see what I’d caught. Sure enough, when I swept the yard a pair of eyes lit up like headlights. On closer inspection I found not a cat but a small raccoon, looking very much embarrassed about being caught so red-pawed and, judging from its expression, perfectly willing to never repeat its mistake if only mercy were granted. It was, and the raccoon soundlessly disappeared into the darkness.

Another two weeks went by without cat or rabbit. My spirits, attuned to the propinquity of my totemic mammal, flagged with each passing day. Wild rabbits have the unenviable position of being low on nature’s brutal food chain, prey to people, bobcats, coyotes, foxes, cats, dogs and raptors. Everything, it seems, wants rabbit for dinner. Except me, of course. 

And then one afternoon it started snowing. Light flakes at first raking down on a cold north wind, skies congealed into a flat gray field smothering dusk and light, and then heavier snowfall drifting across the roads and piling up in long crested windrows. Lights came on early and burned late into the night.

The next morning I looked out on a winter wonderland. About four inches had fallen and more was expected, but what surprised me was the amount of tracks crisscrossing the yard. Several sets of rabbit tracks meandered up the driveway from the forsythia, passed beneath the truck and climbed the stairs to the porch, where it seemed a sort of party had been held. More tracks led into the backyard and the remnants of the garden before branching off toward either the thicket or the brush pile. More tracks, all of them made by rabbits on closer inspection, wandered in from the field, pelted toward Juganine Creek or, apparently, circled aimlessly for no good reason. Among the tracks were those of deer, raccoon and what I took to be a skunk. 

My first impression was one of stunned delight. For not only was there clear evidence of an unseen world of unimaginable fecundity, but the rabbit population was abundant. Their tracks were a roadmap of their journeys, and for a while I followed them in my own shuffling peregrination, triangulating the yard from house to brush pile to thicket and so on to the edge of the whitened field where I studied the rounded ridges to the south and imagined myself as no more than any other wild creature leaving behind a tangible, if not ephemeral, proof of its existence.

1 comment:

shoreacres said...

This is just so wonderful. It's an extended metaphor, of course, and I've been thinking about it a lot. Expect to find me linking back to you in the medium future. Or so. You khow how those things go.

Speaking of making tracks, if you haven't seen my latest about the kinetic artist Theo Jansen, you need to - especially if you need a smile!