Ways of seeing: My year of the Rabbit

A BABY RABBIT in the writer's garden.

In my painting studio, next to the window, hangs an image from an old art calendar that my mother passed on to me: Albrecht Durer’s 1502 drawing of a young hare.

I use this drawing when I teach. Kids love it for its realism (and cuteness). Adults marvel at both Durer’s technique and his ability to observe and then, with precise brushstrokes and drawing marks, capture what he is seeing.

As teacher, I talk about the marriage of art and science during the Renaissance, and about the practice of quietly observing nature and drawing directly from life, taking time. It’s a strange thing — and folks find it hard to believe — but if you put down your camera, or your phone, and take the time to look, you see more of what it is you may not know you are seeking.

 “Young Hare,” along with Durer’s 1503 watercolor painting of a clump of earth containing several kinds of flowering grasses, speedwell, plantains, borage, achillea, and dandelions, have captured people’s attention for hundreds of years. Botanically and anatomically accurate, both small paintings reveal a profound reverence for the natural world.

Lately my reverence for the natural world has been tested.

Part of my studio practice during the summer is to alternate between painting and gardening.

I paint for a couple of hours, then take a break and work in my vegetable garden. Paint, garden, paint, garden, paint, breathe, all day long. The rhythm clears my head, quiets the voices. Getting my hands dirty feels good and provides a balance to all that is uncertain in the studio.

BUT right now Durer’s rabbit is IN my garden.

As I look out my window this morning, a young, medium-sized, sleek and healthy rabbit is — yet again! — inside the double fence, next to the have-a-heart trap, calmly eating kale.

Out I hobble (I am recovering from a broken ankle) picturing Mr. MacGregor yelling, “Stop! Thief!” and waving his rake at Peter Rabbit. This rabbit confidently stares at me with its big beautiful dark eyes. Such beautiful eyes.

Thing is, I know this rabbit. It was born IN my garden, inside the fence we put up in late May after observing the winter rabbit devastation. 

At this point, all raspberries, blueberries, gooseberries, and currant bushes are fenced. Parts of the perennial garden have circles of chicken wire around them (who knew rabbits like to eat Achillea flowers?). And we have had to surround any young trees with fence as well, to keep the bark from being nibbled off.

Apparently our neighborhood is low on the rabbit’s natural predators.

I discovered the nest of tiny bunnies — carefully constructed under the layer of straw with which I mulched the garlic last fall — as I watered the garden.

Picture an early June morning: it is going to be another hot, dry day. At 6 a.m., before the sun hits the garden directly, I water and listen to the birds. My hens cluck and sing from the coop behind me, “Kate, let us out. Please let us out.” You can hear red winged blackbirds in the wetland below the rise. Chickadees are chattering, and robins are repetitively calling out. There’s a phoebe in the cherry tree. I pluck at the odd weed or two, watch the changing light in the sky, and breathe the brief cool morning air. My mug of coffee sits on the edge of the raised bed.

Suddenly there is an explosion beneath my feet. Out of the straw seven tiny rabbits, each one 3-4 inches long, dash out of a hole in the garlic patch, where, unwittingly, my hose has flooded their nest. They are INSIDE my carefully constructed fence, sheltered from harm. What a smart mother, I think, as I aim my hose at their tiny bodies and spray them through the currently open gate of the enclosure.

They are clearly small enough to slip back in, so I spend the morning fortifying the fence at the lower levels, with a finer meshed wire, boards, and deer netting.

As the day unfolds, I find tiny rabbits everywhere: nestled against the warm stucco foundation of the studio, hiding in the shade of the nepeta in the perennial boarder, sheltering under the strappy leaves of the day lilies next to where we eat lunch. In the evening, as we gather with our sons to watch the sunset, we witness several tiny forms slip across the lawn back toward the vegetable garden, trying to get home.

Charles says, “Mom, you cannot shoot them; this is their home, too.”

“But they are eating my seedlings. I am growing food for next winter.”

“Mom, you have more than enough. Besides, isn’t this what we are supposed to be waking up to? The earth is finite and we all have a right to find a way to be in it.”

I cannot argue with that.

I live in a beautiful place whose natural beauty feeds and sustains me, literally and figuratively. And the rabbits ARE beautiful. I love them. And I do not want them in my garden. They are welcome to the clover and the tender shoots and herbs in Durer’s turf, not my spinach.

We bought a have-a-heart trap for the first time, and we have been helping rabbits travel to a different bit of turf, not near any vegetable gardens, where there are grasses and woods and water and more rabbits.

Meanwhile, another rabbit across town sits on my sister-in-law’s front steps and looks into her garden, the tender pea shoots, the lettuces. And another invades my friend Michele’s raised beds. And another eats my friend Mark’s broccoli.

I keep thinking about what Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about in her beautiful book Braiding Sweetgrass. In the introduction she describes the significance of Sweetgrass to her culture in which the grasses are living beings (and metaphor). She says: “In our language it (sweetgrass) is called wiingaashk, the sweet-smelling hair of Mother Earth. Breathe it in and you start to remember things you didn’t know you’d forgotten.”

In my year of the rabbit, I am starting to remember what I didn’t know I had forgotten.

Kate Gridley is an artist residing in Middlebury. She is currently working on a new series of paintings, “An Iconography of Memory.”

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