Sunday, April 04, 2010

About Rabbits

What is it About Rabbits?

It's March and those cottontails have already been at it for a month. I'd always wondered if all those sayings about rabbits' reproductive lives were the rural equivalent of an urban myth, but no, there is some truth to many of those expressions. Assuming no mortality, two rabbits could produce 5 million offspring in just five years. It makes sense then that the rabbit was chosen as one of the symbols for Easter. Although it's a Christian holiday celebrating the resurrection of Jesus, many Easter customs are based on earlier pagan traditions related to the celebration of the spring equinox, a time of fertility and new life. But then there is also the story of Eostre, from German folklore, who discovered a bird with frozen wings that she saved by turning it into a hare which laid colored eggs. So, the Easter bunny is really a hare. Not much of a difference, except that the rabbit is born hairless and completely dependent, while the hare is born with fur and can move around right after birth.

Years ago, as an exercise in a nature writing class, I was given a photograph of two rabbits taken during mating season. The photographer was obviously aware that rabbits frolic, flirt, and cavort with animated jumping leading up to the act. What was captured is pure delight: desire on the part of one animal, fear and excitement in another. Droplets of dew that frame the couple add to the sense of motion and the thought that something biological is occurring.

We had rabbits that lived in our yard in Ghent. I never saw them mating but one day I found a nest of babies in my garden. The fur-lined nest, dug in the ground of my garden, had five or six hairless babies in it. The mother must have pulled her own fur out to line the nest and then covered it with more fur. When I first saw it, it looked like a fluffy brown cotton ball lying in the garden. But then I poked it with a twig and heard the babies squeaking. They squirmed around each other, eraser pink with wrinkles around their thick necks and legs. I had an automatic maternal reaction to save them, to bring them in, to nurse them. But my partner at the time talked sense into me, and I left them alone.

When spring arrives in the Northeast, there's a tendency for some people, especially those that have seasonal affective disorder, to feel a little manic. Isn't that what the rabbits are feeling too? Mania has as one of its symptoms sexual promiscuity. Perhaps the rabbits are just acting out on what many humans have inhibited for various reasons—a spring fling.

Imagine waking up as a male rabbit in mating season.

The sun is shining on the warm dew, as I run toward her my feet get wet.

She smells like spring, damp and warm.

I nuzzle her cheek with my nose.

She wakes blinking her eyes and then runs off.

All day I chase her, as the grass dries off it gets hot.

I feel hot.

Couldn't she stop running and leaping?

I grab her with my front paws and look at her face.

She's terrorized.

I don't feel bad. She's making me tired.

I have to chase her until she's too tired to run anymore.

It has to be today.

A famous mathematical puzzle called the rabbit problem, solved in the 12th century, asks if you were to put two rabbits in a room, how many pairs of rabbits can be produced from that pair in a year, if you allow that every month each pair produces a new pair, which from the second month on becomes productive? The answer, known as the Fibonacci sequence, is 1, 1, 2, 3, 5, 8, 13, 21, 34, 55, ... This sequence, in which each number is the sum of the two preceding numbers, plays an important role in describing designs throughout nature, and has been used extensively in Greek art and architecture. For example, the Golden Ratio, or Phi and the Golden Rectangle are derived from the Fibonacci sequence. The Golden Ratio is an irrational number, like Pi, that is, it goes on forever without repeating, and is equal to 1.6180... It can also be described as one plus the square root of five divided by two. A Golden Rectangle is a rectangle in which the ratio of the length to the width is the Golden Ratio. Interestingly, if you have a Golden Rectangle and you cut a square off of it, what you are left with is another Golden Rectangle. Greek architecture like the Parthenon is based on the Golden Ratio too, as are many famous paintings (Mona Lisa’s face).

The spiral of a nautilus shell connects through angles that are a Fibonacci sequence as it moves outward. The number of petals of a pine cone as it spirals outward are Fibonacci numbers. This is true for pineapples and sunflowers too. Why do seeds, petals and leaves all turn at an angle equal to the Golden Ratio? It turns out that this irrational number allows for the most efficient packing of seeds, and for leaves, the least obstruction of leaves below. Any rational number would in the end have leaves lining up on top of one another. It takes an irrational number, one of the least likely to converge, to make some of the best fits in nature.

When it comes to irrationality, mathematics does not have a monopoly. I think her name was Addie, I'm not sure, but when I was in high school I cared for a woman in a nursing home. She was one of many patients whom I was responsible for as an untrained nurse's aide. Addie was certainly one of my favorites, because she could carry on a conversation and could do a lot for herself. But she had one issue that was particularly challenging and at the same time endearing. When Addie received her meals, she would insist on feeding her stuffed bunny first. This bunny was about the size of a real rabbit, and it had a pink satin ribbon tied around its neck, Her habit resulted in dried crusted food sticking to the fake fur, all around its face and neck. Since Addie was so determined to feed the bunny first, she herself was suffering from malnutrition. The story on the floor was that Addie thought the bunny was her infant son. Everyone played along with this conceit, but also tried to get Addie to eat too. One day, without Addie’s knowledge, a new nurse decided that the stuffed rabbit was disgusting and sent it down to the laundry to be cleaned. I saw Addie that afternoon at the nurses' station using the phone. When I walked by, she told me that she was talking to her lawyer, because they had taken her baby away from her. Then Addie disappeared. She left the building to get on a bus to go to her lawyer's office. When the staff finally found her and brought her back, she had to be sedated and was therefore asleep when her stuffed rabbit came back from the laundry--fluffy and sweet smelling.

To Addie, a stuffed rabbit symbolized a much-loved child, an innocent remnant of a past she desperately clung to because her present had unraveled. To many others, rabbits symbolize fertility, spring, and an abundance of nature. When my son was seven he loved rabbit fur. He bought pieces when he saw them at the county fair and then kept the hide in his pocket to rub for comfort. A woman at the annual Sheep and Wool festival in Rhinebeck spins angora yarn from a rabbit that she keeps on her lap. My friend keeps rabbits as pets and travels over a hundred miles to Cornell to get good veterinary care. They are a part of our lives, these adorable, furry, and frisky animals. So it's hard to think of them as sexual creatures. Even harder to think that young females can conceive after only five months, so that two generations can actually be born within one breeding season. Perhaps the fear in the eyes of the female rabbit that I saw in the photograph, represents the fear that we all have when trying to reconcile the dichotomy inherent in nature: the ubiquitous violence even among the seemingly most gentle creatures and the childhood book illustrations of backyard pets.

On Easter, undoubtedly my mind will wander briefly to the Easter Bunny, and the thought of him will bring up an image of a man-sized, costumed, mall-ready mascot posing with small children for their Easter portraits. This evocation of the Easter Bunny is far more terrifying than any Santa Claus, as Jake Gyllenhaal illustrated so well in Donnie Darko. Size in this case is the single variable leading us from adorable to grotesque.

Fecundity in all its beauty and horror is the true theme of Spring and really as interesting a problem to wrestle with this season as the idea of resurrection. As Annie Dillard asks in her wonderful piece title “Fecundity” in Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, “I don’t know what it is about fecundity that so appalls. I suppose it is the teeming evidence that birth and growth, which we value, are ubiquitous and blind, that life itself is so astonishingly cheap, that nature is as careless as it is bountiful, and that with extravagance goes a crushing waste that will one day include our own cheap lives.”

We eat eggs on Easter and we play with stuffed rabbits—both symbols of fecundity. All around us outside plants are pushing through the warmed soil. Life is organized, defying entropy, and worthy of a nod for its resilience and forcefulness. It is the sustenance of the season, and the meat amid all the candy.

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