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March: hares

March 1, 2010

Happy March! Spring is coming, whether it feels like it or not! To welcome it, I give you a couple of hares from Castle Beastie.

plate by Emma Bridgewater

Hares are such strange and beguiling creatures. How they morphed into the Easter Bunny is beyond me: the wily, solitary, sinewy hare could hardly be less like the hordes of foolish little rabbits that infest our lawns here. Up on the hills of the estate, on the heathery moorland away from human habitation, there are brown hares living alongside the wild red deer and grouse. Walking up there through the late summer heather, I have been startled sometimes by an explosion of movement under foot. Usually this is a grouse, crouching in silence until the footfalls are almost upon it and it loses its nerve and erupts into cacophonous flight. Just occasionally, however, it is a hare, playing the same game of nerve as the grouse. A hare will wait until your boot is almost upon its head before rocketing out of its hiding place across the heather. She does not expend unnecessary energy: twenty feet away or so, she will stop to observe you from those bulbous, alien eyes, assessing your threat. She knows that she can escape you with ease, unless you have a gun. (Hares are classed as vermin in Britain and may be shot at will.) My husband has his gun with him but he is under the spell of the hare too: his gun will stay down by his side as we watch her lope unhurriedly away from us over the brow of the hill.

carved and decorated hare from Michelstadt, Germany

This carved hare, who lives on my kitchen dresser, has travelled further. It comes from the heart of Grimms’ fairy-tale country: the Odenwald in Hesse, Germany. It was dismissed as too twee and gemuetlich by our local friend, but I love it. Hares figure in tales of magic and faerie throughout Europe and beyond: this stylized carving reminds me of those mysterious connotations. (There is a wonderful essay on the many myths associated with rabbits and hares to be found here, which I discovered through the ethereal Moonlight and Hares blog.)

There was one occasion when I did feel as if I had stepped into a tale of medieval folklore in encountering a hare. It was late January, nearly twenty years ago, and I was walking with a friend up the Sma’ Glen in Perthshire. We were the only people out on the snowy hill, but we were far from alone. As well as a herd of forty or fifty red deer, we encountered two species unique to the high unspoilt places of the northern hemisphere: ptarmigan, in their white winter plumage, and mountain hares (lepus timidus). Tramping over a high plateau, we noticed a black speck in the whiteness around us. It was a mountain hare, bunched into its thick white winter coat and perfectly camouflaged in the snow except for the black tips of its ears. It sat watching us from not far away. Then we noticed that there was another, watching us from our other side. Then, by a rock up ahead, another. And another. A total of six or seven white hares were surrounding us, sitting in a rough circle. They made no move to approach, nor to run away. It was extraordinarily unnerving. I’m afraid that we were not thinking in terms of esoteric magic, however. Actually, the story brought to both our minds by the sudden appearance of these silent white watchers was that of the killer bunny in ‘Monty Python and the Holy Grail‘. (Well, we were students, what can I say?) On this occasion, however, the hares allowed us through their territory unscathed; and we lived to tell the tale over a dram in the pub that night.

So, as we say for luck at the start of a new month, White Rabbits! (or indeed hares).

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