A run-of-the-mill Eastern cottontail, Sylvilagus floridanus (or “forest hare of Florida”), is spending the season under our porch. Despite his species name, he is no flatlander—like a true Vermonter, he knows how to get through the winter. He couldn’t ask for a more convenient accommodation: he only has to stick out his head to munch on the oil-rich sunflower seeds that rain down from the feeders under the eaves. When he’s feeling brave he lopes across the yard to nibble on the stalks of dormant bushes, and when he gets thirsty, he drinks out of the heated birdbath.
I don’t have to look out the window to know his whereabouts. If my cat Telemann–who has finally, in his fourth year, learned that it’s impossible to hunt squirrels through the glass–is dashing from windowsill to windowsill, yowling and lashing his tail, I know the rabbit is out feeding. But if Telemann is lost in meditation, contemplating the endless snow of this endless winter, it means that the rabbit is under the porch.
They are a dreary looking lot, my outdoor winter guests, rabbit and squirrels and birds in their grayish, brownish coats and plumage. Only the red head of the woodpecker and the smear of pale orange under the titmouse’s wings bring relief from the drabness, and I find myself longing for the rusty red of the fox.
Where, come to think of it, is the fox? What’s become of last year’s family? By now the new litter should be nursing in the den across the road, and their father, the dog fox (whose spouse is not the bitch fox, but rather the vixen–don’t you love the English language?) should be coming by on his hunt, morning and evening, like he did last year. Heaven knows that my squirrels, not to mention the bunny, have reached perfect dinner size, with enough fat calories to satisfy all the fox’s dependents.
Perhaps the foxes have left for good, in which case I will miss them, with their elegant coats, black stockings, and clever smiles. And I will also miss the life-and-death dramas that they enacted under my window, which gave me a shameful kind of thrill, not unlike what the more sensitive Romans must have felt at the circus.
If the foxes stay away, my rabbit will probably make it to the spring, and will then get busy making more rabbits. I will not depress you with wild rabbit survival statistics, which are dismal, but the taste for rabbit is widespread in Nature. Depending on size, not just foxes, but dogs, cats, owls, hawks, bobcats, snakes, and humans eat them. So to keep the species going, the poor things have to procreate nonstop.
Does the rabbit under my porch know that he’s not likely to live to his first birthday? Is he anxious about food and shelter and predators? Does he feel that this winter has been going on for eons, like I do?
I used to love Vermont winters—the cold, the snow, the bare woods, the silence. It felt good to take a break from warm-weather chores and hibernate along with the chipmunks and the bears. But now I, along with the rest of (responsible) humanity, have been hibernating for twelve months straight, and it’s getting old.
Unlike my rabbit and too many of my fellow citizens, I am not anxious about food, shelter, or predators (except for the merciless invisible spherical one). The sources of entertainment at my fingertips—Kindle, computer, TV—offer way more than I can even begin to consume. As for human contact, I have a spouse at my fingertips, plus zoom, phone, and masked walks with friends. And it’s not as if in normal times I was an avid shopper/hiker/concert goer/restaurant diner/traveler. So what is lacking in my life?
Perhaps during the last twelve months I have contracted the equivalent of a spiritual virus that has left me unable to even imagine things to want. The color of my mood is not blue, but rather dun: gray with touches of brown and occasional white—a lot like the coloring of my friend the cottontail. I wouldn’t say I’m depressed. I’m just…meh.
But I know one thing that will make me and most living things in this hemisphere feel better. A couple of days ago I was out in below 20 F weather, getting some fresh air before the next snow storm, when up in a Bradford pear tree I heard a bird singing–the first one in, like, forever. Not just a couple of random tweets, either, but a full-throated, full-hearted aria that was then answered from the top of another Bradford pear by another singer. I stood transfixed, as if Saint Cecilia herself had descended from heaven with her harp. And while I was looking up into the branches, trying to find the source of that passionate rivulet of sound, I felt the warmth of the sun touch the exposed skin between my hat and my mask.
So never mind the woodchuck’s forecast. Spring is on the way.