Welcome back to another edition of Tell me a Story with First Farmers Bank & Trust. While we enjoyed a relatively mild winter this year, February seemed determined to make up for it! Many of us at the bank are breathing easy now that April has rolled around and looking forward to warmer temperatures and longer days.
Spring often means spring cleaning, home improvement projects, and planting flowers and gardens. We’re outside more, enjoying nature, so it’s logical that we’ll also see more of nature’s creatures. If you’ve ever read “Watership Down” by Richard Adams, you’ll enjoy this month’s story, about a warren of rabbits that embarks on a little home improvement of their own.
It turned warm early that year. Flowers made March appearances, dazzling in the spring sunshine, filling the air with the sweet scents of growing things. It rained, of course. It rained constantly. But somehow, every day, there was at least a few hours of sun. The rabbits would hop carefully out of their burrows, sniff the air, and take experimental nibbles of the grass, still dry and crunchy from winter’s grasp. Mostly, they just soaked up the sun, enjoyed the warmth, and, always watchful, kept an eye on the humans in the houses below.
The warren, a rambling collection of burrows and tunnels, had been scraped out years ago by the rabbits’ ancestors. The floor had been made smooth by generations of strong feet and warm bodies, the inside full of comfortable nests of long crumbled leaves, hoarded pieces of cloth, and tangles of rabbit fur, plucked out to pack around the newborn kittens. During the long months of winter, the warren was full of rabbits, the temperature maintained to a hospitable level by the press of bodies in the tight space. Now, in the early spring warmth, the tunnels were largely empty, the colony spread out in the tall grass outside of the town’s limits.
There was much to see in the afternoon sunlight. The warren was located on a slight rise that you might call a hill if you were feeling generous. Rabbits, being most comfortable when close to the ground, don’t often like to sit up and make targets of themselves. The hill provided a nice vantage point, however, and these rabbits had grown accustomed to the view. The people in the houses nearby could look out their windows or across their lawns and see half a dozen rabbits, sitting on their haunches with no apparent concern for safety. On this day, some of the small humans were busy in the yard of a blue house, only 500’ or so from the warren’s hill, and the rabbits were intrigued.
You may not know this, but rabbits are almost as curious as cats, although they are inherently more careful due to their status as prey. If a rabbit is satisfied that there is little risk of danger in a situation, they are likely to do a little exploring, especially if there’s a garden involved. These rabbits had explored a great many gardens in the homes nearby and were the primary reason for the tiny fences that had sprung up in those same gardens. For now, the gardens lay empty, and their curiosity led them to less practical pursuits.
The children from the blue house were playing in a sandbox. It had been covered for the winter, and now, finally freed to play outside in warm weather, the little girls were making castles in the damp sand. The rabbits, with nothing else to occupy their attention, watched as the children filled a bucket, poured some water into it from a nearby cup, and then suddenly and with great gusto slammed it upside down on to the ground. Many of these attempts resulted in half formed towers, the top quickly crumbling away.
The rabbits were not impressed with the castles, of course. Natural diggers, they’d enlarged their burrows, dug new tunnels, and could scrape out a small shelter in an hour. What caught their attention was the way the sand crumbled. The warren was comfortable, but difficult to expand. The dirt around it was hard and difficult to dig. Soon, the little girls heard their mother calling from inside the house and hurried inside. Two of the largest rabbits hopped casually towards the yard, fascinated by the slow, easy crumble of castles in the sand.
The rabbits in the hill warren were mostly brown, with a few white coats mixed in. They were of generous size, as the warren was comfortable, safe, and largely ignored by its human neighbors. Unlike many rabbits, these had stayed put for a few generations. Every season, some of the young bucks would wander off, drawn by a mysterious call to the wilds beyond the small town. For a rabbit, a journey of a mile is quite an undertaking, as they must proceed cautiously, on the lookout for foxes, dogs, hawks, cars, and all sorts of dangerous things.
The rabbits that remained on the hill didn’t follow that same philosophy. They were still naturally watchful, and the cry of a hawk will send them racing back to their burrows before the threatening shadow has fully passed them by. But the two rabbits that sat on the ledge of wood around the sandbox didn’t give too much thought to the blue house behind them, the cat that watched them greedily from the windowsill, or the perfectly audible voices of the children inside the home.
With a sudden decisive run that is characteristic of rabbits, the biggest one dove into the sandbox, scraping experimentally at the ground, delighting in the soft and sliding texture of the sand. This new experience was both terrifying and exhilarating for the rabbit, but due to his large stature and confident movements, he felt himself something of a role model for the younger buck who still sat on the ledge. This large rabbit, brown with a gray dusting across his nose and ears, had once stood down a weasel that was creeping through the grass outside the warren. Having developed a rather high opinion of himself since that encounter, he stubbornly ignored any instinct to flee. Now, covered in sand, he was showing off, and with a mighty kick of his hind legs, he knocked over the half-crumbled sandcastle just recently abandoned by the little girls.
Convinced, the younger rabbit joined in the fun, and the pair explored the sandbox for a few minutes. Soon, their attention was caught and held by the bucket. The same instinct that led them to collect scraps of fabric and bring in grass to the burrow for nesting had them studying this contraption. The bucket, shiny and red in the afternoon light, lay on its side, trailing sand from its rim. The oldest rabbit gave it a nudge with the top of his head, and it rolled slightly, the sand sliding inside.
Again and again, the two rabbits pushed at the bucket until it rolled up against the side of the sandbox, and here they were stuck. Eventually, the largest rabbit managed to bury his head partially underneath the bucket and push, which resulted in it lifting slightly off the ground. Admittedly, rabbits aren’t the most clever creatures on the planet, but these two surely would have succeeded in moving the bucket outside the sandbox to whatever end they had in mind, but at that exact moment, as the red, plastic bucket balanced precariously between the rabbits’ head and the ledge of the sandbox, as gravity nearly shifted to help the rabbits rather than hindering them, the cat, once relaxing quietly on the windowsill, made a quick and sudden entrance onto the scene.
If you’ve ever watched your cat or dog chase a rabbit, you know what is most likely to happen. While fast, our canine and feline friends don’t have the speed and agility to match a rabbit that has been responsibly keeping tabs on them. These two rabbits, caught up in a struggle with the red bucket, did not notice when the cat disappeared from the window, nor did they pay attention to her shadow as it crept loyally in front of her along the side of the house. Surprised, they bolted, an instinct that no amount of comfortable living on the hill could dull. Unfortunately, in the immediate and mindless urge to run, they were quickly confused by the encroaching walls of the sandbox, and rather than hurdling over this obstacle, they’d simply turn. The result was a circular race between cat and rabbits, until finally they ended up at opposite ends of the sandbox, staring across the scratched and furrowed landscape at each other, unmoving.
Cats are contrary creatures. This is not an insult. Many people are contrary creatures as well. The cat that had been chasing the two rabbits around the sandbox is typical for her species. The rabbits sat quivering on their side of the tiny arena, eyes beginning to glaze over as panic, originally pushing them into thoughtless and frantic flight, now clamped around their muscles in a kind of allowed paralysis. The cat, sometimes called Princess by the little girls, more often referred to as monster and even more colorful names by their mother, determined that this was the perfect time for a quick bath in the sun. The rabbits, quite obviously, could wait.
And wait they did, watching the tabby as she groomed her tail, seemingly at ease but always, always glaring at the two rabbits, ready to resume the chase at a moment’s notice. The standoff couldn’t last, and our two intrepid bunnies would surely have come away from the encounter on the losing end, but the little girls chose that moment to return to the yard.
“Princess!” they squealed and pounced on the long-suffering feline. And then, “Look, sis! Mom! Rabbits!”
The smaller girl made a dash for the rabbits but upon seeing their tormentor captured in the loving embrace of the humans, they recognized the sandbox walls as the easily cleared obstacles they were and made a quick escape back towards the hill.
If you’ve ever read any stories about Peter Rabbit, you’ll know that rabbits, as innocent and mild as any small creature upon the earth, are also mischievous. They’re not above playing pranks on each other, which usually consists of hiding outside of one another’s burrows and pouncing upon the unsuspecting victim at the earliest opportunity for a quick tussle. If you have time and the opportunity to observe a warren of rabbits, which is difficult, as they tend to avoid people, you’ll notice all kinds of social dynamics that we don’t see when a lone hare crosses our path. When Princess the cat interrupted our two adventurers, they reacted on instinct. As calm once again settled over the hill, however, without any of the tiresome conversation and planning that keeps us humans from concocting nearly as many schemes as we could, they came to the conclusion that not only would they return to the sandbox, they would make sure that they weren’t caught in the same precarious situation again. The cat might show up, but if she did, they would be ready for her.
The bigger rabbit used all of his charisma and a considerable amount of good-natured bullying to gather a trio of young rabbits together, and along with his earlier companion, the group of bunnies set off down the hill later that evening. The sun had started to drop towards the western horizon, but its stately process promised another hour of daylight. No amount of bunny bravado would see these rabbits so far away from their burrows once dusk settled across the land.
As they scampered closer to the blue house and the sandbox with its mysterious red bucket, movement in the shadow of the house betrayed the tabby. She was crouched low, hugging the side of the home, intent upon the line of rabbits that threatened the boundaries of her domain.
The rabbits huddled together, ready to run, looking back at the cat. The biggest rabbit, unofficial leader of this expedition, slowly bounded to the ledge of the sandbox. Rising up on his hind legs, he did not so much remember the weasel that he’d backed down, he just felt slightly more of an urge to move forward and face danger than to run from it. With an almost contemptible glance at the crouching tabby, he hopped down into the sandbox, moved to the bucket, and began to dig.
As the large rabbit dug in the sandbox, the other four, now quite invisible to the captivated feline, crept closer, keeping their heads ducked down. They did this together through some mysterious form of rabbit communication, far simpler than our own and somehow beyond understanding. The very air seemed to thrum with nervous energy as the group fought their natural instincts to run before a predator. They watched as Princess crept closer and closer to the sandbox.
The leader, having now dug halfway under the bucket, once again began to roll it towards the ledge. The experience from earlier had worked its lessons into his muscle memory, and he gave himself a low starting point and maximum leverage. The red bucket, once an almost insurmountable obstacle, now tumbled easily towards the sandbox border and with one final heave, cleared the wall and fell on the other side.
The cat had watched this drama play out for as long as could possibly be expected. In two long leaps, she was on top of the bucket, delighted that this rabbit not only returned, but apparently felt the need to bring friends. The four other rabbits had hopped towards the red bucket as well, and now Princess was presented with too many options for the chase. She shifted her weight one direction and then another, merely a second’s hesitation, but happily for the rabbits, it was enough.
The bucket was still on its side. As the cat leaned from one side to the other, it started to roll once again. Princess, as graceful as any cat, leaped up and away, and in one of those rare instances of universal humor, dashed towards the smallest rabbit upon landing. Fortunately for him, the bucket rolled in between them at the most opportune moment, and she ended up head first in a very short dead-end tunnel.
If you are picturing this scene, you might expect the cat would quickly back out of the bucket and resume chasing rabbits until they regained their senses and quite literally headed for the hills. But our hero, the largest rabbit in the group, who once faced down a weasel all by his lonesome, found himself on the receiving end of a karmic gift. As Princess was reversing, he ran up to her tail and gave it a quick nip then turned and kicked out with his legs. Princess was understandably caught off guard and did the only thing that made sense...she ran.
The big rabbit, fully caught up in the glory of the moment, ran alongside, bumping into the bucket and gradually steering Princess towards the distant warren. The other rabbits, not as enthusiastic and suddenly faced with an angry and hissing bucket, ran towards their burrows, so that it was a bunny stampede back towards the hill. Anybody looking outside at this moment would have been presented with quite the scene.
As the rabbits arrived at the warren, all of them quickly ran down one burrow or another. Princess, no longer bombarded on all sides by unseen enemies, slowed to a stop and finally backed out of the bucket. With a quick shake of her head, she looked around for a rabbit to chase. Finding none, and also having lost her dignity somewhere in the backyard, she returned to the blue house, largely unharmed but never quite sure what had happened.
The hill warren inspected the red bucket in ones and twos over the next few days. There was still a small amount of sand in the bottom, but the bucket itself had become the prize. As spring stretched into summer, the grass grew up to hide the plastic toy. The rabbit kittens would often hop in and out of it, with the big rabbit grazing nearby. Perhaps it still sits outside of the burrows, a visual reminder of the time a rabbit chased a cat, and that feline neighbor left a most unlikely gift.
From all of us at First Farmers, Happy Easter, Happy Spring, and Happy Adventuring!