I am kneeling between rows of kale and carrots when a thin cry pierces the quiet of my garden. My dog emerges from the squash patch, a bunny clenched between her teeth. “Drop it!” I shout, and she does, surprising us both. It’s not in her nature, nor mine, to let go. I shoo her out of the garden and shut the gate, then gather up the bunny, trembling but unhurt. I cradle it in my palm and stroke one finger over its silky brown fur, the white blaze on its forehead, its tiny, rippled pink ears.
For more than a decade, my husband and I lived in an old blue house on a tidy half-acre in small-town Illinois. The town was filled with friends. The half-acre was filled with fruit trees and flowers, a magnolia that bloomed beneath our kitchen window, and a garden we hand-tilled in a circle and tended for ten years.
Your garden feels like a sanctuary, friends said, and every rabbit in a five-mile radius seemed to agree. They gnawed our woody perennials to nubs, mowed the lettuces to scraps, and plucked strawberries from the raised beds. I scattered foul-smelling pellets and sent our dogs out on hapless high-speed chases, and still they came, creeping back at night to nibble spring blooms.
Despite me, the rabbits found shelter in the garden. So did the hummingbirds, bees, and butterflies. So did our friends. So did I. When fear or sorrow stalked me, I crept into the center of that circle, sat down amid the sweet peas and sunflowers, and settled into the embrace of that good, green world.
Last spring, we moved to this wild, wooded acre in Indiana. We unpacked our belongings as the pandemic shut down our state, then our country. We woke up in a world made new.
In this new world, I am still a gardener. I turn over the soft soil and bury seeds in the darkness. I trellis sweet peas, stake tomatoes, thin carrots, and dig weeds right down to their roots. I plant zinnias for the butterflies and hyssop for the bees. I trudge into the house sweat-slicked, homesick, and smeared with dirt.
In this new world, my dog has become a predator. She digs trenches all over the yard, tracking the movements of moles and mice. She shimmies under the shed in search of groundhogs. She tugs nests down from their perches, snatches fledglings clean out of the air. By the time I get there, the nest is wrecked, the burrow plundered, and the dog sits calmly next to her prize. I bury countless tiny, broken bodies in the woods.
In this new world, we count our losses. Hundreds of thousands of Americans dead. Our friend’s young wife and our colleague’s father, both gone within hours. Our elderly neighbor, still alive but diminished. The warmth of a hug. The sight of a smile. Our disappearing days.
Under a tangle of vines, I tuck the bunny into the nest with its siblings. Surely they’ll be dead or scattered by morning, but when I return the next day, there they are. Two are wandering the patch on wobbly new legs. Another is curled up next to a pumpkin, dozing.
A hawk swoops over the backyard, gripping a squirrel in its talons. A snake suns itself on the raspberry canes. The dog dances at the garden gate, pawing, but I don’t let her in.
Every morning, I find the bunnies alive and growing, gathering courage. They creep closer as I weed or harvest. They venture further from home, exploring the far corners of the garden. Soon enough, they’ll slip outside this sanctuary. They’ll get snatched by a dog or carried off by a hawk, or they’ll live to become rabbits who ravage every good green thing. One way or another, they will break my battered heart.
But not yet. I pad barefoot into the garden and settle myself on the damp ground. The bunnies peer into the morning with bright black eyes. They live here now. They live, for now. They can shelter for a moment in this new world with me.
Image Credit: Flickr Creative Commons/Kristy Butts