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Thursday, September 1, 2011

17) European Hare

Lepus europaeus

For the last week or so I’ve been reading Simon Carnell’s extraordinary book Hare, published by Reaktion Books in the UK as part of their Animal series.  I bought it late last year in Melbourne’s Collected Works bookshop: I was in the shop for a fundraiser, so I was browsing the shelves with particular attentiveness, and as soon as I saw the book I snatched it up in delight.  I’ve been besotted with Hares ever since I started seeing them around Yarralumla, in Canberra, where I grew up.

I think I was a student at the Australian National University, studying biology, when I first saw a European Hare (also known as a Brown Hare).  I don’t know why I hadn’t seen any before then: I’d lived in the same area my whole life.  It seemed that all of a sudden Yarralumla became inundated with Hares.  I can still remember my surprise the first time I saw one; it was a surprise born to a great degree out of the unexpectedness not just of seeing an animal I hadn’t seen before, but of seeing an animals whose existence – in fables, in stories, in books – I’d been aware of for as long as I could remember.  Without ever having seen a Hare before, the first time I saw one I knew exactly what it was.  I’d seen plenty of European Rabbits (Oryctolagus cuniculus) and this Hare wasn’t one of them, that was for certain.  It was huge, and dark, and when it saw me it ran.

After that I saw Hares regularly around Yarralumla.  There were particular places they seemed to favour: after about nine or ten o’clock at night you could be almost guaranteed of seeing a congregation of them in the long grass near the Chinese Embassy.  While walking the family Dog (Canis familiaris) at dusk on Stirling Ridge, on the edge of Lake Burley Griffin I’d often flush a Hare from its form, the shallow depression the animal scrapes in the ground and which passes for a shelter.  I quickly learned that allowing the dog to chase Hares was the best exercise I could giver her: as fast as she was, she had no hope of catching a Hare and she invariably returned to me panting and wide-eyed with exertion.

I suspect many Australians aren’t even aware that there are Hares in this country.  They were introduced by humans, of course, as were so many other animals, but unlike their near relatives the Rabbits they haven’t caught the public imagination here, presumably because their environmental impact is so much less.  Hares are more solitary than Rabbits and there aren’t nearly as many of them in Australia as there are Rabbits.  Rabbits number in the tens or hundreds of millions in Australia and are perhaps the most hated animal in this country; Hares are so rarely mentioned that even finding basic demographic information about them online is surprisingly difficult.

As with any animal, for each Hare I saw in Canberra there were probably many that I didn’t see.  One summer, during the university holidays, I volunteered to help one of the Botany and Zoology Department’s PhD students net Speckled Warblers (Chthonicola sagittatus) in Campbell Park, a large patch of remnant bushland in Canberra’s inner north.  This necessitated a twenty-minute ride shortly after dawn from my parents’ house into the university, and at that time of the morning I was startled by the number of Hares I saw.  They ran from the verges of the bike path as I approached, as surprised to see me as I was to see them: on any given morning I might see a dozen of them in just one particular short stretch of the ride.  A few hours later, when I rode back, they’d all have gone to ground.

I was on the verge of starting the second year of my degree then, and I remember that I was excited about studying population ecology.  Ever since I’d been a child watching David Attenborough documentaries all I’d ever really been interested in was animals; by the time I came to enrol in university writing had emerged as another interest, but even so there was never really any thought in my mind that I’d study anything other than biology.  Right from the start I knew that I was fascinated by animals, and animal behaviour, and animal ecology, and I suffered through the human biology and microbiology and chemistry classes that I was forced to take as part of a general primer in the first year of my degree.

So the start of second year was something I was eager to get on with.  It was with second year that I’d start to be able to specialise my studies, to learn about the things that really interested me.  Yet even before second year began I was already becoming uncomfortably aware of a severe shortcoming in my intellectual abilities: I’d just barely scraped through first year statistics, I couldn’t get my head around numbers, I tried but they just left me baffled.  But science, of course, is all about numbers.  Over the course of the second year of my degree I came to realise that I just didn’t have the requisite skills or particular mental ability required of a scientist.  A passion for animals wasn’t enough, not nearly.  I changed my focus, and completed my degree, and graduated, but any ideas I’d once had of being a scientist, of studying animals for a living, had long since fled and gone.

I guess I’m fortunate to have other things besides animals that I’m just as passionate about.  It was while at university that I began writing in earnest, after a couple of years of not really having done any writing at all.  A few years after graduating from university I had my first book published, a collection of stories; a couple of years after that a short novel followed.  Both disappeared almost without a trace, other than the excitement of my ever-supportive family.  I’ve kept writing, though, and kept trying to get things published with that peculiar mixture of bright optimism and deep pessimism which accompanies any attempt to get something published (particularly in Australia, particularly in 2011).

I’m older now, though, I’ll be 32 in just over a week, and I’m no longer in Canberra but in Melbourne where it sometimes seems as if every second person is a writer, and I can feel myself trying to become involved in a world populated by people of sometimes dazzling talent, and if there’s another emotion which is inseparable from the act of writing it’s self doubt.  I can turn a nice phrase, and I can pick a good metaphor and manage not to mix it, but I’m starting to realise that that’s not enough.

This book by Simon Carnell really has taken me aback.  I’m about two fifths of the way through it and every page so far has been a ceaseless rush of astonishing facts about Hares: about the mythology of Hares; past misconceptions about Hares; the role of Hares in the religions of places from ancient British to pre-Columbian Mexico to China and Africa; the symbolism and theological interpretations of Hares in Christianity through the ages.  I can’t begin to imagine how a person would go about researching such a variety and density of information.  I tried writing a story last year set in 1960s Australia and found myself baffled by even the most rudimentary attempts to research it.  I’ve always felt that the majority of fiction writers provide too much information, demonstrate too much research – but surely too little is just as bad, perhaps even worse?  I know this is a shortcoming of mine but I just don’t know how to resolve it.

I guess the only answer is to keep going.  Maybe I’ll find that it’s running away from me faster than I can pursue it; but with luck, even if I never catch what I’m after, I’ll be better for the effort.

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