Posted in Personal life, Reading

March Hare Madness

Moving to Hawkesbury Upton has given me a much greater awareness of the changing seasons than when I lived and worked in towns and cities. Thirty years on, I’m still not over the novelty of having new-born lambs as near neighbours down my lane in the spring, or to hearing the birds sing with renewed vigour as the days lengthen.

photo of ewe and lamb in field
Some of my favourite neighbours

Less predictable was the sudden appearance of a fox the other day in my secluded back garden, enclosed on all sides by the walls and high fences of my neighbours’ properties. I was sitting quietly reading in our back room, when a startling flash of orange out of the corner of my eye alerted me to the biggest and most beautiful fox I’ve ever seen. He was standing majestically on the outhouse roof, channelling his inner Monarch of the Glen, as in Landseer’s famous painting.

Sir Edwin Landseer's painting, The Monarch of the Glen
Sir Edwin Landseer’s painting The Monarch of the Glen (image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

After a brief staring competition, he performed his own take on the old typing exercise renowned for using all the letters in the alphabet: the quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog, substituting for the canine my little tabby and white cat, Bingo, sunning himself at the other end of the roof. Bingo only blinked as the fox darted down the lawn and out of sight.

What I’d really like to see next – though even less likely to be found in my garden – is a March hare.

Well, any old hare, really. I’ve seen lone hares loping across fields around the parish, or sitting up, meerkat-style, to get the lie of the land. But I’ve never seen them engaging in the fabled boxing activity associated with the month of March. I’d always assumed the boxing was between two male hares competing for supremacy. I’ve just discovered that it’s always between a mixed couple, the female fending off the advances of the male early in the mating season.

Albrecht Duerer's portrait of a hare
Albrecht Duerer’s wise and soulful Hare (image in the public domain, via Wikimedia Commons)

Not so with so-called boxing kangaroos, where two males fight for dominance, holding each other in place with their short front paws while inflicting serious injuries with their mighty clawed back feet.

Such agitation isn’t really madness in either creature, but the saying “mad as a March hare” dates back to the sixteenth century.

The image was further popularised by Lewis Carroll when he seated his Hare with the Hatter at the tea party in the crazy world of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland. They also reappear in the sequel, Through the Looking Glass, as Haigha and Hatta, the King’s messengers.

In John Tenniel’s drawing, the Hare’s ears are strewn with straw, a Victorian symbol of insanity, while the Hatter’s madness is an occupational hazard of his profession. The mercury used by Victorian hatmakers in the felting process caused erethism, a neurological disorder commonly known as Mad Hatter Disease. Symptoms included behavioural changes such as difficulty handling social interactions, as Alice finds to her cost. As indeed does the Dormouse, whom, as Alice leaves the tea party, the Hare and the Hatter are trying to stuff into the teapot.

John Tenniel drawing of the Mad Hatter's Tea Party
John Tenniel’s illustration of the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Lewis Carroll’s “Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland” (image in the public domain via Wikimedia Commons)

But for Hawkesbury hares, there’s good news: the hare’s mating season continues until September, so if they are troubled by March madness, their relationship issues should improve next month. Just so long as their sweethearts are not lured away in April by the arrival of the Easter Bunny bearing gifts

This post first appeared in the March 2022 edition of the Hawkesbury Parish News


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Posted in Travel, Writing

Running in Wonderland (You Can Call Me Alice)

Tenniel's illustration of the White Knight from Through the Looking GlassChanging your form of transport now and again is a good idea because if gives you a different perspective on the world around you. I’m always pleasantly surprised when transferring from my Ford Ka to our camper van: it’s like becoming a giant for a day. I can then look down upon walls that towered above  my car and discover the secrets usually concealed behind high fences, their owners fondly believing they have private gardens. Pony-trekking has the same effect: I felt like queen of the hedgerows.

Trading four wheels for two is equally refreshing because until you acclimatise to the slower speed of a bicycle, it’s like travelling in slow motion. There’s more time to digest the view on your journey and the fresh air and sensaround smells on a bike ride are much more pleasant than the microclimate of a sealed glass and metal box.

But my favourite way to absorb the local landscape is when I’m running. Invariably I run alone and the solitude means I’m not distracted by passengers’ banter or irritated by their choice of music. Jogging down the familiar country lanes that surround my house, I often notice  features that I’d never spot if travelling by other means. Last week, I saw a tiny wren on a branch and a smattering of bluebells breaking through a grassy bank, the earthy smell of new damp grass rising up from beneath my feet.

Tenniel's illustration of Alice and the faun from Alice Through the Looking GlassOnce, plodding silently along Sandpits Lane, I caught a flash of taupe out of the corner of my eye. I turned to see what it was and discovered a mountjack deer gazing at me from a field a few metres away. The encounter stopped us both in our tracks and for a moment we breathlessly appraised each other. I felt like Alice in Through the Looking Glass when she meets the Fawn in the wood where things have no names. The Fawn therefore doesn’t know Alice is a girl and so is not afraid of her.

So they walked on together through the wood, Alice with her arms clasped lovingly round the soft neck of the Fawn, till they came out into another open field, and here the Fawn gave a sudden bound into the air, and shook itself free from Alice’s arm. “I’m a Fawn!” it cried out in a voice of delight. “And, dear me! you’re a human child!” A sudden look of alarm came into its beautiful brown eyes, and in another moment it had darted away at full speed.  

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass and What Alice Found There

The mountjack deer was first to crack in our staring competition and ran off rather faster than I did. Though this chance meeting lasted only seconds,  the magic of the moment has stayed with me ever since.

So I was not surprised to experience another David Attenborough moment on Sunday as I notched up a few miles’ running training before lunch. I’d crossed the Bath road to extend my usual route. As I entered new, unfamiliar running territory, a splash of silver and white caught my eye and I looked towards it. There, in the corner of a field, lay a gentle, peaceful unicorn. I gasped. And there was me thinking my deer encounter couldn’t be bettered!

Tenniel's illustration of the Lion and the Unicorn from Through the Looking GlassI stood stock still, not wishing to break the spell. I was breathing hard. (Well, I had just run three miles.) Then the oxygen started to return from my leg muscles to my brain and my eyes came into focus. And I realised that of course this wasn’t a unicorn at all, only a pale grey horse having a rest on the ground. It had settled down, legs tucked beneath it, in front of a white picket fence. A stake in the fence had come loose and was hanging free at an angle behind the horse’s head, looking for all the world like a unicorn’s horn. Turning round, I smiled at my own foolishness  and resumed my weary trot in the direction of home. Whatever would I come across next? I wondered. I just hoped it wouldn’t be a lion.

(All the illustrations above by John Tenniel, from my favourite book of all time, Lewis Carroll’s Through The Looking Glass And What Alice Found There.)

If you liked this post and enjoy running (and this post), you might like some of my other posts about running:

What Would It Take to Make You Run 10K?   

The Best Reason to Run

And if you really, really liked my post, please consider sponsoring my Bristol 10K Run 2012 in aid of diabetes research!