ANIMAL KNOWING

Across the hollow, off to the left of our deck, one singular tree has blushed a very soft green. On the forest floor, tiny white and lavender wildflowers hold up fragile petals to the sun.

For the past two weeks or more, we’ve had cold weather day and night. Spring took a brief vacation south. Everything she had been coaxing up from the ground here simply stopped and stood still, waiting.  Impatient asparagus spears poked up a purple head, felt the cold, and stayed under their brown soil covers.

Last week, in the chicken coop, Sophia the rabbit had a blessed greening all her own—her first crop of babies. My calendar told me this might be coming, but Sophia was shy about displaying any mother-to-be tendencies. She waited until the night of birth to build her nest—a disheveled pile of straw and hay, lined deeply with layers of her soft, chinchilla-colored fur.

That morning when I came out to bring breakfast and water to the coop critters, there she was, sitting beside her straw and fur stack, looking very pleased with herself. Ears up, eyes sparkling Sophie greeted me at the door of her cage, took the apple chunk I offered into the far corner, and began grunting and burbling. You’ll remember that she is a very chatty gal. I looked at the fine nest and said, “Goodness, Sophia! This is a lot of work! Babies must be in order very soon!”

Yet even as I spoke, I could see the change in her, a new sense of efficiency and purpose. The fur in her nest wiggled, confirming what my senses already knew. Babies!

In the cage next door, Freckles, the anxious poppa, sat upright, gazing intently into the bunny nursery. Sophia growled at him. Quickly, I put up a wedge of cardboard between their enclosures so mother and babies could have some privacy. Just as quickly, both Sophia and Freckles tore the barrier down.

My rabbit care book said to check the litter for any dead infants, but I was hesitant to bother them. I know that rabbits can be very easily stressed right after birth, and may injure or kill their babies if they sense danger. Still, I had spent the past year with these rabbits, hand-feeding them, talking with them, petting them. The same sense that told me the babies had been born told me it was okay for me to check them.

Have you ever put your hand on a nest of newborn rabbits, and felt them hot and squirming beneath you hand? Have you felt the jumbled tangle of faces, feet, and butts, bouncing against your fingers like popping corn? Have you heard them tweet softly, and squeal? I never had. This was bliss.

I had no idea newborn rabbits are such wiggly things! It was impossible to count them because no bunny ever stayed in the same place for more than two seconds. Still, I tried. “One, two, three…okay now…one, two…Okay, one, two, thr….” You get the idea. My guess is that there are between eight and ten of them. Outside the nest, and icy to my touch, I found one dead infant beneath a veil of straw. Sophia sniffed my fingers as I took that baby away. I thought she had done darn good, losing only one baby out of such a big first litter.

At least, it seems like a big litter to me. I can barely keep track of my two dogs. Once again, I sit before the mysterious gods of Instinct, and bow low and humbly. I ache to know the animal mind—the rabbit mind—that transitions from maiden to mother with certainty and poise.

Looking back, I realize that Sophia knew instantly the moment her babies were ignited within her. From that moment, she pushed Freckles away with a growl and a charge. And because I knew Sophia as intimately as I did, I was aware of the exact moment, also. The morning the babies arrived, there was a new, fresh confidence in my rabbit. She stepped softly among her children, moving aside the warm blanket of fur when the day became warm and still, covering them back up when the sun began dropping. She sits ever vigilant at the side of her nest, vibrant and peace-filled.

How does this natural knowing we have dubbed instinct make itself known in a body? Does it trickle in like bits of sunlight? Does it come like a sudden tide to the mind, washing the self with new knowledge and behavior? Does it sneak in one step at a time, moment-to-moment, action to action? Or is it like a banquet suddenly placed before you, and you eat and digest one tasty morsel of new wisdom at a time.

Or is this inborn knowing born in a moment of longing—longing to know what to do when suddenly new life springs from your nether regions.  Does instinct arrive then, in the nick of time, born by a calling from an honest heart?

How would it be to find yourself suddenly pulling hair out of your breast, compelled to arranging twigs and leaves in a bundle, circling and circling as ten wet and tiny bundles of life suddenly flowed out between your legs—and know exactly what to do? Know exactly what was called for next?

Watching Sophia this past week has spurred me to look for any connections in my own life that may be vaguely reminiscent of an animal knowing, a sense of instinct, in my own life. Are there qualities or abilities that I claim naturally, and without studied intent?

I wonder if my writing is like that. From the very beginning, I had a familiar sense of ease with putting words on paper. I remember once watching a friend of mine at an easel, painting, and I said, “How do you know how to do that?” She answered, “I don’t really know. It’s just ‘there.’ It surprises me every time.” Writing is like that for me.

I have a natural ease story telling in front of small groups and large crowds. I didn’t know I had that ability until I was asked, out of the blue, to get up in front of a gathering of businesswomen and tell them about my work. I was an educator for a humane society at the time. I grabbed the microphone like it was an extension of my hand, heard myself talking animatedly, and when I turned to go back to my seat, the room rose in a cheering, standing ovation. Where did that come from?

Perhaps these are facets of my natural born animal self. I put words on paper and send them into the world. Sophia makes a bed of fur to welcome her babies into the world. I think if we were asked how we knew to do that, we both would say, “I don’t really know. It’s just ‘there.’”

I’ll bet you have instincts—abilities that came with you down the birth canal—of your own. Maybe it is a way of thinking, a gift for organizing or holding a family together, or a natural skill with turning food into a gastronomic masterpiece. Whatever it is, isn’t it a wonder? Where did it come from? Have you recognized it yet, your animal self?

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8 Responses to ANIMAL KNOWING

  1. Kim Fox says:

    What a beautiful spring story Susan. This reminds me of when our rescue took in over 30 ferrets from a back yard breeder and I had the unique opportunity to raise two litters of eency weency ferrets..Your words brought that experience back to life for me. The nursery was in my bedroom and every night I would be lulled to sleep by their momma shuffling around and their little eep eeps. People would ask “How can you sleep with that?” and I would say, “I don’t know how one day I will be able to sleep without it.” Your biggest fan, Kim Fox

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Kim, I’ll be caring for orphan possum babies in a couple weeks. I plan to keep them in the bedroom, too!

  2. dave whitney says:

    Yes. As I read your comments, I am remembering fondly the times I’d put my hands amidst the squirming nest of newborn bunnies, warm and soft and smooth, heart warming aromas, squeaks and spastic jumblings…mama vigilant but tolerant…all that hopefulness expressed and implied….

    But then I am also brought to remember the other end of the game, when it came time to erase those lives that had been so full and urgent and insistant…and heart warmingly vibrant….

    Life Force: wonderful/terrible

    • Susan McElroy says:

      You know, Dave, I’m sitting with death a lot these days. No less than six of my friends and neighbors are fighting heroic battles with cancer. Folks are lining up for these babies out of the blue. A happy surprise, and much new poop for the garden until they are on their way to their new homes!

  3. Wonderful story, Susan! The gift of life in the midst of so much death. Thank you thank you.

  4. Mary Hitchcock says:

    I so enjoyed hearing about your rabbits & the new babies.You bring a wonderful bit of country & nature into my city life…a breath of fresh air! Thank you!

  5. Ann Parker says:

    Aww, sooo cute! We are looking at getting a couple more pet rats. We miss our little animal friends. With spring here, it just seems like the right time to “add to the family.” 🙂

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Parker! Yes, baby critters in the springtime! I need to post again soon with more photos. The babies are getting too cute for words. I’ve got a chicken sitting on a nest of three eggs right now, too. Babies everywhere! And…as an aside…when are you going to be posting on your “time travel whiplash” blog? I miss it!

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