Tuesday, 6 March 2007

The leaping hare

The brown hare holds a special place in my affections. Above my desk is a print of a hare by Suffolk artist Andrew Haslen. Pressed down in the autumn furrow of a ploughed field, the hare shown in the print captures those characteristics that, to me, define this magnificent creature. The alert eyes, large ears and bulbous nose reflect highly developed senses, alert to danger, while the lean athletic frame provides the power by which the hare can escape from predators. However, it is in the fields, rather than in print, that you really begin to appreciate the true essence of the brown hare. Hares are largely nocturnal in their habits but they can be seen at dawn and dusk from spring through into summer. During the day they will remain almost motionless, hunkered down in their forms. Unlike a rabbit, which will dash for his burrow as soon as he sees you, the hare will wait, watching you and remaining in her form until you are almost on top of her. Only then will she leap away, accelerating across the field with an elegant and controlled display of speed. If pursued, the hare will turn gracefully through wide circles. The whole manoeuvre has a feeling of control; there is not the sense of panic that you see in rabbits.

The brown hare has long been associated with spring; it is a symbol of fertility, of a new beginning and appears as such in many different cultures. In the myths of the Algonquin Indians, it is “michabo” – the great hare, who creates the earth. In Britain, the hare appears in the mythology of Easter, laying eggs like a bird and symbolising rebirth. According to Bede, the word “Easter” was adopted from the name of an Anglo-Saxon goddess called Eostre (spelt eastre or eastur by other writers). This goddess was associated with the month of April, the “dawn month”, and the start of spring. Not all of the mythology surrounding the hare is so flattering, for there are many references which place the hare as a witch, or rather one of the forms a witch may assume. This association has ancient roots, most likely stemming from the rituals central to tribal hunter-gatherers. During ceremonies, certain members of the tribal group would assume the form of those animals important to these people, an association that has continued down through the years, changing its characterisation with time.  Such a rich mythology provides added interest, something to reflect on as you watch these wonderful creatures out in the fields.

Hares are their most obvious at this time of the year, the combination of lengthening daylight and short vegetation providing the ideal opportunity to watch the leaping hare.

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