Robert Lawson, author and illustrator of Rabbit Hill and its sequel The Tough Winter knew something about gardens and the community they attract, that is, the animal community they attract. After all, doesn’t Rabbit Hill open with scenes of excited animals spreading the news that new folks had arrived, folks who like to garden? Robert Lawson seemed to take a benevolent attitude toward furry crowds encroaching on lettuces. And perhaps it was his own experience with abundant vegetable gardens which brought him to the conclusion that, truly, there is “enough for all.” In a charming manner he tutors us in this philosophy in the first pages of The Tough Winter:
There was a Hill, and on the Hill there was a house known as the Big House. The Folks who lived in the Big House loved and respected all Animals, and the Small Animals who lived on the Hill loved and trusted their Folks—and were not afraid.
So they dwelt there together, the Folks and the Animals, in the greatest amity.
On the Hill there was a statue of the good St. Francis, carved of stone, and holding out his hands in kindly welcome to the Small Animals he so loved. At his feet there was a pool of clear water, and around the pool there was a coping of broad, flat stones. On the stones were carved the words:
There is enough for all
Each night there was spread on these stones a feast for the Animals: sweet hay, fresh vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, and grain. Each morning the stones were clean.
Being well fed and having decent gratitude and respect, the Animals never so much as set paw in the Folks’ garden. Flowers and vegetables bloomed and ripened there all untouched.
Is this a fairy tale, stewardship, or surrender? I look up from my copy of The Tough Winter, and I spy not one but two rabbits in my garden. “There is enough for all.” But I wonder. How can it be true? My garden has been wounded by a long, cold spring, an early summer drought, and now by an increasing community of animals. Of what exactly will there be enough?
I know there is a mysteriousness to vegetable gardens. Several seasons have shown me that each year holds its own surprises, delights, frustrations, and lessons. As much as the human world likes to regulate and shake everything down to a predictable sameness, the natural world has never been predictably the same and never will be. The uneven success of this year’s garden stands in testament to that. It is half modest success and half failure in very unexpected places. Is this year’s lesson telling me I don’t need a superabundance of vegetables? Is there some other bounty the garden has to give? No gardener takes that suggestion easily. A bountiful garden means a wheelbarrow full of zucchini. Well, I must not be difficult about these descriptions. Perhaps a garden can give another kind of bounty.
So I continue to ponder this funny gardening season and where the bounty might lay hidden. Last year, the hum of the dehydrator murmured all summer long. The ferments bubbled. The supply of garlic was longer than the winter. But this year, half the garden simply refused to show up. True, half the trusty regulars did come through—garlic, onions, tomatoes—and an honorable mention to the basil which was late to the game but is now finally flourishing. So there is that bounty. But so much more is lacking that the overall produce harvest cannot be called a great success. My mantra to new gardeners has always been “anyone can grow a squash.” Ha. Not me, not this year. It is very humbling to fail at growing zucchini. But yes, you learn something new every gardening season. This year I have learned that some years it can be hard to grow a squash. Cold springs and dry summers will do them in. In such cases, the only bounty might be a dose of humility for the gardener.
Of course, it wasn’t just the cold and drought that did my zucchini in. The natural elements had some help. It was the kind of help Robert Lawson wrote about in The Tough Winter:
Uncle Analdas glanced at the portly Woodchuck busily stuffing himself on grass and clover. Porkey had far more than a little fat on his bones. His sides bulged, his neck was almost larger than his head, he wheezed and grunted each time he pulled up a tuft of grass, but still he continued to stuff.
A drop of rain is like a golden elixir to a zucchini plant. It can cause it to triple in size overnight. One rare rainfall was just the potion my green but tiny squash needed. But I suppose cold springs and dry summers are hard on woodchucks too. I stood staring at the ravaged plant the next morning and suspected rabbits. I had to let them off though when I observed that it would have taken twenty rabbits to do this much damage. Deer? Deer have always skipped the zucchini in their browsing of the vegetable buffet. I then recalled that the day before I had seen a woodchuck slip under my neighbor’s deck. I don’t think my neighbor knows it, but I have seen just about every imaginable animal slip under that deck at one time or another. I suspect if I ever snuck over and took a look into that dark space, I’d find several critters busy with a card game. Be that as it may be, I conclude that the woodchuck likes to feast on zucchini. The rabbits looked at me as much to say, “We told you it wasn’t us.”
Which brings me back to the rabbits—these rabbits are everywhere. If you meet one on the rose arbor path, it will move—a couple of feet. If you find one by the compost, it’ll casually saunter into the shade the hazelnut. If you spy one in the petunias, it’ll rearrange its rump a little, but continue nibbling. They are quite at home, here in this half-successful garden. I guess, it is just a funny year of abundance. What you expect to be abundant is not, and what you do not expect is. Well, some people expect rabbits to be abundant all the time, but actually they are not. Some years we don’t see any.
So while this season has denied me many vegetables, and therefore all the work a bountiful harvest entails, it has given me a glorious animal abundance that must in someway be received as a gift. The yard is breeching its zoological capacity. I have omitted commenting on the tally of chipmunks, deer, and birds simply for brevity’s sake. The aforementioned woodchuck stands at one, which is good. I don’t think the yard could bear two. But it is the rabbits who most dot the landscape. They are tame and pleasant companions. And there are enough for all.
I think that is it. There are enough rabbits for all. And perhaps this is what Robert Lawson meant all along. For he was a superb illustrator who quite certainly spent time closely observing the animals he drew—rabbits, woodchucks, and all the rest. I think it is rather clever of him to tell us a story of edenic gardens where animals never trespass. But I think the animals did trespass and what Robert Lawson needed was not vegetables but animal models for his illustrations. If stewardship is managing the land and wildlife to best assist man in his work, Robert Lawson certainly did so as he cleverly planted a garden, drew in the animals, and then drew the animals. His Connecticut home was called Rabbit Hill, just like his book, so I am going to guess there is a little autobiography in these fictional tales of gardens and wildlife. Is it stewardship or surrender? I suppose it depends on what type of bounty you are looking for. I for one, can easily make the shift from zucchini harvests to drawing models and accept Robert Lawson’s gracious invitation—there are enough rabbits for every one to draw. And so I will render the bounty of my garden into illustrations. That means drawing rabbits, those same rabbits who are so abundant, tame and willing to draw near and pose. I will pay them for their time with whatever the woodchuck hasn’t already polished off.
© Joann Luke 2023