I live in Seattle, Washington – the first American epicentre of the Covid-19 outbreak. On January 15th a man flew from Wuhan, China to Washington. He developed a slight fever a few days later and on January 20th, he became our ‘patient zero’. Although he was immediately rushed to a two-bed Ebola ward at a local hospital upon diagnosis and held in strict isolation, somehow the virus escaped. In February it began killing residents of a nursing home across the lake. As I write this narrative, my city is in lockdown. There have been 144 deaths in my county alone. And the mortality figures are predicted to exponentially grow for weeks to come.
When I was a child in Los Angeles I raised and showed rabbits. Mostly the satin-pelted Rex variety, but also the floppy eared English Lop and a few other strains. I bred my rabbits as well but liked diversity. I wanted to work with different stock. Maybe have a Netherland Dwarf. Or a Flemish Giant. At our local feed store I heard of a woman who bred thousands of rabbits for both exhibition and meat. I was perhaps ten years old when my mother finally drove me out to Azusa to meet the ‘rabbit lady’.
We meandered up a dusty road for a quarter mile past the marked ‘Rabbits Here’ sign. Although we had called first, she didn’t come out to meet us. Instead we walked out into her metallic barn – a draughty storehouse with wire cages stacked three deep. There was no sound, save the foot-to-foot shuffling of rabbits by the hundreds. Then, like an apparition, she emerged from around a corner and walked towards us, her apron stained with blood. She had been culling the fatter rabbits that had not sold and as she said hello she wiped her crimson-moist hands on her legs. She asked us what we were looking for and, although I had talked about this very question non-stop on the drive over, I found I could not speak. Instead I was entranced by the rows of cages, with the rabbits all huddled and jumpy in corners. I drew in a scent I did not recognise although now, as a nearing sixty-year-old adult, I know it as fear. I couldn’t stay but I couldn’t leave. I was as trapped in place as the rabbits beside me. Eventually my mother, seeing my distress, prompted me to pick out two rabbits. Animals that we could take far away from that place. We bought a sable and a chinchilla Rex, took them to the car and silently drove home.
Although we never spoke of that day afterwards, the rabbit lady and her warehouse haunted my dreams for years. It was a place where few survived. And genes and luck determined who escaped the culling room. It wasn’t until I was in my mid-twenties that the dreams finally ended.
And then last fall I began dreaming of rabbits again. Not as living in a slaughterhouse but as gambolling, filled with curiosity, through a field. And then again as running for shelter, hunkered down in burrows for safety. I started seeing wild hares as I drove to visit friends on a local island. Rabbit images were showing up regularly during the day. It was odd.
In some Native American traditions, rabbits are totemic as ‘fear callers’. They are regarded as anxious creatures, ones that call in the very predators that eat them. As an anxious creature myself, I wanted to work with this frequently arising imagery. I felt I could learn something from it. So in early March, as Covid-19 cases were still in the low double digits statewide, I called up a Moscow, Idaho hide and fur company and began asking stereotypical Pacific Northwest questions. Where did their rabbit pelts come from? Were the rabbits eaten? How were they harvested? I restrained myself from asking how they felt energetically. I could hear the clerk’s eye roll from 250 miles away but eventually my credit card number was given and over a dozen rabbit pelts made their way to north Seattle by priority mail.
In some Native American traditions, rabbits are totemic as ‘fear callers’. They are regarded as anxious creatures, ones that call in the very predators that eat them.
I cleared the dining room table, typically jumbled with purses, weeks-old mail and dropped key-rings. And now, as my city is shuttered and the world slides into a pandemic of fear and isolation, I am sewing a rabbit pelt blanket by hand.
The great plague ravaged central Europe in the early 14th century, causing the deaths of up to 60% of its population. My paternal second cousin Gary has traced our lineage back to the early 1700s in what is now north-central Germany. People didn’t travel much then. It’s likely that, if he could trace back far enough, we would see our more distant ancestors centred there as well. We would see them living through the plague years.
I think of these ancestors often as I am sewing my blanket and their presence calms me. I imagine how they sat in the dark, or with scant candlelight, during their pestilence as I am listening to Spotify and checking my Facebook feed during ours. I muse on how their fear must have been augmented by a lack of information while I feel inundated by CNN, the Guardian, and the tweets of my nation’s incompetent president. On how they must have felt so alone and frightened. Like rabbits. On how their plague was so much more deadly than ours.
And yet I also know that I am doing what the women did during that epidemic – what women have done since before recorded time. I am sewing by hand. Each stitch pulls me into a more liminal space where I can feel my fingers making the same repetitive movements as theirs. Attention is needed but I am impatient and prick my index finger. Later, I am careless and I damage the pelt with an errant cutting. Did they do the same? Or were they less distracted? Did sewing a pelt blanket mean the difference between their relative warmth and death while I can just turn up the thermostat instead? I learn that I must slow down and take care with my needle, lest I make errors in my haste.
I’ve just sewn in the sixth pelt and by now I’m feeling very connected to the rabbits. I’ve also started to better understand my dreams from last fall. As I stitch the blanket together, I have begun to figure out the gifts of a rabbit’s fear. How it informs the rabbit when to romp in the meadow and when to shelter in its burrow to avoid outside danger. How if not processed wisely, the fear takes control of their body and the rabbit runs wild, only to be eaten by the attentive coyote. When victims of their own terror in that manner, rabbits can also wield a form of darker power. For rabbits are plague carriers as well and their fear in viral form can infect and kill at least some humans that cross their path. Yet if well understood and contained, the fear instead moves the rabbit to hunker down when needed in a warren, safeguarding its young from danger.
The stitching puts me in right relationship with fear in the face of our current and evolving pandemic. I find that I don’t focus on the finished blanket – only on each stitch as it binds the pelts. There is no guarantee that the blanket will come out well. After all, I’m only learning from years-old internet videos and intuition. My ancestors would have been taught by an older relative. I realise though that I can increase the chance of a good ending by how I act in the unfolding process. I am understanding how fear is a gift that informs my work. And how, if I slow down and really listen, there’s much I can learn from a long-gone grandmother rabbit after all.
IMAGE: Sewing a roadkill grey squirrel buckskin with deer backstrap sinew by Caroline Ross
Caroline Ross makes art from archaic, foraged and natural materials. She taught these as an artist in residence at the Way of Nature and Dark Mountain course ‘Fire And Shadow’ in the highlands of Scotland and in Romania, and at ‘Wild Twins’ with Paul Kingsnorth, on Sherkin Island, Ireland. She also painted the rock art for the cover of Dark Mountain: Issue 13.