Light and heat are scarce this time of year. It’s just after five in the afternoon when I leave the office and get in my car. There’s still light in the sky, but not much. And the day’s light is fading so quickly that you can almost see the darkness growing as you watch.
According to the calendar, winter just started. In the reality on the ground, the North Dakota landscape has been firmly in the grip of winter for weeks. Tonight it’s already five degrees below zero. The cushioning in the car seat is too cold to compress when I sit on it. It’ll be in the teens below zero by morning. I let the car’s engine run before driving home. My old Saturn doesn’t have remote starting so I try to stop shivering through force of will as I wait for the engine to warm up. I almost succeed.
I’m parked at the edge of the parking lot facing west, watching as the last of the day’s light, now washed out to pastel pinks, purples, and oranges, fades from the sky. At the edge of the parking lot, a few acres of farmland stretch to the west and south. A marshy area to the south of the parking lot is home to a family of quail every year. And there’s still enough open land to support some jackrabbits.
A decade ago, when I started working here, farm fields stretched on and on to the west. Each year, my coworkers and I watched wheat, sun flowers, and corn sprout in those fields in spring, ripen in summer, then mature to a rich tan before the fall harvest. Each year, another apartment block or office building has smothered another chunk of land. I struggle now to remember what this year’s crop was. But the memory of this field as undeveloped land still clings to the place just enough to evoke a sense, a memory perhaps, of wildness.
As I sit in the car, a jackrabbit makes its way across the field. It moves slowly, torpid with cold. Maybe I’m anthropomorphizing because – fresh from my heated office – I am so cold myself. The rabbit’s fur is white with speckles along its back, recalling the darker coat it wears in summer. In the waning light, it blends perfectly into the crop stubble and uneven snow cover in the field. When the rabbit stops moving, I look away deliberately, then look back after a moment to try to pick him out again. But he’s camouflaged so well that I lose him almost immediately. Looking hard for several moments allows me to tease out the shape of his (her?) back, head and ears, against the mottled background of the field.
Snow and stubble. A few scraggly weeds. How do you survive a North Dakota winter on stubble? Not everyone does; the bodies of a few rabbits inevitably appear from beneath melting banks of snow in spring. On this night, it’s still early in the winter.
The car, while not close to being warm, is at least drivable. I back out of my parking space and slowly head home.
Four days later and 130 miles northwest of that parking lot, I commit what I saw to paper, describing the scene in my notebook in a few quiet minutes on Christmas Day. At one point I pause in my writing, look up and let my gaze drift out of one of the bedroom windows of my in-law’s house, looking outside as an icy wind flays the few shriveled leaves still clinging to the branches of an apple tree, rocking even the larger limbs of the elms and cottonwoods beyond it in the shelter belt at the edge of the yard. Realizing the conditions outside as I remember my thoughts and perceptions from a few nights ago, I’m transported back to the parking lot outside my office, trying not to shiver before driving away and leaving a lone rabbit in the middle of a field in sub-zero temperatures on the shortest day of they year. It was one of the loneliest sights I’ve ever seen.
* * *
A few hundred yards north of where I sat that night – and on a stretch of land many times larger than the ground the rabbit huddled on – sits a shopping mall, packed with consumers getting serious about Christmas shopping. I imagine their moods ranging from a sense of urgency, to a sense of desperation. They move amid the light and warmth, buying gifts to add to lives already overburdened with material excess. The living recipients will be owned by the inanimate objects given as gifts, rather than the other way around. We buy and we give – and we receive graciously – because we want to be nice, because we want to be people who act in a spirit of giving. Perhaps we give in an attempt to re-create some mythical memory of the “perfect Christmas,” which endures in artwork and advertising. Most of us have never experienced something as perfect as the images of the “perfect Christmas” that we hold in our minds. We go through the ritual because we’re social animals and it’s just in our nature to do it. It’s not bad in and of itself.
It’s difficult, therefore, to clearly define the aspect of Christmas that instills such misgivings within me. Some aspect of that unease is the perception that I’m not quite getting it right. The gifts aren’t quite what’s wanted; the decorations aren’t quite Martha-Stewart-perfect enough, the gatherings I’m part of don’t quite capture the spirit of warmth and fellowship and love that we think we shared in celebrations past. And so carrying that realization as I shop, I find that it’s possible to experience loneliness inside a mall, jostling thousands of strangers, shopping in the hope of contributing to our Christmas ritual in a way that will bring happiness to my family.
I’m not alone in this. Clinical depression afflicts a number of people at this time of year, partly attributable to the reduction in daylight in the northern latitudes. Or so I’ve heard. Yet even for those who don’t suffer from an acute, clinical condition, it’s easy to get so caught up in the season’s activities that we feel rushed, like we have to hurry to do… something. So much of this urgency is artificial, just a manipulation of our feelings that’s been imposed from outside ourselves.
* * *
I wrote about seeing the rabbit in the field on Christmas Day in 1998. Although that scene took place a few days before Christmas, something about it flickered in and out of my consciousness over the next four days, finally compelling me to write it down on Christmas Day. Five years later, it’s still with me. So what’s the deal? It was just a rabbit in a vacant lot. It was close to Christmas; so what?
One obvious aspect is the degree to which human habitats have spread themselves out and how much human habitats exclude every living thing that’s not human. At first, that sounds like a statement of the obvious. The people in the mall neither knew about, nor cared about, that rabbit. As far as most people were concerned, it was just fine that a rabbit lived in that field. On one hand, there was so little left for the rabbit to eat, so few places left for an animal to find shelter from the wind and the worst of the cold. On the other hand, it was an animal so it must be just fine being outside in winter – and perfectly capable of finding food water and shelter even if they weren’t obviously available to me.
To be clear about this: I’m not particularly fond of rabbits. As I understand it, their image as gentle, vulnerable creatures is belied by the fact of their own rather vicious social interactions. I don’t appreciate the damage that they cause the plants in my garden. And without predators or the destruction of habitat, they’d multiply beyond the capacity of the land to sustain their numbers, much like… well, humans.
But on that December night, the rabbit on that bare ground crystallized for me humankind’s utter indifference to anything outside itself. And the result not only diminishes those things that suffer from our indifference, but it diminishes us, as well. It would have been easy to just not notice the rabbit. Trying as hard as I could, I could barely see it as the day’s light faded. Yet we find it too easy to not notice rabbits, birds, raccoons, the unfortunate pets tied up outside in the cold. It’s also too easy to ignore other people who seem too other to be familiar to us, too other to be admitted into the circle of people we have enough energy and emotional capacity left to care about. It’s easy to miss the laborers who produce our Christmas gifts, or only to notice them as people who, because of the low-wage jobs they have, need something from us: health care; housing assistance; or unemployment benefits when their labor is no longer needed. Too often, we just don’t notice things. And it’s that inability to notice that results in our pursuing the wrong things for the wrong reasons in too many aspects of our lives. Christmas is the least of the problem in many ways, yet it’s indicative of the false urgency that propels so many other activities in our lives. And why shouldn’t we be more attentive to the lives of others at Christmas?
Are all the deadlines really that important? Are they really even that necessary? Are our lives that much better from all our running around to work and activities and church, and not noticing that another few square miles of open land have been transformed to a state where only humans – and perhaps the vermin that feed on humans, and human waste – are granted the habitat that they need to live.
* * *
Five years later, the rabbit’s little patch of field is gone, utterly obliterated. The entire area now is apartments, and garages used by the people who live in them. I work in a different building now, a few miles farther south at the edge of my city’s sprawl, where new fields are rapidly being engulfed by “development.” And so the cycle goes. Fields where plant and animal communities thrive are “developed,” and through the process of development, the land becomes sterile. Ironically, it’s the sterile, dead land that’s considered productive.
Once in a while when I’m driving home, I see a rabbit on a little patch of ground that hasn’t yet been “developed.”
The original draft was written in 1998. I’ve revised and polished it since then, but this piece hasn’t been published before now.