He Is Not Here

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Three or four years ago, weeding the garden in early spring, my middle son inadvertently uncovered a cottontail nest tucked beneath the rosemary. The baby rabbits seemed hopelessly vulnerable: thumb-sized creatures, eyes still closed, without a bit of shelter from the cold March rains.

And yet their nest under the rosemary plant was a perfectly snug little nursery. The mother rabbit had scooped out a shallow hollow in the soil and lined it thickly with fur plucked from her own belly; another layer of plucked fur lay on top of the babies, and on top of that was a final layer of leaves and pine straw and dried rosemary needles. It was impossible to distinguish the nest from the jumble of dead vegetation that had accumulated during fall and winter. And as my son pointed out, the location of the nest was ideal: to predators it would smell exactly like rosemary and not at all like rabbit. We tucked the babies in again and left the bed unweeded till they were safely out of the nest and on their own.

Ever since then, I’ve been desultory about weeding in springtime. In the great Hopkins sonnet, spring is the time “when weeds, in wheels, shoot long and lovely and lush,” and there’s another reason for waiting to clear out my flowerbeds: the neighborhood bees are busy among the flowering weeds while I’m still waiting for my perennials to bloom. Besides, who can resist the names of the wildflowers—fleabane and henbit and dandelion and deadnettle and field madder?

Finally, though, the day comes when there can be no more waiting or the weeds will choke out all the flowers I planted on purpose, and that day came this long Easter weekend. I worked gingerly, careful to watch for signs of a nest, though there was nothing beneath the rosemary but a bunch of mock strawberry vines. I moved from bed to bed, hauling away weeds by the wheelbarrow-load. Then, in the next-to-last bed, I tugged up some deadnettle growing around the fragrant skeleton of last year’s oregano, and what came away in my hand was a tuft of rabbit fur.

The nest was empty, but it was so newly vacated as to be entirely intact, an absence exactly shaped to denote an ineffable presence.