Easter! Rabbits! Eggs!

Field Notices

Luther College Chips
March 20, 2008

Easter celebrates life’s triumph over death. In the Jesus story, that means rising from the grave. For all other creatures — great and small — it means babies.

To give the religious festival traction in the popular imagination, Easter gets celebrated in precise calibration with the spring equinox and lunar cycles. In the shopping cart with the Easter ham we toss edible equinox symbols of reproductive promise: chocolate bunnies, crème-filled eggs and marshmallow chicks.

With that candy in mind I rest my case. Outside of church, Easter is about babies in the making.

The timing of the Easter festival coincides with Roman festivals celebrating Cybele, the ancient great mother. Our English word for the festival also has a maternal origin: the Anglo-Saxon goddess Eostre.

What better symbol of maternal success than the rabbit?

In my yard this winter the bunnies had a hard time of it. Deep crusty snow made pickings slim. The rabbit in the brush pile at the back of our lot nibbled the bark from all the freshest branches in the pile to keep going. With each February and March morning the stack looked more and more like a box-worth of pale, spilled matchsticks.

If that Eastern Cottontail is a female, she is now carrying young. Cottontails start breeding in February and March. They need an early start to produce the three or four litters of four to five babies that each Great Mother rabbit bears every season.

Another marvel of spring baby making is the bat. Baby bats are often conceived while both parents are in the middle of a long, deep sleep.

Several species that hang from local rafters mate in fall before hibernating. The female bat’s body stores the male’s sperm until spring when, at the right moment, fertilization takes place in time for young to be born just before June bugs and other big gulp meals are on the wing.

As for eggs and chicks — I saw my first pair of robins March 13. Like local empty nesters, robins winter in warmer parts. When those robins return to this cold place they’ve got babies in mind.

The pair I saw were sitting in the top of the maple tree just out my back door, catching the first morning rays of sun. Below them stretched deep piles of snow and ice with not an earthworm in sight.

The prospect of survival for these early birds didn’t look good to me. But they were making the same chirps and liquid trills that, before school is out, I’ll associate with robin pairs pecking at plant straw and small twigs as they forage the bits and pieces of this year’s first nursery.

When T.S. Eliot said “April is the cruelest month,” he wasn’t lying. In a season where sustenance is still scarce, nights are still cold, and the winter has been long and lean, animal mothers around us are using their last extra energy to gestate the next generation.

It’s a brave but necessary endeavor. That’s why I’m giving an Easter-in-March cheer for nature’s way of asserting life in the face of the alternative: babies!