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On knowing Old Short Ears

On this moderately high desert plateau where the nearest town big enough to buy the Denver papers is 25 miles away, the energetic form of a cottontail or its larger cousin, the jackrabbit, is as common to the human eye as rusty barbed wire fences that stretch the miles of tundra land that would surely be monotonous were it not for the changing shape of the sky, for weather, and the great gift of the Sangre de Cristo mountains, snowpeaked and fitting as the Psalmist's message - ''the strength of the hills is his also.''

The land has a common shape to it around the foot of these mountains because it is compact, wind-beaten in winter and sun-bleached in summer, except where an exceptional labor, and I mean labor, of love by a human being irrigates it. And this on our farm is done by earth-ditching with a tool that resembles a double-edged plow hitched up to our horses, better than a tractor at this, and cutting into the sandy, soilless earth from the Huerfano River (more of a brook-trout series of tiny rapids than a river) almost a mile up the land. Then, if you cut a series of these tiny rivers with a good eye - avoiding the slightest tendency to make water run uphill over a field - you're about five years away from growing some good alfalfa.

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It's not even that simple, however: The ditches fall in or get filled with the marvelous personal collections of beavers and they have to be rebanked - man with shovel and irrigation boots, walking the land under a living sky. Without earnest water, the soil quickly turns to a pebbly grain, the richness of organic matter blows away in the wind - the result of years of overgrazing in our valley during the '30s - and the great brome that once lured thousands of buffalo and native Americans to this altitude in summer has little chance of making a sweep again.

But the cottontail bunnies and the road-running jackrabbits have always been here and are, in modern times, in and about the cactus, pinon, and grasses. And a bunny close to my heart lives under the toolshed.

It's not the fact that this bunny lives under the toolshed that has caught my notice. For several live as close to our front door as the cottonwood pile, and I believe one lives under the bottom boughs of a first-year-cone fir tree that we have been trying to cultivate in a kingdom of cottonwood where a fast-growing taproot is a key to the kingdom. I do not know if I have seen that actual one, but watering in there in summer (much to my guilt) I have seen the remains of a winter nest.

They all, the cottontails, look alike: close to Benjamin Bunny in Beatrix Potter, the ears, a white aristocratic vest, and a tan-brown coat (no catchy buttons, however), and those marvelous hoppity legs that let you know exactly what their errand was in snow and that give them the impetus, when frightened, to tail away through the air, flying like a fish.

The rabbit that lives under the toolshed lives there alone, and he does not have rabbit ears. When he first appeared to me last fall, as I was putting away my irrigation tools, spade, canvases, and bars, I thought he was a rare species. He seemed to have little fear of me and went about his business round the toolshed and as far as the clothesline near the house, but I could never get near enough to have a good look at him.

Old Short Ears (for there are two tiny nubs) acted tamer and tamer as winter drew in. I'd find him hopping all around the house, out in subzero mornings chewing on bits of dried grass five feet away from me as I split cottonwood, and I felt him quite a pal.

Once I got a good look at his catlike ears and could see no earthly mutation or sign of past surgery. He was born different.

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I thought his tameness was probably the result of deafness. But, being around animals, one tends to develop a special foolish lingo to talk to each species - best when no one you have a deep respect for is around. I discovered I could approach Old Short Ears if I stood still and sang a ditty to him. He'd stop that foolish twitching of nose and get very still and serious-looking, and we'd stare some time at each other.

For quite a while I haven't noticed that the old boy has no ears. He looks more like a rabbit than any I've ever known.

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