Poets speak of mad hatters and March hares as walking (hopping) metaphors for craziness, perhaps with good reason. In prior centuries, particularly in areas of America and Europe where beaver hats were popular, many a hatter went stark, raving bonkers after years of fashioning said chapeaux. Apparently, beaver fur had to be treated with certain toxic chemicals, including mercury, to render the pelt usable for the hat trade, and it was excessive exposure to high levels of mercury that damaged the brains of hatters. By the 20th century, when beavers and other fine, fur-bearing animals had been hunted and trapped to near extinction, and men’s taste in hats changed, scientists discovered the reason for the mad-hatter phenomenon. I always wondered if people thought that making hats made hatters crazy or if they thought that only crazy people made hats, but it was a given of Victorian society that, upon encountering a mad hatter, one had to stop and stare, look down their toffee noses with disdain on these poor men, and to walk to the other side of the street. Can you imagine being driven mad by the only craft you were good at? In this case, it really was beauty that killed the beast.
Another peculiar beast driven mad by circumstance was the March hare. As most of us learned in science class, in spring a young animal’s head turns to love, or at least lust, as the warmer weather and galloping hormones force the young bucks and hares out of wintry abodes to seek a reproductive partner. I’m guessing that some poet or other witnessed, not the march of the hares, but rather the wholesale frolicking and hopping across the vast lawns of England as rabbits galore sought to make even more rabbits galore. Rabbits are well known for their fecundity and that is how they came to be a symbol of Easter. The whole rebirth motif identified with eggs is another part of the Easter mythology that predates Christianity. If rabbits in general were known for their lustful behavior, hares were even more so. Hares were seen as the drunken college frat boys of prior centuries, and so a March hare was the randiest critter east of the Pecos. In Scotland and parts of England, they’re still called coneys rather than rabbits and some speculate that that term may be the root of a word like ‘cunning,’ meaning clever, smart, and perhaps devious. With no natural defenses, the favorite prey of almost every hunter or animal with teeth had to be awfully clever to survive. Coney Island in New York got its name when British settlers came to the new world and discovered that that tiny island was fairly crawling with bunnies.
Around the world, spring is a time of magical renewal, when the cold, dead earth begins to sprout yellow and green, promising new life, rebirth out of the dead ground. I’ve always loved spring for that reason; it is the best time for me, giving us hope that we have another chance at life. No matter how hard the winter, spring returns and with it come the beautiful flowers and the singing birds. Those of us who live close to nature begin to hear the crashing sounds of bucks intent on fighting for territory, for does. The great thing about nature is that it ensures survival of species by rewarding the strongest and healthiest specimens. Only man is mad enough to interfere, hunting the trophy bucks instead of the weakling losers. We only learn the hard way.
I speak of hatters and hares for I am a child of March myself. I am not, however, made mad by the hormones of the vernal equinox. No fertility rites here; the need for those long gone and forgotten. Yet I am still transfixed, as are most creatures, I suspect, by the brilliant intensity of new beginnings. No matter how dark and cold and blasted was the earth in winter, God shows His majesty with every breath-taking sunrise, every bright-blue sky, every bird song, every wolf cry. Hope returns to all and each. And I for one remember all of the good and happy moments, all the chances given and taken, all the beauty I have witnessed and hope to witness anew, and I smile as I join the world chorus of springing forward to meet life head first, no looking back in fear or doubt, no regrets.
And then the warm promise is disturbed again by the icy finger of winter, rain returning to snow as a still darkness overcomes the light. So, we know it has not been easy to return life to the earth, and it will not be (never be) easy to find the strength for new plantings, new growth, new beginnings. TS Eliot called April more dangerous than March, but I think he was mistaken:
“April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.”
For me, March is more cruel, for it is our first touch of the possibility of spring, mixed up with the dread of winter unwilling to surrender to the warm sun. It is that constant battle between the forces of light and of darkness, forever dueling for our souls, that intrigues me. We know the cruelty of winter; and yet, we have hope. The birds give us strength and the rabbits give us determination. And, if we wear hats, the winds of March sport with them and us as we chase after tiny round kites, resembling as we do so the mad hatters of yesteryear.
© 2015 Linda L Labin, PhD