April fools and mad March hares

THERE'S a question-and-answer game show on the TV, and our Channel 5 airs it just before I assist in the prandial exercises of the evening. If everything goes well on the show, a contestant wins an automobile. I usually hear the cry ``TIME!'' and close the TV before I find out who wins the car, but this time I didn't. ``TIME!'' she said, and I bided, because the question had to do with who was mad. My cook and the contestant said at the same time, ``The Hatter!'' And thus the wrong contestant won the auto. So I came to the table.

I had the butter on my baked potato before my keen memory reacted, and I said, ``Wrong.''

``What's wrong?'' she said, needlessly presuming I was about to impugn her potato.

I said, ``The March Hare!''

``Oh,'' she said. Then, ``No, Hatter is right.''

``It's March Hare. Masefield has it in his poem, `Butting down the channel on a mad March hare.'''

``You're stark, raving,'' she said. ``It's from `Alice in Wonderland.'''

``That's right, and the Hatter pointed at the March Hare and said he went mad just before the concert given by the Queen of Hearts.''

``Look it up in the morning.''

I looked it up in the morning.

I'm ever delighted for an excuse to commune again with Alice. On the other hand, the Cheshire Cat did say that everybody was mad - even Alice and the Cheshire Cat, and as for the Hatter and the Hare, ``...they're both mad.'' It's hard to beat expert testimony.

However, John Skelton, 1460-1529, has it, ``I say, thou mad March hare.'' And John Heywood picked it up in 1546 as ``Mad as a March hare.'' Lewis Carroll probably knew it had been said already, and if someday I may be as mad as Lewis Carroll I'll put in for a government grant. One of the perkiest sights in nature is to watch a hare go mad in March.

Here in Maine our rabbit is the snowshoe, properly called the variable hare. Brown in summer, he shifts to white come snowtime, and his huge afterlegs serve him exactly as snowshoes, so he can go on the deep snow while other beasts flounder.

He has good fun playing with beagles when the snow is deep, and many times I've watched this sport. The little beagle, baying 10 times his size, isn't made for running o'er the drifts, so the bunny has no problem staying ahead and safe. White against the white snow, the bunny pauses in nonchalance to test his appetite against tender twigs, and gives no evidence that he is aware of any beagle in hot pursuit. But his ears twitch now and then, and he knows when the dog is a mite too close. Then he'll hop along a distance, finding a new twig to chew, and he'll give the beagle a moment to catch up.

It's a game, and by themselves a hare and a hound will run in circles all day and have the fun of a barrel of monkeys. If the pooch is unfairly attended by a gentleman bearing arms, the game stops - but let nobody think it's easy to lay the sights on a variable hare who is white against the snow and doing 40 feet at a jump.

Come March, it is time to dig the snow away from the sugarhouse door and commence the maple season. Earlier in the winter I'd be cutting firewood. I'd hear a beagle yodel, and I'd make a guess as to where his rabbit would appear and when. Rabbits like to chew on the twigs of firewood cuttings, and they'd been working mine.

I'd been watching, and knew Charley from Mabel, and would jeer at the beagles as they passed. Every beagle has a stunted intelligence which encourages him to press on; what saves him is he knows enough to quit and go home for supper.

And come maple time, the woods are mellowing for spring. March snow is down, and in places the ground is bare. All winter the rabbit has been limited to tips and bushes above the drifts, and his life has been leery of the languid season when dogs persist, foxes lie in wait, and owls can drop silently from above. Now little birds are coming back; a new time is at hand.

In March, a rabbit will suddenly lose control and give a leap 10 feet into the air, kicking his heels against the sky, and race about in fun and frolic and furor. When he comes down, he does it again. Hooray! It's a comical cavort to watch, and a mad March hare is full of the dickens, glad and exuberant. And so the wrong contestant won that automobile. I was mad as a Hatter.

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