July 2, 2007
The Flow of history
Back from Trento, tired and busy. Until I get back to blogging... I will leave you with a short piece I wrote last year, yet another cross-cultural vignette.
"My son’s will was stronger than ours and that week we brought home a baby dwarf rabbit. Along with a cage and a water bottle, I bought a book called, Il Manuale del Coniglio Nano (or The Dwarf Rabbit Manual) and ordered another manual from the US. While both books introduce rabbit care and feeding to new owners, they each do so from a different cultural perspective.
The Italian manual begins with a chapter entitled “A Brief History of the Rabbit” which introduces my rabbit’s ancestors and his cultural heritage. I learned that rabbits first appeared in Northern Europe a million years ago during the Pleistocene era, migrating south during the ice age to what is today Italy and Spain. During the 12th century, Portuguese and Norman navigators then carried rabbits to various Mediterranean islands and England, giving rabbits access – with just a quick hop -- to the rest of Europe.
I also learned that the first pet rabbits appear in accounts by the Greek poet and philosopher Senofonte between 430-455 B.C. and that their Greek name (Oryctolagus dasypus) is attributed to Aristotle and their Latin one (Oryctolagus cuniculus) to Plinio (23-79 A.C.). These are relatively recent accounts -- the oldest record of a pet rabbit is a drawing on papyrus of a man with a long-eared animal. It seems that in 1100 B.C. the Phoenicians found and tamed wild rabbits in the Pyrenees.
The ancient Romans also bred rabbits in captivity (not for pets but for banquets) and up to the medieval period, newborn rabbits on the grill were a delicacy. Later they became the prize catch of hunters and in 1309 Canterbury a rabbit was even sold for the price of a pig!
All I wanted was some practical advice on the feeding and general care my new pet. Instead I received a lesson in Rabbits Across the Centuries. Around page 35, following another chapter on scientific classification, the “manual” part begins.
The American book, The Essential Rabbit, begins with a chapter entitled “What about a Rabbit” and the first sentence reads, “A rabbit is a fairly easy pet to own.” Subtitles in the first chapter include “The Right Pet for You”, Rabbit Responsibilities” and “the Joys of Rabbit Ownership”. I have to wait until chapter nine “Rabbit Facts” to learn a bit about the history of the rabbit -- clearly an aside to the task at hand.
In Italy, the past weighs on the present. Everything starts from the beginning and that can go way back.
My son’s high school humanities professor (Italian, Latin, Greek, history and geography) exasperated after an unsuccessful interrogation of a student, exclaimed, “You are just like President Bush -- you and he know nothing about ancient Mesopotamian politics and society!” She clearly sees a direct connection between ancient history and current events.
The undercurrent of the past runs just below the surface and bubbles up into all aspects of society. Americans find constant referencing to the past as quaint yet superfluous, “Yeah, that’s neat; now let’s get down to business”-- that is, the future – for getting things done is always a question of the future. Italians repeatedly tell me that we do not have a history; America is a mere dot on the timeline. Worse, we have no sense of history. We scanter on ahead like newborn pups while Europeans watch with the wisdom of age-old Lassie.
Today, as I watch my playful rabbit scurry about the terrace, I muse on his ancestral roots and I feel a connection with the man on the papyrus and his long-eared friend. I represent the most recent generation of a long line of rabbit owners and I feel connected to that past. Today the future will just have to wait."