I estimate that I have read or heard read the children’s story The Tale of Peter Rabbit a least fifty times in my lifetime. My sisters first read it to me, I soon started reading it myself, and with the arrival of my daughter, Quetzal, I often read the story to her. And now that Quetzal is reading, she occasionally reads the book to me. So I know the story of Peter Rabbit. I’ve studied every illustration and turned and re-turned the pages.
Like all good stories, Peter Rabbit is a tale of easily understood conflict: Little Peter, warned by his mother against going into Mr. McGregor’s garden, heads out one morning and immediately does just that. This trespass enrages Mr. McGregor, who, naturally disapproving of rabbits eating his vegetables, tries to eliminate the problem by trapping Peter under a sieve. But this fails and so Peter returns safely home.
This sketch of the story’s plot leaves out one vitally important piece of information. And that’s the nature of Mr. McGregor’s purpose. For Mr. McGregor is no mere frustrated gardener with a Have-a-Heart Trap. No. Mr. McGregor, if he successfully captures Peter, means to eat him. We know this because we are told early in the story that Mrs. McGregor has recently baked a rabbit pie. And who made the stuff of that particular pie? Peter’s Daddy. So it’s a given: if Peter gets caught Peter’s Rabbit Pie #2.
It goes without saying who makes the good guy and who the bad in The Tale of Peter Rabbit. It also goes without saying who nearly all readers have sided with over the last 110 years.
But not me. Or to be more precise, no longer me. For I have recently changed sides.
Here’s why. I am a newly-born, small-scale farmer. I have a one acre garden where I grow vegetables for sale at farmers markets. My life from March through November is set almost entirely in this garden. I like my garden to be neat and orderly. I like things to grow, to mature, to successfully reach harvest. Each morning I rise and work to make this happen and each night I think about how better to make this happen. If it rains too much or too little, if the sun shines too hot or too cold, if it hails on Monday and then again on Thursday—I think about it and think about it but I don’t get angry. I simply lean in, carry on, and know that I am small.
But animals in my garden—chickens, sheep, deer, dogs, cats, skunks, passing coyotes, wild turkeys, happy children laughing and racing, hares and/or rabbits—no. All animals of all kinds are disallowed in my garden. Indeed, the sight of animals in my garden makes me crazy, wicked even, and their presence there makes my appetite for animal pie near insatiable.
So. Truth’s out. I sympathize with Mr. McGregor. I make a part of that tiny minority. In fact, if Mr. McGregor were to turn up one day at my house, I would welcome him in and call him friend. We would walk out to my garden, look around, and I would encourage him to talk. Mr. McGregor, I’d say, let’s just walk and you talk. Here it’s been years and years and kids everywhere have hated you, have pointed chubby fingers, so Mr. McGregor, just go ahead and talk. Tell all. I’m certain you’ll feel better for it. Actually, we’ll both feel better for it.
But isn’t it the strangest thing ever? How a full century slipped past yet somehow I managed to catch up with you? How despite the fact that you’ve been living in England and I here in New Hampshire we’ve nevertheless managed this meeting of the minds? Though it is true, you know, that gardens are magical. How we plant seeds, they germinate, and how, so long as you know who doesn’t get at them, we arrive at harvest and life is pretty good….
But enough already. How is Mrs. McGregor? She’s well I suppose? Still doing a little baking?