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Growing closer

By Jillian Sullivan

“When the suffering of another creature causes you to feel pain, do not submit to the initial desire to flee from the suffering one, but on the contrary, come closer, as close as you can to her who suffers, and try to help her.”

—Leo Tolstoy

The greenkeeper had just boiled water for his cuppa when the rabbiter stooped at the door. He had two dogs with him: one a rough-coated retriever and one something more dangerous, white and sleek as a whippet. 

“Off you go, get him,” the rabbiter said, before he even said gidday, and the dogs streaked off across the ridge of the bowling green, where the rabbit liked to graze. The man poured water on his teabag. He lifted his cup but the rabbiter shook his head.

 “Just had one down at the bakery,” he said. “You know I’m going to get him sometime. Even if I have to shoot it myself.”

 “You shoot that rabbit, I’ll come after you with a gun.”

 “Settle down. It’s just a rabbit.”

 “He’s not hurting anyone.”

“Hah. The country’s seething with rabbits.”

“Has he done anything to you? Dug up your carrots or something? He doesn’t touch the green. He knows.”

“Jesus,” said the rabbiter.

“It’s true. I’ve been here six years and the rabbit just as long. He only grazes the tops. He doesn’t come down on the green.” The man put his cup on the table and sat heavily in the chair. The rabbiter leaned in the doorway.

“There’s been complaints.”

“I don’t care.”

“Anyway, the dogs will get him.” For they could both hear the frenetic barking, drawing away, coming closer, drawing away.  In a few minutes, the huntaway shouldered itself into the room and lay down, heaving.

“What else is happening?” the rabbiter asked.

“The grass is doing fine. Had enough rain. Sometimes that rabbit just sits up there and watches me.” (He didn’t say its name. Waldorf, he called him. To himself, and sometimes to the rabbit.) “He sits up there like he knows what’s going on.”

“Josie must have him bailed up.”

The man pushed his chair back and took his cup to the window. A dog pushed against the door, came in panting and flopped down. The man kept his back to it. He held his hot tea in cupped hands.

“Next time, eh Josie.”

The man glanced back, saw the dog’s muzzle was still white. No fur or gore. He tipped his head forward and sipped his tea.


Philadelphia. After the long flight and the crossing from winter to summer, from night to day to night to day, from writer to teacher, I walked out of the dimly lit dorm to the bright grass and stood barefoot on the lawn. It wasn’t until the next night, sleepless on Facebook, that I read walking barefoot on earth grounded you. A negative charge comes out of the soil and can cure you of anything from depression to asthma. Probably jetlag too. But I didn’t know that then, and walked around feeling the warm grass as something extra-terrestrial after all those shiny-floored airports. I went inside and put my shoes on and walked over to the library where I would teach. Later, I walked down the stone-flagged steps to the secret garden with the stone angels, one a young girl with a broken arm. The arm hung from her elbow with a bird attached, facing the ground.

Last year I had lain on this lawn and written a poem not good enough to be shown to anyone. The way the leaves lifted and fell, my thighs on the grass. Now I stood in the dell looking up at the trees: one I didn’t know, one a maple, one perhaps an oak. The grass starred with white flowers. A plant with silver-backed leaves and a cluster of red seed-pods, growing in the sun between bushes. I plucked a twig of leaves and lay down on my shawl on the grass. I looked up at the trees, and I wasn’t the same person as last year. I shut my eyes. Mostly the midges bit me. There were lumps of soil under the grass, small worm cast piles, perhaps, knobbles of earth. 

In the end the midges pushed me to get up and walk over to Gracemere, the 140-year-old, three-story house where we’d be giving readings. My eyes ached so much I kept them shut as much as I could, walking on the soft nylon of the soccer field, almost staggering. I let myself into the back hallway of the house and into the kitchen, where I foraged like a bear on blueberries and strawberries, and walked back, catatonic, to sleep again.


 I once had a pig and her name was Clementine. She was a Large White, which means pink, with a torpedo body and a Play-Doh nose flared on the edges. We kept her in our front paddock within the town boundary. Someone at work had asked, would you like a piglet to raise for ham and bacon and sausages and pork, all of which I ate, and we said yes. A letter from the Council requested we removed the pig illegally kept at 187 Bridge St, Eltham.

Thursday was killing day at the works. I took time off at lunchtime, let Clementine out of the small wooden gate onto the road, for she always followed me, and walked down the road towards the freezing works. Twice she ran onto someone’s lawn and set about digging it up with her elastic snout (as she had indeed ploughed up our whole paddock). I ran in and shooed her out. 

We came to the entrance of the works. Up the long driveway were yards crammed with sheep and beef cattle, and one with pigs who were crying out a high, screeching despair. Clementine, disturbed, began to run up and down the verge, squealing. Until that moment I hadn’t questioned she would become roast pork with apple sauce. I stood on the verge under the sign, thinking what to do. I was stuck with an illegal pig, but I could not walk down that driveway with Clementine in all her innocence following me. I turned and began the long walk home. Clementine rushed ahead of me and waited, ran circles round my legs, ran again onto the neighbour’s velvet lawn with her snout into the moss and clover, and finally back through the wooden gate into her paddock. Her fat pink hocks stayed her own, her shiny hooves weren’t gelatine and her blood didn’t become black pudding nor her head and ears soup, her tongue pickled and her shoulders crackling bacon. She nosed in the trough for the last of the half-eaten corn cobs then laid down on the dried earth in front of her trough, the sun on her harsh white bristles and pink skin. She shut her white lashed eyes and I walked back to work.I still ate meat that night, though not Clementine.


Carl D. Scott on a recent Facebook page: “I have been inside about 15 NZ factory farms in the last few years. Pardon my language, but what I saw in those places f*cked with my head. And that takes some doing. I am not some naïve bleeding heart. I am an ex freezing worker and ex Army. Please believe me, those animals are not moderately uncomfortable. They are not slightly unhappy. Their lives are a living hell. And we kill over 100 million of them every year, just in this country alone.”   


In the morning I rise and walk barefooted to the secret garden, grounding myself all the way. Bright sun away from the maple’s shadow. I rise and bend through sets of Salute to the Sun. My legs so creaky I almost topple after round two. I think of my partner’s coercions when we’re bike training. One more time one more time one more time. I do it one more time. I don’t know any of the plants’ names: ferns, rambunctious climber, plant with white spiky flowers. The plant with red seed heads grows all the way up the stone wall of the grotto. I walk down the grotto steps to be nearer the marble angels and to say a prayer, to be a good writer, to be a good teacher, for blessings on all my family and friends and the man I love.

On the third day I walk into the garden, able to take in shapes. Which plants were where. I climb broad shallow steps to another level and see the trunk of the tree I had lain under the day before. I hadn’t connected the trunk to twigs and leaves and now I do, approaching it barefoot through a bed of ivy. It’s a straight trunk, fine lines to the bark, a cylindrical, deciduous tree. Though it’s tall, it’s younger than the oak, the other tree whose leaves I’d watched flittering and turning and can now name oak. The oak’s trunk is so old even the ivy climbing it is old, sewn on like boot straps, and the bark so textured it is falling open. The trunk holds three extra trunks, and from these rise the swirl and loft of leaves. In the shadow of the stone building, the maple tree.

The lawn isstarred with white clover. There’s a large root like a buried log lying across the grass, which may be from the oak tree. The sky tufted with white cloud, shading grey in the center, so that sometimes there’s sun, sometimes not. The wind skiffles the trees, the only sound one bird. Later, in the kitchen at Gracemere, I show a plucked trail of leaves and red seed heads to a woman who knows gardening. She tells me this is wild raspberry.


In 1997, the haemorrhagic virus, calicivirus, was introduced illegally onto Central Otago farms in a hope to kill off rabbits. “It was just like snow around here, it was belly up everywhere, it was just absolutely magic,” farmer Donald Young recalled.


“That rabbit,” Digger Creighton said to me. “It’s true, it didn’t ever dig up the bowling green. I was worried when I bought the house across the road. Retired there. But the keeper said, that rabbit won’t touch your vegetables. He might hop across and nibble a few of your roses, but that’s all. I didn’t believe him. In four years, the rabbit didn’t once bother me. You could see him, hopping round the outskirts of the green. Those dogs from the rabbit board gave it a good go. Every now and then, the rabbiter turned up with them, but they never caught him. That rabbit knew every escape route. Then one day, he was dead. Early one morning, when the greenkeeper came to work, there was the rabbit. Dead in the middle of the bowling green. The keeper skinned him, cut him open. He wanted to make sure the rabbit had died of natural causes. Put himself in the middle of the grass. And the rabbit must have done. There wasn’t a mark on him.”


“The rabbit problem has just escalated over the past couple of years to the point where we can confidently say we’re losing the battle,” says farmer Gary Kelliher. “The problem with poisoning is that people tend to rely on one tool. If you don’t keep vigilant afterwards and combine it with follow up work you can end up just back with your problem again.”


Wild rabbits. Back in my homeland, they’re the scourge of Central’s dry hinterland, the ground moving with fur. And maybe every rabbit is a personality, capable of free choice, living within its own moral standards. I understand it’s not my grass seething. It’s not my lack of choice whether my crops are destroyed or not. But we are killing them slowly with a virus that blocks their organs. We are shooting them and running them into the ground with dogs.     

“In the process of paying focussed and sustained attention, (through Goethean perception,) we expand our field of empathy beyond our bodies to include the phenomena around us,” says Daniel C. Wahl in Zarte Empirie: Goethean Science as a Way of Knowing. “It involves acknowledging our own personal involvement in how we usually meet the world, the fact that we all habitually employ a set of basic assumption and concepts. We all have a history as observers and have formed ideas about the world, which influence what and how we perceive.”

How we perceive a rabbit, for instance. The ‘humaneness’ of a pest animal control method, according to an Australian pest control website, refers to the overall welfare impact that the killing method has on an individual animal. A relatively more humane method will have less impact than a relatively less humane method. For instance, shooting a rabbit in the head entails less suffering than shooting it in the chest. Soft foot pad traps involve more suffering, and even more is ripping a rabbit out of its burrow. The calciovirusdisease causes acute liver damage with resultant blood clotting abnormalities. Death occurs due to obstruction of blood supply in vital organs and/or internal haemorrhages.. A slow death can result. On the humane scale, it causes a lot more suffering than shooting in the head, though less than the foot trap. The most suffering is caused by inoculating with the virus.


 “When people tell me vegans are too extreme,” Carl Scott says on Facebook, “I am reminded of the famous quote by William Lloyd Garrison, an American activist and journalist who was a strong campaigner for the abolition of human slavery. He was also told he was too extreme, and that he should tone it down. “I will be as harsh as truth, as uncompromising as justice. On this subject, I do not wish to think, or speak, or write, with moderation. No! No! Tell a man whose house is on fire, to give a moderate alarm; tell him to moderately rescue his wife from the hand of a ravager; tell the mother to gradually extricate her babe from the fire into which it has fallen; but urge me not to use moderation in a cause like the present. I am in earnest. I will not equivocate. I will not excuse. I will not retreat a single inch. And I will be heard.” 


Here, sitting on a felled tree, the trunk horizontal after being vertical all its life, the sawdust from its own wounds lodged in the bark. The air warm, sprinkled with the high voice of bird call. Clouds like small torn fleeces expand and narrow in the blue above. In the sycamore, the leaves are a symphony of movement, chaotic and contained. The oak tree to be felled stands half -masted, a rope around its trunk, a pink X spray-painted on the bark. The men with chainsaws have gone to lunch. There is only this sun, this kind air, and the shadows of waiting trees. 


For class, I bring a cane of wild raspberry and place it on the table. Extra sensory perception is an exercise of sustained and close attention on a phenomenon.

“Sixty observations,” I say, basing my exercise on the work of NZ herbalist Isla Burgess, of holistic scientist Henry Bortoft, and of Goethe, from whom all this flowed. “We’ll go around and around the class.” Beneath the table our feet touch, making us linked. We’re all at one with this exercise.

“I see two opposite leaves to one main leaf.”

“I see a cilantro shape to the leaves.”

“I see a red tinge on the stem.”

“I see leaves green on one side, pale mint on the underside.”

The longer and more deeply we look, the more the plant reveals itself to us‑—the fact that the small extensions are a finger length from node till leaf, and the branch is an arm length from base to top of seed-head, a connection between our bodies and the plant’s, and then beyond that, details like the small thorns that line the central vein of each leaf.“I see the leaves are curling in the same direction.”

“I see at the top of the leaves where they join the cane, the veins line up, but further down the leaf they don’t.”

“I see that as the thorns grow bigger on each leaf, they keep the same distance between them.”  

“The leaves sound like tissue paper, like birds’ wings.”

For the second phase, we shut our eyes and imagine the plant in all its phases. Exact sensorial imagination,Bortoft wrote of Goethe’s work, is to perceive the plant as an expression of the process of its own transformation.

We imagine the wild raspberry from small seedling pushing out of the rough earth, to sapling, to fruited plant, to the seedpods opening to the ripe ruby fruit, to the calyx left white and shrivelling after the birds and the small insects have eaten their fill, the plant browning, the leaves curling back towards the earth and the viny branches settling into a season of snow and ice before the buds unfurl again  

“Attention without feeling,” poet Mary Oliver says, “I began to learn, is only a report. An openness — an empathy — was necessary if the attention was to matter.” 

“Systematic practice of Goethean methodology,” says Wahl, “will change our understanding of the nature of the material world, the nature of consciousness, and of our own human nature as conscious and responsible participants in and integral parts of Nature.”


One day my son said to me, “If you’re fighting for the rivers and against industrial dairying, why do you have cheese in your fridge? You’re supporting Fonterra.”

“I have to give up cheese?”

“What do you think?”


At the end stage of my parents’ marriage, we could no longer bring friends home to play. My brother and I didn’t speak about this. We walked home from school on our own. We couldn’t trust the sudden and sustained outbursts of shouting, or where that might lead. If I cried, I turned to my cat, Tunku. I’d hold him close to my face, smell his warm-grass fur, rub my nose over his ears which were black and had the finest coating of velvet on them, like a horse’s face. At night I’d fold his purring body into my chest. I never minded his fishy breath. 

How simply and how often a child turns to an animal for comfort. We project our love, and our hunger for love onto animals, and in return they recognize us as fellow creature. Yet they are always under our power. Unless it is a wild horse, for example, stepping forward, stretching out a nose, but with all the forest behind her to run to if she so chooses. We have every reason to benefit from all an animal gives us, willingly or not willingly. With this freedom of power we have comes responsibilities – as a nurse would offer kindness to a patient with no memory and no voice; acts of unseen, unremembered kindnesses.

There are things right now I’m not questioning because it suits me not to see. And are there things I don’t know I don’t know I’m not questioning, and am therefore in a true but blessed state of ignorance? How much do I want to open my eyes?


Our strength is not what gives us domination, but the way we direct our minds.


In the garden, the raspberry canes shine with a scarlet fuzz all over the fruit heads and the stems. It weaves its way through hay-scented ferns and a grape, enmeshed and yet thriving, supported and supporting in the greenery of others. There is a rightness of the plant in its own habitation. It doesn’t grow limp and sparse under the gingko tree, but in the sun where all its needs are met, thrusting to life, wind-sheltered, its red globes spectacular.


The ability to see is to find the trunk of the tree whose leaves shelter me;  

tree as its own self, not just my shade.

The ability to see is to look for specifics so I might understand 

a plant or creature is itself – not a genus, not a herd.

The ability to see is asking in a café if the cake is made with butter, and to say no, instead of not asking, and then eating it.

The ability to see means illusions will dissolve, especially the ones that protect me 

from knowledge and change.

The ability to see means watching the video where the calf is pushed down and a knife slid across its throat, because this is what happens two millions times a year in our country for us to have a thriving agricultural sector. And cheese.


One day at a rural café, I looked up and saw through the window the shaggy- haired Highland steer, now big enough for steak, hoisted and held upside down by one hoof as a tractor hauled it across the paddock. The second steer watched in the field as the farmer butchered its companion. In the cooling air the animal stood, face intent, among the lengthening shadows. The next day, the paddock was empty of that steer as well. But I remember them, the one who went first, and the one who waited. 

The ability to see means I understand animals also see. They honour by their attention that which we close our eyes to. They stand in the grass in the mauve of evening, the air blood-scented, staring, long after we have gone inside and shut our doors.


About The Author

Jillian Sullivan lives in the Ida Valley in Central Otago, New Zealand. Her twelve published books include creative non-fiction, novels, short story collections and poetry. She teaches fiction and creative non-fiction in New Zealand and America. Once the drummer in a woman’s rock band and now a grandmother, her passion is natural building and earth plastering. Her latest book is the memoir, A Way Home (Potton and Burton). Her awards include the Highlights Fiction Award and the 2018 Juncture Memoir Contest in America.

Her father and his twin brother stopped eating meat at the age of nine, in 1938, after seeing a pig killed. Today, the majority of the next three generations don’t eat animals.