The Rabbit Elm

by Yaralindi

“But it’s the Rabbit Elm,” Bilbo exclaimed.

Belladona looked lovingly down at the tiny figure of eleven year old Bilbo and smiled. “Your father doesn’t want to cut it down, Bilbo dear. He has to cut it down. The storm damaged it badly last winter. Midges are nesting in it now because of all of the hollow spots that let water in. You don’t like all the midges biting you, do you?”

“Well… no,” Bilbo reluctantly said. “But couldn’t we just drain the water and drive out the midges? The mother rabbit really has nowhere else to go.”

“I know it’s hard to understand, Bilbo. The rabbits will be just fine. Ham Gamgee says he’ll look to them.”

“’A fine brace o’ conies they’ll make’,” Bungo gruffly quoted from the door leading down to one of the many new cellars in Bag End. He was dirty from his work at expanding this particular cellar, which he intended to hold the finest collection of wines this side of the Brandywine. He sounded quite a bit like Hamfast Gamgee who had moved to Hobbiton just four winters before.

Bilbo looked up at the perpetually grinning face of his father with panic in his eyes. “Father, we can’t! Coney and ‘taters are Mr. Gamgee’s favorite meal.” He shuddered thinking of the poor rabbits being dragged from the hole he had dug for them last summer under the shade of what had now become the Rabbit Elm. Two additional rabbit families had joined them this summer and now Father wanted to cut down the elm that had become their home and shelter.

“Crisp the skin and toss in some dumplings and I’m there too,” Bungo said quickly then looked chastened at seeing the tears well up in his son’s tiny eyes. “Bilbo, they’re just rabbits,” he gently added.

“And to a troll, we’re tasty served up with carrots in a stew,” Bilbo snapped in return.

“Bilbo Baggins!” Belladona exclaimed. “Wherever did you hear such a thing?”

“That wizard Gandalf told us about trolls at last year’s festival,” Bilbo answered but guiltily looked away. Mother had told him not to talk to the wizard last year. “I didn’t talk to him, Mother, honest!” he added hoping to stem off the stern talking-to he was about to get.

“Young Master Baggins, you know very well what I meant when I told you not to talk to that wizard. He’ll be taking you off on one of his adventures next.” Belladona looked horrified at the thought of her son wandering out of the safety of The Shire.

“I tell you what,” Bungo quickly interrupted before Bilbo could argue that he had only done what she had told him to do. Punishment would fall to Bungo and he hated punishing the boy for his Tookish traits. “You help me catch the rabbits and we can move them to the orchard. They will keep the weeds in check and you can play with them whenever you like.”

Belladona started to argue that Bilbo should be punished but didn’t have the heart on seeing the look of hope and joy in his face.

“Can we keep the elm too?”

“I don’t see how, Bilbo,” Bungo said. “The poor tree is dying. It’s just a matter of time before it falls and we can’t have it falling on the fence or on the road. The wood will come in handy in Bad End as well. Will you help me make sure this grand old elm is not forgotten?”

Bilbo sadly nodded yes. Bungo clapped the boy on his shoulder and started to steer him toward the front door to start moving those rabbits.

“Oh no you don’t, Bungo Baggins!”

Both stopped and looked back guiltily at Belladona, each thinking the matter with the wizard not yet settled.

“I’ll not have you going out looking like that. You wash up, Bungo Baggins and put on some fresh clothes before the neighbors think I’m the worst wife since that Camillia Sackville-Baggins.” She busied herself at making them both respectable then refused to let them out until they had properly eaten elevenses.

Over the next week, Bungo and Bilbo carefully moved the four families of rabbits from their rabbit holes under the elm to new holes started for them in the Baggins’ orchard. Belladona sometimes came to watch them as they chased down the tiny creatures, both gentle hobbits laughing and playing the entire time. Even the neighbors commented on the most respectable activity of these two excellent hobbits.

Then came the dreadful day of the Felling of The Rabbit Elm. Hamfast Gamgee brought in tools and five workers from Woodhall. They set to at dawn and worked the better part of the day bringing down the stately, though clearly dying, old lady.

Bilbo could not watch, but stood nearby listening to the activity. Bungo’s hand was on his shoulder as hobbits worked to bring down the huge and ancient tree. Each creak and groan elicited a shudder from Bilbo who imagined the poor tree in pain at the bite of an ax carving out the felling notch, cut to ensure the tree fell where the workmen wanted it to, or the sharp teeth of the saw that did most of the work in bringing down the tree.

When at last the tree let out a mighty groan and crashed noisily to the ground, Bilbo found he could not remain. Tears washing freely from his eyes, he fled the scene of terrible carnage to the safety of the orchard. Bungo found him there later, gently holding a baby rabbit and still crying.

“Father, do trees feel pain?” Bilbo asked without looking up from petting the tiny, sleeping creature.

“I don’t know. I only know that sometimes we must do things we do not like.”

Bilbo looked up sharply at the sad note in his father’s voice. He found him staring back at the bend in the hill, around which could still be distantly heard the crack of axes as the workmen cut the limbs from the elm. He was surprised to see tears also in his father’s eyes.

“Never grow so cold that you do not feel for the living things you have around you, Bilbo. The felling of this wonderful tree should hurt. It was a part of the land and part of our lives for many, many years. The love of these things will carry you much further than the love of gold or property ever will.”

Many years later, sitting quietly in a deserted part of Rivendell, Bilbo Baggins pulled the pipe from his lips and looked at the fine lines on its wooden surface. It had taken him and his father many months to prepare and cure the wood to make this pipe. It had never produced the sweet taste of some of his other pipes, but it was still Bilbo’s favorite because it reminded him of the many items still in Bad End today that had been made from that great elm under which he had played as a youth.

With a sigh, he placed the pipe stem between his teeth and pulled in another fill of smoke from the bowl. ‘The finest weed in the South Farthing,’ he thought as he exhaled the smoke in a ring that gently wafted to the rafters. Beside him, Gandalf did the same. Though from his elm wood pipe, given him years ago by Bilbo on the occasion of a remembrance of Bungo Baggins, the smoke wafted up in the shape of a great tree.


Author's note: I wrote this story today on the occasion of the felling of an elm in my front yard. My father and I had planted this elm back in 1992. Sadly it passed away this summer and needed to be removed before it fell on the house. I know elm wood is not the usual wood used to make pipes, but I am assured that it has been used in some cases to make them, though they do not produce the same smooth, sweet taste of a meershaum or briar pipe. I do hope you enjoyed reading this story as much as I did in writing it. - Yaralindi (aka Sam Cook)