Once upon a time, not so long ago, there was a huge tree who played host to a colony of rooks in its branches, and a warren of rabbits under its roots. The rooks and rabbits worked – more or less – in harmony and, where they didn’t work together, neither group minded very much what the other did because they never competed for food or living space.
One day, a rabbit was eating grass under the trees, when he saw that the ground near the tree was covered in droppings from the rooks. He became angry that the rooks had fouled the grass he wanted to eat and he returned to the warren and said so.
“My son,” said one of the elder rabbits, “the rooks’ soil makes the ground fertile. Yes, some grass gets spoiled, but it is a small price to pay for the greenest and most pleasant grass in the field. Besides, without the rooks keeping watch, we wouldn’t know when the hawk is on the prowl. Rabbits below and rooks above benefits everyone.”
But the rabbit would not let the matter lie, and he complained to his friends, who complained to their friends. Before long, a small but noisy group of rabbits were complaining to the elders, who pointed out the benefits of living under a rookery. Unfortunately, the rabbits would not listen, but instead took to shouting at the rooks, and taunting them as they rested in their nests.
“Listen to the rabbits shout,” said one rook to another “such a noise! All the rabbits in the warren must be jealous of us, because we are such fine fliers, and they are stuck on the ground. If they don’t like it, they should leave.”
“That wouldn’t be right,” said his companion, “we get a lot from having the rabbits beneath our tree. They always dig up the tastiest grubs and worms from the dirt, and they warn us when the man comes with his dogs. Rooks above and rabbits below benefits everyone.”
The angry rabbits were largely ignored by their warren-mates, who didn’t want to get involved in the conflict, and grew more isolated. They talked to each other of how unfair the rooks’ behaviour was, and what they should do about it. Eventually, the original gripe was forgotten, and the rooks’ presence was enough to make the angry rabbits angrier. They resolved to burn down the tree and force the rooks to leave. All the rabbits would be safe, they reasoned, deep in the warren.
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The rooks did not often look at the base of the tree; it was not their business what the rabbits did. Because of this, they did not notice the rabbits plotting – or, if they did, they did not think it was their concern. They did not notice the kindling being laid – or, if they did, they did not think it was their concern. They did not see the fire being lit – or, if they did, they did not think it was their concern. They did see the the smoke curling through the leaves and hear the fire crackling along the bark.
The rooks took wing. Some flew out, away from the tree and tried to find new homes. Others flew down to the rabbits and demanded to know why they were doing this, but what the rabbits said made no sense. Angry at being attacked, the rooks used their wings to blow the smoke into the rabbits’ home, trying to choke the cowardly rabbits hiding in the ground.
Many of the rabbits fled the smoke-filled warren. Others, angry at being attacked, joined the rabbits outside in fighting the crows. The tree groaned and lurched above them, but the fighting rooks and fighting rabbits couldn’t hear it. As the flames weakened the tree, it began to lean further, and further until the earth couldn’t hold it any more and it collapsed, crushing the fighting rabbits and rooks.
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Some time later, after the tree had burned out and the ashes had stopped smouldering, a dog and a bitch walking past the ruined tree stopped and pawed through the ashes.
“What are these bones crushed under the tree?” asked the dog.
“Either a rabbit or a rook,” replied the bitch, “I cannot tell which, and I do not care.”