a literary journal published by the Black Earth Institute dedicated to re-forging the links between art and spirit, earth and society
Melanie Dylan Fox
A Vision of Small Things
Throughout the world
Who is there like little me!
Who is like me!
I can touch the sky,
I touch the sky indeed.
The task could be avoided no longer. It had been time for too long now; soon they would all be too big to be useful, and then what would I do? Perhaps, I thought, if I went quickly enough, the burden of what I was about to do wouldn’t bother me. Or if I moved slowly and silently enough, the mother wouldn’t notice at all. Quiet as a mouse. I would reach my arm gently into the glass terrarium, separate the mounds of soft cotton fluff, shredded paper towels, and pine shavings she’d arranged so deliberately, and pluck them all out. One by one.
But no matter how many times I told myself that it didn’t matter anyway, that she really didn’t matter all that much, I couldn’t make myself believe this. In that second, she saw me only for exactly what I was, what we both knew I was. A baby stealer. A baby killer. Interesting that some etymologies claim that the word mouse is derived from the Sanskrit musha: meaning “the thief” or “to steal.” Somehow, I had become a predator.
I had always thought of myself as a protector of animals, both wild and domesticated. In Sequoia National Park where I worked for many seasons, I often educated—sometimes lectured—tourists about the park’s black bears. I had a penchant for adopting special-needs pets. In the coming years, I would work at an animal shelter and with dog rescue organizations. I could hardly squash the errant spider or insect I found in my house. The new role of predator was uncomfortable and unwanted.
I thought of the word itself, predator, with its origins in the Latin praeda. This single root has a rich history and has yielded a number of English words, some of which filled my head: prison, depredation, plunder, comprehend. I thought, too, of the French verb prendre, “to take.” Another one came to mind: reprehensible. Yes, that was me.
I was caring for my husband Jake’s Chinese water dragons while he did archeological fieldwork in the Middle East. And here was the problem: they were carnivorous lizards. Unlike some water dragons, Dante and Faust would only accept a diet of hairless, blind, deaf, still-alive-and-helplessly-squirming baby mice, called “pinkies.” By as soon as two weeks, the mice would be hair-covered, able to see and hear; by then, they’d be too large for the lizards to consider them food. We had no choice but to either raise our own feeder mice, or regularly drive over an hour round-trip to Des Moines. So now, four mice resided in our living room. And I quickly learned that they are fiercely individualistic with distinct personalities and quirks.
There were The Fat Girls, two friendly, sweet tan females named Wanda and Baby Mouse; both had had one litter of babies each and then inexplicably stopped breeding. While the other mice would run miles each day on their shiny metal wheel, the Fat Girls appeared lazy, sleeping more than it seemed mice should, and they both became morbidly obese. The Fat Girls also had an occasional and disturbing habit of attacking and eating newborn mice.
The other tan mouse was a male, feisty and skinny. We named him Brigham, hoping to foreshadow his astonishing procreative abilities; if unimpeded, a single pair of mice is capable of producing thousands of offspring in a single year. Brigham did not disappoint.
And then there was Jetta, a petite mouse with fur the color of smooth, wet slate. Jetta produced a litter of pups, usually a dozen or more, exactly every three weeks.
Years later, I would be upset to learn that we’d gone about the business of mouse breeding all wrong. Because female mice, does, can come into estrus every five days, they must be separated from the males, bucks, at all times. If not separated, a male will mate with the female immediately, even if she’s just given birth, causing her to simultaneously have to care for the newborn mice and deal with the demands of pregnancy again. By keeping Jetta and Brigham housed together constantly, we had unwittingly subjected her to an endless, exhausting—and probably harmful—cycle of motherhood.
For about a year and a half, the unsettling same scene repeated itself. The sight was truly wrenching: a hand would appear in the terrarium, and Jetta would grab the nearest pup in her mouth and run back and forth, positively frantic, until she found a safe place to hide it beneath a mound of bedding. Then she would grab another one and another, trying to hide them all.
Obviously she couldn’t know the exact fate of her offspring. But in those moments when her babies were being taken, the always-docile, sweet Jetta was replaced by a panicked, protective mother. During the days after Jetta had had a litter, Brigham, too, was transformed. He would fling his tiny body at Jake’s hand in what seemed like a crazed rage. More than once he succeeded in delivering a nasty warning bite.
As I took over the lizard-care duties for my husband that summer, I made a split-second decision: This will be the first and only time. It wouldn’t hurt Dante and Faust to eat mealworms all summer. And if we ever again had lizards, I would only tolerate vegetarian lizards.
What is it about mice that makes us so uneasy? My friend Beth, who is one of the most empathetic people I know, who has, in fact, been a professional animal communicator, cannot abide wild mice. She tells me that this species and humans lack “a shared understanding, a consensual relationship.” For several months one summer, Beth played an annoying and futile game of hide-and-seek in her home with one particular mouse. When I ask her to explain why the experience was so upsetting, she says, “It’s the lack of negotiation and feeling as if my space is invaded.” Understandable yes—who would like feeling besieged? But I still have to wonder why do we humans find mice so offensive to our sensibilities?
Folklore holds mice in no greater esteem. They are bad omens, portents of catastrophe. Their sudden appearance or disappearance foretells a family member’s demise; a mouse crossing one’s path signals an untimely death; a squeaking mouse near a sickbed forecasts a dubious recovery; travelers encountering mice will have misfortunate journeys. The exception to the mice-as-bad-luck image is seen in Bavaria, where white mice are considered especially good luck and to kill any mouse invites certain disaster.
Mice also have numerous “evil” connotations. They are long believed to represent the Devil and his work, falling from the sky to cause plagues, disrupting Noah’s ark journey. They have long-held witchcraft associations as well. Witches are reputed to turn clothing scraps into mice, keep them as familiars, and use them as ingredients in brews and potions. Mice have been believed to hold the reincarnated souls of murder victims, or are regarded as thieves capable of stealing the souls of sleeping people.
In stark comparison to folklore is my nine-year old niece’s teacher, who keeps pet mice in her classroom. Originally believed to have originated in Asia, Mus musculus, the common house mouse, is a species that’s opportunistic, flexible, and highly adaptable.
“We each get to take them home for a week,” she told me.
I pictured a terrarium like the one which used to house our own mice. How unsettling it must be for them, all that shuffling back and forth, strange places week after week. And knowing the often-short life expectancy of a mouse, I wondered what the teacher did if one happened to expire while with a student.
“And what do you guys do with them once you get them home?” I had to ask. Was there some important educational lesson that went along with the responsibility of caring for the mice?
“Oh,” she said, “They just run around and we watch them and then we give them back.” As an afterthought she added, “Mice don’t really do anything anyway.”
I considered her comment. In ecological terms, humans and mice (among other rodents, particularly rats) share a commensal relationship: a close interaction between organisms in which one animal, presumably mice, benefits, while the other animal gains or loses nothing. I can’t really believe in the neutrality this definition suggests. If we interact this closely, share an often intimate relationship, certainly mice do have an impact, ecologically, intellectually, emotionally. In many instances, it is this very interaction with humans that engenders conflict.
Mice are second only to humans in their vast and complete planetary colonization, existing in an astonishing diversity of habitats. They are everywhere. And yet, as my niece has illustrated, they are nothing. They are physically diminutive, usually taken for granted, and pilfer from humans without harming or helping us—in theory anyway. But surely, I thought, mice must matter.
The conflicted, adversarial relationships between mice and other animals are well-known in many cultures and provide the context for a number of stories. David Pickering, in his Dictionary of World Folklore explains that “Mice appear as characters…tricking much more powerful animals or alternatively coming to a sticky end themselves after forgetting their own vulnerability.” Greek fabulist Aesop shares the parable of the mouse and the lion, a story in which the mouse doesn’t try to trick the trapped lion, but instead “saves” his life after having had his own life spared.
What is interesting about the mouse as a literary figure is that it directly contradicts the stereotype of the mouse as meek, feeble, and unimportant. E.B. White’s 1945 children’s story, Stuart Little, gives readers such a mouse. Stuart is portrayed as a kind, considerate mouse who would, and does, do anything for his human family and for his bird-friend Margalo. In Robert C. O’Brien’s 1971 children’s book, Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh, the lead character is a single field mouse mother who must succeed against numerous seemingly insurmountable challenges to finally defeat a most-powerful foe: human beings. As protagonists, it is precisely this smallness, the ability to overcome the limitations of size, which makes the mouse a compelling underdog.
The mouse as a literary character also becomes a creature worthy of our sympathies and respect. One notable example appears in Robert Burns’s 1785 poem, “To a Mouse.” Inspired by a real-life event during which Burns accidentally destroyed a mouse’s nest while plowing his farm’s fields, the poem is an almost-reverent commentary on human frailty and the loss of connection to the natural world; the poem is also the source of Burns’s well-known epigram, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men / Gang aft agley.” Burns addresses the poem’s fictional mouse, the “tim’rous beastie,” and apologizes repeatedly for his destructiveness as well as for several of nature’s wrongs.
These works all elevate the mouse’s status from a humble, passive creature to one that’s sympathetic and admirable, able to evoke a positive response that many people are unable to conjure for the real thing. But taken out of this context, empathy for the mouse seems quite hard to find.
“Well, I have some bad news,” Jake said as I walked in the door. I dropped my backpack and flopped onto the couch. Spring semester had just started, and I was already feeling the stress of classes, teaching, and the long winter.
I sighed. “What’s up?”
“Jetta died today, probably sometime this morning.”
The news wasn’t a surprise. Jetta was nearly two-years old, positively geriatric by mouse standards. Her wild relatives, in contrast, had a much shorter life expectancy, somewhere around six months. We had been expecting this demise for a few weeks, recognizing subtle signs of Jetta’s steadily declining health.
“Where is she? I want to see her,” I said, nearly in tears.
Jake wrinkled his forehead and hesitated. “I threw her out.”
“You mean you threw her away? Like in the trash?” I pictured Jetta’s body surrounded by coffee grounds, vegetable peelings, ordinary household garbage.
“Well yeah,” he said. “She was just a mouse.”
“That’s not right. We should have buried her, or something.”
His bemused expression told me that he still didn’t quite understand why I was so bothered. And why was I, really?
Jetta was my first pet that had passed away since I was a young child; my losses then I hardly remembered. And though I would go through this very ritual over and over during the next few years, as our mice each inevitably died out—some even outliving the lizards—I realized that I was upset because I hadn’t had a chance to say goodbye. Somewhere, in our mostly one-sided relationship, Jetta had become important to me.
“I’ll go out and get her if you want,” Jake offered. “We can bury her.”
I pictured him rummaging through the garbage outside, trying to dig a mouse-sized hole in the long-frozen ground.
“No, it’s okay.” I shook my head. “But next time,” I added, “when the next one goes, please let’s just bury it, okay? That’s the least they deserve.”
If my niece believes that mice may not do anything remarkable, their role in science and medicine is evidence enough to prove her wrong. Today, the mouse is one of the most genetically significant animals on the planet, quite possibly the “Rosetta stone that will help us interpret the human genome,” according to Princeton University president, Shirley Tilghman. Few people in the world haven’t, at some point, used a product or medication that was tested on mice.
In 1979, the discovery that field mice in southern California were genetically resistant to the leukemia virus helped outline the theoretical framework for much modern-day AIDS research and led to the development of antibody-based medications. Studies of proteins in mouse brains may provide a model to one day combat human memory loss and may even yield new treatments for Parkinson’s disease, ADD, and schizophrenia. The discovery as to why certain mice become fat—they are genetically unable to produce the protein which signals the brain to recognize when the mouse is “full”—has potentially significant implications for understanding our own health.
And if their importance to the medical field isn’t convincing enough, mice also play a key ecological role. One ecologist likened them to “tiny Atlases holding up the world,” insisting that their role “goes far beyond being a Big Mac for predators.” As mice eat their way across the world, they provide a number of valuable services for both plant and animal life: they cull the landscape for predators, keep weeds at bay, enhance and fertilize soil by burrowing, disperse seed, and help foster tree and plant germination. And most importantly, they themselves are a common and plentiful food source. As environmentalist Aldo Leopold once wrote, “If the land mechanism as a whole is good, then every part is good.” For the critical part they play, mice act theirs amazingly well.
Despite their reputation as thieves, mice instead have the potential to actually give more than they take. They have the potential to shape the futures of our medical, scientific, and physical landscapes. It is hard not to be impressed, to be touched in some fundamental way, by the sacrifices that mice make for humans, for our continued health, or for our ever-expanding knowledge.
I watched Brigham closely, as I’d been doing for the last few weeks. Waiting. He’d always been a lean, athletic mouse, but now at almost three years old, he was bony, his fur matted and dull. Every movement was cautious and obviously painful, every breath labored. I couldn’t believe that he was still there, somehow holding on. Sometimes he even still plodded along on the exercise wheel.
Jake saw me watching, as if he knew what I was thinking. “It seems like,” he said, “it might be time to do something. To, uh, intervene.”
The word neither of us wanted to say, euthanasia, hung unspoken in the air between us. I knew he was right. It was time. Brigham was clearly in pain. He was suffering. And as a result, so were we.
When I returned home later that evening, Brigham was gone. Jake’s solemn mood, his silence as we stood in the backyard and together buried Brigham with the other mice, out back among the waiting, dormant hostas, did not go unnoticed.
My work in Sequoia National Park began with the same ritual each summer. I would stand in my newly-assigned cabin armed with a stiff-bristled broom, paper towels, spray cleaner, and an industrial-strength face mask. Kept tightly closed-up and locked, the cabins had only one inhabitant during the long Sierra winter: deer mice. In 1993, the mysterious and often deadly Hantavirus cardiopulmonary syndrome (HPS) had emerged in the Four Corners region of the United States, and had scared us all. Related viruses have been isolated in China, Russia, Panama, Chile, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, and in western and northern Europe. You can’t be too careful, the rangers told us.
In their interactions with humans, mice also cause economic damage because of their voracious appetites and their urgent need to chew in order to manage their always-growing teeth. They eat through crops and stored food supplies, and some estimate they annually consume fully a quarter of all globally-grown grain intended for humans. They disrupt livestock farms, can damage machinery, and can even destroy buildings.
The moniker pest comes from the Latin pestis, meaning “deadly contagious disease,” a term justifiably earned by some mice, as my experience in Sequoia attests. Mice can be harmful, causing substantial environmental and economic damage, albeit indirectly; fortunately, most large-scale destruction is short lived. This is the downside to our commensalism with mice, suggesting that our relationship may not always be so neutral. Interaction, and then conflict, is inevitable. That we live so closely with mice means that we are just bound to get in each other’s way, from time to time. It’s the specific degree to which we bother one another that varies.
Ultimately though, it remains incredible that a single animal that has managed to so thoroughly settle the entire planet does not cause a more negative impact. Considering their vast numbers and the commonness of human and mouse interaction, it’s a wonder that our conflicts cause so little real or lasting damage.
These reflections are marked now by the distance of many years and miles. In Pittsburgh, the dreary mid-Atlantic winter had finally surrendered to the lengthening days. The skies were gray, exactly like the soft fur of a still-not-forgotten mouse. Strands of sunlight filtered through the bedroom window and cast shadows on my infant daughter’s sleeping face. In an instant, a fierce protectiveness shuddered through me. I marveled at how this tiny being could hold an almost-palpable sense of power over me.
What would I tell my daughter in a few years when she asks whether dogs and butterflies and mice think and feel and act, just like us? We like to believe we can really know other creatures. Mice are hidden, furtive, secretive. But is it possible to truly understand or know any non-human animal? I am not sure we can ever come close. All we can do is try.
I believe that mice offend our sensibilities because they are remnants of a wildness we have forgotten and don’t want to admit is lost. Mice seem in some sense symbolic of the more significant connections we’ve lost to the natural world. We humans work tirelessly to keep mice—and “nature” in so many other incarnations—out, outside, away. Where it belongs. We barricade ourselves in our homes and our businesses. We protect our beings and our belongings from mice. We devise new and better ways to eradicate them. And yet, our efforts often don’t matter. Mice are still there. Still everywhere. Pests working tirelessly against us to get in. We are unable to truly control them. Perhaps that is what is so unsettling: mice make us feel powerless.
More than ten years had passed since that awful summer afternoon with Jetta, when I first found myself taking away her still-helpless babies. Amazing how it could still feel so difficult, just in the remembering. And now that I am myself a mother, I realized I finally did understand. Only a little, but that’s all any of us can hope for, isn’t it? Understanding seems to me a bit like mice themselves, small, seemingly insignificant, until they are thoughtfully considered. My own insights are small, too, coming in a scurry of brief instants, individual moments, fond memories.
Had I forgiven myself?
I was reminded of an old Winnebago Indian folk story, about a family of mice whose universe consisted of a single log, beneath which generations had always lived. Naturally they believed themselves to be the only animals in their whole, self-contained world. In some ways, this is close to truth. A 1950s study revealed that the average distance a wild mouse regularly travels from its “home” is only about twelve feet. I was jealous, momentarily, of the mouse’s innate ability to contently exist in such a trivial word. There really is something greater, I realized, something infinitely powerful, in such smallness.
Mice may not be the only animals in the universe, but certainly they must be among the most important. Far from being simply insignificant creatures relegated to lurking in the nighttime shadows, mice have some surprisingly larger lessons for the human world. By learning to live with mice, by actually paying attention to and considering them, even the smallest creatures have the ability to illuminate our own lives and selves.
Melanie Dylan Fox is a certified Master Naturalist and teaches literature and creative writing in Chatham University’s low-residency MFA program. In addition to receiving a notable mention in Best American Essays, an AWP Intro Award for nonfiction, and a Pearl Hogrefe creative writing grant, her work has appeared in literary journals such as Bayou Magazine, Fourth Genre, and Flyway. Her essays have also been included in the anthologies American Nature Writing; Figuring Animals: Essays on Animal Images in Art, Literature, Philosophy, & Popular Culture; Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-First Century; and Permanent Vacation: Twenty Writers on Work and Life in Our National Parks. She currently makes her home at the confluence of the Blue Ridge and Appalachian Mountains in the New River Valley of southwestern Virginia. Read more at her blog: melaniedylanfox.wordpress.com.