Rants from the Hill: Ground truthing the "Peaceable Kingdom"
Last night I lay awake in bed listening to the sound of little claws scrabbling inside the walls of our house. Because the sheetrock acts as a drumhead, amplifying sounds within the wall, the scratching is disturbingly loud. It sounds as if there is an angry ferret in the wall, which is how I know it is only a mouse; if it were a big packrat, as it sometimes has been in the past, it would instead sound like a terrified person trapped behind the wall, evoking the chilling entombments of an Edgar Allan Poe tale. Tonight the packrats are on the outside of the house, where I hear them racing along the stucco walls before pausing to clean their whiskers. In the morning their turds will litter the stoops and their urine will stain the windowsills, as if someone had spilled a pint of porter there. For now, I try to lull myself to sleep with the dim hope that whiskey may be an antidote for hantavirus.
When we bought this remote, high desert land and planned to build our home and life here, we understood that we were choosing to live among the critters. But, like most folks who move to the sticks, we didn’t have a solid idea of what we were actually signing up for. I’m not sure what I imagined back then, when my vision of desert dwelling was obscured by the golden haze that surrounds all untried plans, but I suppose my rural dream was equal parts Retreat from the Vices of Overcivilization, Enter the Peaceable Kingdom, and Wear Only Boxer Shorts and a Coonskin Cap. These are dangerous fantasies even when indulged individually, but in constellation they have proven especially perilous. For the past seven years, every assumption I ever made about nature has been challenged, every environmental value I held tested, every elaborate self-image I constructed slowly eroded away by snow and heat and wind. Out here the lion doesn’t lie down with the lamb; instead, the mountain lion prowls by night and tries to eat your dog. We pacifist tree huggers find very few trees to embrace around here, and those few are being used to shade Great Basin rattlers from the scorching sun. Certainly pacifism is nowhere in sight, as the land is dotted almost as often by bones, entrails, and piles of feathers as it is by desert peach, gooseberry, and rabbit brush. Even the Great Horned Owls, which we assumed would coo us to sleep with their gentle hooting, instead keep us wide-eyed by shrieking “whaaaa whaaaaaa-aa-aa-aarrrkk” (a direct quote from my bird book) as they prepare to eviscerate their hapless prey.
While we humans tend to fear megafauna like bears and mountain lions, no force of nature is more daunting than rodents, which are so numerous, unrelenting, and indefatigable that after a few years here I began to wish I could be fatally attacked by a mountain lion, just to have my capitulation to this grueling desert environment over with all at once. Instead, I must engage in endless and losing combat against the invincible Army of Rodentia, which around here consists of platoons of field mice, kangaroo rats, bushy-tailed packrats, antelope ground squirrels, and California ground squirrels—each of which does its special kind of damage, and none of which could be extirpated even were SEAL Team 6 suddenly dispatched to our home.
The problem is not the rodents but rather me, with my stubborn insistence upon inhabiting a place that, absent my intrusion, would have little difficulty controlling its rodent population. Even when we go out of town for a few days the owls take up hunting perches on the peaks of our roof (as evidenced by the jumbo-sized, white crap blasts below them), the coyotes excavate ground squirrel tunnels, the red tails constantly threaten death from above, and even the gopher snakes move in to patrol the packrat stick nests down below among the junipers. It is as if all of predatory nature is simply waiting for me to get my pathetically ineffectual operation out of the way so the usual business of chomping and gulping can resume apace. And by disturbing this predatory cycle with my presence I have inadvertently become the Ranting Hill’s top predator, which means that my pastoral nature reveries must be interrupted by a lot of slaying of my fellow creatures. So much for the Peaceable Kingdom.
It is easy to jawbone about methods of “pest control,” but out here there are real limits to their effectiveness. I can’t use snap traps to catch rodents, since that would risk injuring Lucy the Desert Cat, who we adopted in the foolish hope that she would do the rodent catching. I won’t use poison, since this place is also home to our young daughters, who I now refer to not by name but only as “my cute little non-target species.” Instead, I have been driven to a variety of depressingly violent strategies for protecting our home against complete takeover. My most innovative and elegant tactic involves a small, in-ground fishpond, which I installed so the girls would have a few goldfish whose bowl I wouldn’t have to clean. It turns out that rodents are remarkably fond of suicidal drowning, which most mornings leave the goldfish staring up at a long-tailed silhouette. Better still, a local magpie has discovered that my little pond is a rich source of carrion, and so visits each morning to haul away the dead. Nature thus provides undertaker as well as corpse, allowing me to keep both my conscience and my hands clean.
More absurd is that my desperate determination to battle these rodents has turned me from a mild-mannered nature lover into a gun-toting maniac. When my family is in town and I am at home alone, I undergo a disturbing transformation into a free-blasting hillbilly who more closely resembles Yosemite Sam than Henry Thoreau. Indeed, I now use my writing desk primarily as a hunting blind, from which I rise occasionally (in my boxer shorts and coonskin cap) to fire out the window at antelope ground squirrels as they devour our plants. If you find it unconscionable that a grown man would turn a shotgun on an animal weighing five ounces, you will not be heartened to discover that another method of rodent control I employ is electrocution. In an especially desperate moment I resorted to the online purchase of a device called a “Rat Zapper,” a battery-operated death chamber that accommodates mice and smallish packrats. It is only moderately effective, but in a battle that must be waged on many fronts it has its place, not to mention that it arrived accompanied by a handsome T-shirt depicting a smug-looking rodent being struck in the skull by a fiery bolt of lightning. When the mice become wary of the Zapper I resort to chasing them around with the shopvac, keeping score aloud as each “tthhhwooosh-plonkk” sound registers another short journey through the esophagus of the vacuum tube. Not an easy method, but perfectible; it’s all in the wrist.
My primary means of self-defense is live trapping, which I do each day and night in order to round up both the diurnal and nocturnal among my furry neighbors. To become an effective trapper I have had to do a great deal of research into the behavioral ecology of rodents, which has immeasurably increased my appreciation for what absolute marvels of evolutionary biology these little monsters are. Their ability to adapt to extreme environments, eat almost anything, occupy diverse ecological niches, produce young at a dizzying rate that keeps them ahead of even the most voracious predators—all this and a great deal more has inspired my admiration. The irony that I’ve come to respect these animals as I’ve learned to exterminate them is rivaled only by the more painful irony that I send them to the Elysian Fields using the unhappily misnamed “Havahart” trap. Once rodents are live-trapped there are few alternatives for their disposal, especially since I have resisted the temptation to release the captives a mile from here, near the home of the grouchy neighbor who our four-year-old calls “Mister Grumpledumps.” And so I follow the advice of my local extension agent and subject the caged beasts to “swimming lessons,” which, needless to say, they invariably fail.
If all of this sounds perfectly grisly, that’s precisely my point. This isn’t an antiseptic, pastoral retreat, but rather a teeming, fecund, wild place where we all scrabble away to get the upper claw. Walden Pond is nowhere in sight, and the hard truth of life on the ground here exposes the Peaceable Kingdom for what it is: the impossible fantasy of a natural world that is not only harmonious but also bloodless.
Essays in the Range blog are not written by the High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.
Michael P. Branch is Professor of Literature and Environment at the University of Nevada, Reno, where he teaches American literature and environmental studies. He has published five books and many articles on environmental literature, and his creative nonfiction has appeared in Utne Reader, Orion, Ecotone, Isotope, Hawk and Handsaw, Whole Terrain, and other magazines. He lives with his wife and two young daughters at 6,000 feet in the western Great Basin desert of Nevada.
Image of "The Peaceable Kingdom" by Edward Hicks, 1846
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