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It snowed all day yesterday and we woke to a white world, every tree furred with ermine and the bushes up to their eyebrows. Thanks, Elizabeth Coatsworth. I look up her poem again and again vow to copy it out and put it in a scrapbook next to the photographs I run out (in my bare feet) to take. The balsam fir I planted as a seedling when I was pregnant, which towers above the garden shed, is blackish green with tasteful clumps of white clustered on each great branch, and delicate spires outlined with white at the top, and the old bird feeder on its pole has been transformed into an elfin cottage from a Swiss fairy tale. Even the farmer has to admit it’s beautiful. And I am in Heaven. Part of the beauty is in the gentleness of this scene. Not cold, really, and with spring right down the street and in the damp heaviness of the snow, which begs to be made into snowmen and snow forts and snowballs, the certainty of its melting soon, too soon.
But the farmer wants to tell me that he has “killed another one”. This goes on all the time. I am teaching reading in my fourth-grade classroom and my cell phone rings. It’s the farmer - “Five!”. No need to tell me five what, no need for me to ask. Five at one blow! Not, however, five coyotes, or bears, or wolves, or even shoplifters. Five - mice.
At this time of the year when the ground is still frozen and snow is high and it’s cold, cold outside, everything is hopping in the greenhouses. The seeder buzzes and under the guidance of the farmer drops its precious cargo into the flats which have been carefully filled with planting medium and leveled off. Then they are gently watered and covered with newspaper and left in the sun to germinate. Every day he waters, feeds, hovers over them and when the seedlings emerge he cossets them and gets up in the middle of the night to check on them and doesn’t sleep because if the heat goes off and the alarm doesn’t ring it’s one third of the year’s profit gone, and every morning he goes out to the seed room to find wreckage and horror and destruction.
Mice. This spring, they are spinach mice. Last spring, they were eggplant mice. Here is what they do: in the night they come out of their hiding places and they scamper onto the seedlings in their flats and they dig up and eat the germinated seeds, which one supposes have reached the ideal swollen succulent state, at the same time destroying with their little feet the plants that they do not eat. Sort of like me, among the sugar peas in the spring time. only I try not to destroy the other plants.
The mice do not destroy all the seedlings, only that particular kind they fancy this spring. I see them consulting together: What do you think about lettuce this year? No, we did that last year. I know, how about spinach?
The farmer grumbles and plots and mutters about poison and traps, and counts his kills like a bounty hunter in the Old West. Six this week - that will show them.
Our house is old and has a fieldstone cellar, which means that we live with lots of wild creatures. The coal bin was on one unhappy occasion the tomb of a skunk, mice skitter through the walls and occasionally raid the kitchen for such unlikely food as foil-wrapped chocolates and we were visited on one summer night in our second-floor bedroom by a confused baby squirrel (trapped in the laundry hamper and set free). Starlings, overcome by fumes from the furnace, regularly fall down the chimney into the basement and then fly up the stairs into the kitchen. Bats and starlings live and nest in the attic, which has was used one summer by a sparrow hawk as a kind of fast-food pickup station. We are fairly sanguine about these guests, as long as they stay in their part of the house. The mice are regularly subjected to raids when they get too intrusive of course, and rats we do not countenance at all.
But I cannot help but feel for those little starving mice in the seed room, creeping out for a delicious nibble, and being snapped up by the terrible traps.