Of course there are times when Something Must Be Done. As the seasons come and go in the country we have learned to recognize them by their companions. Not just in the out-of-doors either. Our old dry-stone foundations are much appreciated by the field mice as a good passageway to a quiet place to spend the winter. This house had been empty, during the winter at least, for some years before we came, and the mice naturally regarded our arrival as a bit of a nuisance. Ralph Ford, one of the staff at our favourite hardware store, put the obvious question as we purchased half a dozen mouse traps: “Are you trapping for the fur or for the meat?”
The field mice head indoors for the winter
We have clearly made it around the circuit of the year to tamarack autumn. Everything deciduous around here except the lilacs has moved its base of operations underground until sometime next spring, and the little trees along the roadsides who refuse to let their yellowed leaves go, in spite of a brisk wind today, are obviously too young to know better.
If the trees are looking for a safe place to spend the winter it seems a fair number of Mother Nature’s smaller children have had the same idea.
The little trap line that I've been running for the last while beside the washing machine in the kitchen has caused the plans of an impressive number of mice to be put on indefinite hold.
As far as I can tell, the mice who had moved into the second floor for the winter have either re-moved so as to carry on the late-night parties in more congenial surroundings or have permanently lost interest in everything.
There for a while it seemed that nothing was sacred. If mice want to carry on their revels in one of the back bedrooms I'm inclined not to ask questions, but when they started partying in our bedroom while we were in residence, it seemed to us that steps had to be taken.
(Actually, the back bedrooms are equally off limits if our third daughter should happen to be in residence. Though she is now settled into a good job and living in Toronto, I imagine she might even now draw the line well before mice. When she was still living at home her vocal imitation, on meeting a mouse, of a steam calliope that has just burst an E-flat-above-high-C pipe should have caused the mouse that was responsible to go completely bald and totally deaf. But mice are made of sterner stuff than you might think.)
I'm afraid I have to say that both the resident cats are quite useless in these situations. Helen is getting up in years and has never seen herself as obligated in any way by the fact that we feed her at regular intervals and pay the taxes on her residence. She does have a distressing taste in birds, though, and occasionally brings us little offerings of freshly-killed endangered species as a token of her esteem. The other cat, a young neutered male, basks in his own perfection and does not have a good word to say to anybody, unless they are making themselves useful to him. Mice, he feels, are not interested in him, so why should he be interested in them?
Another problem with the cats at this time of year - just when they could be really useful - is that they cannot reliably be left inside overnight. Around three o'clock in the morning one of them will decide that it would be a grand night to take a stroll and perhaps do a bit of yowling on the side. Ignoring the mice cavorting about the place they will proceed to the door of our bedroom and rattle the door-handle.
A rattling door-handle can be heard, I want you to know, even over the carryings-on of the mice.
There for a while we had mouse traps set all up and down the house. It was a little risky padding about in the dark, I grant you, but sometimes you have to be willing to take a bit of risk in order to accomplish a higher objective.
Of course, it was also a little awkward entertaining after we had instituted our policy of "thorough." The snap of a mouse trap is hard to translate into some more benign event, and there for a while, although there was no "rockets' red glare," the snapping of mousetraps at unexpected intervals rather made our quiet home reminiscent of Fort McHenry the evening Francis Scott Key wrote the Star-Spangled Banner.
There was the evening we were sitting in the living room in quiet conversation with old friends visiting from the city and the trap in the kitchen snapped during a lull. I could see afterwards that the problem with explaining that it was a mousetrap was the unspoken assumption that where there had been one mouse there might well be others still at large.
We're now down to one or two mice a week. And at least they have stopped the partying in our bedroom. 7 November 89
Sometimes less drastic measures served. As the cicadas begin to sing and the crickets charm us with their night-time songs, we resign ourselves to having to relocate more than a few enthusiastic cricket singers to more distant parts than the baseboards of “our” living room or the cabinets of “our” kitchen.
The Bull Cricket
There is a bull cricket somewhere in the kitchen who starts in to compose epic poetry whenever someone turns on the kitchen tap. I suppose he thinks the water tinkling in the sink is a rival for the affections of his lady love. I hate to tell him but we chucked his lady love out the door a week ago....
20 September 1990
For all the beasts of the forest are mine,
and so are the cattle upon a thousand hills.
I know all the birds upon the mountains,
and the wild beasts of the field are in my sight.
Our coming to this place from the city, where we had lived for over ten years, brought with it great surprises. Never mind living in a place where “the neighbours” were not “next door” - in fact, some of the neighbours, we discovered, lived right here.
In the country, however, even in these highly politicized times, even where we might seem to have set up our standards and pitched our tents, it is also humbling to get some glimpse, through those same lower orders, of our relative insignificance, while we think of ourselves as "masters of all we survey."
Long ago now, I remember being puzzled by a series of capital letters appearing on financial statements. The statements in question purported to tell the government exactly why it was that my wife and I were not making a larger contribution to the expensive business of running the country. I suspected, from the set of mysterious initials appearing after our names, that something else was being communicated as well. The problem was, that JTWROS seemed stubbornly to belong to some other, and definitely non-Indo-European, language.
One day, I happened to mention the vexing word to an accountant friend. He burst out laughing. “All that means is that if you or your wife should die the other will carry on without question of extra taxes.”
“JTWROS is an acronym,” he went on, “an abbreviation that takes the first letter of each word and puts them together. The whole phrase is nicely old-fashioned, implying that you and your wife have equal rights in property which you would have held from some feudal lord, so the death of one of you would not have allowed the lord to turf the survivor out. You are ‘Joint Tenants With Rights of Survivorship,’ even though now the term applies to any kind of property, including real estate or more abstract things like investments.”
The acronym and its interpretation somehow lodged in my brain, but it was only after we moved here that it began to take on a more global - or, at least, a less species-specific - meaning. It could describe a relationship that went back a long way, far back before the feudal system was even a gleam in some mediæval lawyer’s eye.
We came from the city where property was laid out so many feet this way and so many feet that way, and the neighbours and the neighbours kids, their friends and relations, were all more-or-less known, and a man’s home could be thought of as his castle. Granted it might be besieged at certain times of the year by aluminum storm-window salesmen or the property tax minions or tract-bearing souls anxious to let us know that Babylon the great had fallen long before the US government had decided to pick a bone with the descendants of the biblical city.
In the country, it seemed the situation was not as clear. The tax man was still likely to make his presence known, and Babylon was still falling. At least (apparently) it tended to collapse about the time the flowers were beginning to emerge in the spring and the driveway could be negotiated without too much adverse effect on a nicely-polished pair of shoes or a freshly-washed and polished automobile.
In the country we might be possessed of legal documents that testified not only to our ownership of our property but made it clear that anyone who wished to verify our ownership had but to turn to such-and-such a page in a book in some office somewhere hereabouts. There they could discover that we held what the lawyers call a ‘clear title’ to our seventy acres more or less that could be traced back practically to when Trojan Hector was a pup, long before Troy got into that unfortunate argument with the Greeks over the beautiful Helen.
There were others, though, who had never heard of Helen or of deeds of grant either, for whom thoughts of ownership never crossed their minds. They were, simply, here - ‘here’ in the most fundamental and concrete sense of the word.
I think it was the snake which first got me thinking about the wider implications of JTWROS. We had just added a piece to this house and had dragged a big flat stone to serve as a nicely-rustic threshold before the porch steps.
As it happened that stone was in a corner between new and old construction where the sun on a summer afternoon shone warmly. We who had put the stone there were too busy to take much notice of the fact but it was not long before it became clear that others who lived here had noticed. Where the snake had been soaking up sunlight before we put the stone in place I do not know. I met him (or her) enjoying “my” stone as I was dashing in from the yard to answer a phone.
In fact, the snake made better use of the stone than I did, but his presence reminded me of the mice in the cellar in the fall and the larder beetles inside bowls they could not climb out of in the spring and all the other, known and unknown, creatures whose place this is as well - all of us, in the most profound sense, Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship.
13 September 2005