In it Together

It’s that time of year again: nights are cold enough to drive the mice indoors, looking for a warm place to make a cozy nest – in that box of irreplaceable textiles from Oaxaca that I’ve been collecting for decades, the one that’s stored in the garage while I finish remodeling. “Damn mice!” I think to myself as I extract the beautifully woven huipiles and exquisitely embroidered blouses covered in mouse poop, urine stains and chewed fluff from last year’s nest. Then I go to the shredding machine where I have been slowly converting old tax returns and cancelled checks into compostable fragments. It’s satisfying in a tedious sort of way, and as I stand there, I remind myself that some of those decisions and transactions are still feeding me today and I am grateful. The compost likes it, too; the formerly stinky, gloppy clumps in the composter are now odorless and easily turned. I have learned that shredded paper is a good source of carbon for the compost pile and absorbs a lot of liquid. (By some calculations, compost is optimally up to 70% carbon. That’s a lot of bank statements and cancelled checks.) There was a funky smell that day. There, next to the shredder, are three abandoned no-kill mouse traps fashioned from a kitchen waste basket and two aluminum trash cans. Inside the beige plastic waste basket, on a bed of sawdust, are three bloated, rotting mice.

I take the tiny, stiff corpses out to the garden. I air out the garage, shred more files, and re-bait all three traps with dabs of peanut butter. When I check the cans the following morning, I find a little gray mouse huddled on the crumpled paper at the bottom of one of the aluminum cans. She doesn’t seem alarmed by my presence like the mouse I found a couple of weeks ago, who leapt in the air as I picked up the can and put it in my car to take it a few miles away to release it. In fact, she seems drowsy, sitting calmly with half-closed eyes. ‘Well,’ I think, ‘it’s daytime and mice are nocturnal, so maybe she’s sleepy.’ I study her beautiful whiskers and ears, her soft, fluffy fur, and her exquisite little feet with their translucent, barely-furred pink skin, and their tiny mouse knuckles and toenails. It’s certainly a different kind of exchange than the one I wrote about earlier this year.

Just then I hear a loud buzzing sound and look around to see that a hummingbird has flown in through the open door and is frantically trying to get out the closed window. Up and down the glass she buzzes. When I try to gently move my cupped hand toward her to shoo her outside, she just gets more agitated. I grab an empty cardboard shoe-box and clumsily, gently, try to put it over her but she eludes me, more frantic than ever, so I put the box down and stand there trying to figure out what to do. I know that if she flies up into the rafters, she’ll likely never escape. I start speaking to her, to calm myself as much as anything. I explain that I am trying to figure out a way to carry her outside. I promise not to hurt her and tell her I love her. To my astonishment, she floats down to the rim of the window and sits still. She waits calmly as I cup her in my hands, carry her outside and release her.

I return to the mouse, put the can in my car and drive to the mouse drop-off place (a public park far from people’s homes). But when I tip the trash can, so she can run off, she doesn’t budge. Even after I gently slide her onto the ground, she stays abnormally still. I take a small stick and gently nudge her. She drags her splayed feet and half-heartedly moves forward a few inches, then stops again. I nudge her one more time and she moves, but less this time, and I realize she is ill or injured, and dying. What has happened to her? Is there some poison in the garage that I’m not aware of, left by the previous owners?

Had she been injured when she fell into the can? Maybe the crumpled paper isn’t thick enough. I realize as I think these things that I am suddenly feeling sad and worried, when only a few hours before I had felt annoyed. I lift her with a dried leaf and put her in the deeper grass, where she can rest, or, more likely, die in peace, outdoors. I carefully sprinkle a few drops of water on the ground near her mouth, and a bit of cornmeal as well. I say a blessing and am surprised to be fighting back the tears. A few minutes later, as I drive into town, I suddenly find myself singing, and know she has died. Feeling foolish, I cry some more and wish I had stayed with her and sung to her then, knowing she most likely could have heard me. They say that hearing is the last of our senses to dim when we humans pass on, so I assume it’s the same for animals. What a huge gift this very small creature has inadvertently given me. Now, in the morning, I look forward to going to the garage to check the cans, hoping-not hoping that there will be another. Promising not to leave the cans for so long that they’ll suffer or starve, but no more mice since then.

These days, I often lie awake at night, fretting about the decimation of Nature at human hands; about species in freefall and global warming accelerating beyond all predictions, about the rise of hate crimes and fascism – wondering what we humans can do to stop the downward spiral in time. And I wonder, too, what use it is to keep writing, researching, making notes, praying for the right words to come, though I continue because I want to, and I must. This month’s New Moon falls on Election Day in the US. Things are energized, polarized. Tense. And it occurs to me that these small relationships matter, especially now, because they create a connection that is tangible and personal. We’re in this together, we humans, yes - with the foxes, the hawks, the hummingbirds, and the mice.