I set out on my daily walk yesterday feeling less than motivated. The sky was gray. I hadn't taken a good, long walk in a couple days, and my muscles felt stiff. Usually I'd overcome this sort of inertia by listening to a particularly awaited podcast (see the right sidebar), but I'd left my iPod in the car overnight and it needed recharging. So, I did what I tell my students to do when they don't like what they're reading; I faked enthusiasm with the hope that that it would become the real thing.
I walked through a tiny puddle. Nothing. I halfheartedly kicked a pine cone. A twitch of a smile. I walked through leaves the wind had blown across the sidewalk. My pace increased as I spotted an even larger drift of leaves up ahead. Feeling about 5 years old, my legs sliced through the leaves in big exaggerated kicks. I think I laughed out loud. And then my foot made contact with something. Something small, but more substantial than leaves and pine cones. I saw a flash of gray arc out of the leaves and solidify into the form of a tiny mouse. It belly flopped against a tree, Wile E. Coyote style, and grabbed hold. It stayed like that, claws grasping the bark for several seconds, stunned, then scampered up the trunk until it was a good 12 feet above the ground. From the security of a fork in the tree, it stared down at me, every inch of its tiny body shaking.
"It's Ok little guy; I'm not going to hurt you". He looked so tiny and vulnerable against the giant expanse of gray sky. I could just imagine him, snug and asleep in a warm pocket of leaves, then jerked awake to find himself hurling through the air! At least he wasn't midair in the claws of a hawk, I consoled myself. It helped, but I still felt like an oaf. The funny thing is, just this week as part of our annual winterization, I set mouse traps throughout the basement without a twinge of concern for the creatures they might capture.
As I continued my walk, I must have still had burroughs and woodland creatures on my mind, because when I spotted some matted leaves sticking out of a crack in a tree, my first thought was, I wonder if an animal put that there. I walked a little closer and felt almost certain that the wind couldn't have been responsible for putting the leaves there. They looked like they'd been through a mulcher. I reached out and picked at a corner of a leaf. Instantly a tiny gray face and ebony eyes poked out of a higher hole in the tree, just inches from my face! I jumped back, tripped over a branch and landed flat on my backside.
I wanted to get a photo of the tiny homemaker. I tried tapping on the tree. I rustled the leafy insulation, since that's what got his attention the first time. I even sat quietly, but the mouse was clearly ready to out wait me. The best I was able to get was this shot of his ear, taken by putting the camera up to the hole where he'd originally peered out at me. It looks rather bat-like, don't you think?
On my way home, I decided I would try to sneak up on the mouse and get a photo. He was just so cute, like a character in a children's book. He was not at all the malevolent invader I imagine when I find bird seed bags chewed through and tiny trails of indiscriminately left droppings within the walls of my home.
The images of the tree on my camera screen were too tiny to help me identify which apple tree he called home, so I stopped at each one on that stretch of road and peered into their crevices.
I looked into this hole just in time to see two tiny rear legs and a skinny tail disappear into a tunnel leading up. I circled the tree hoping to see where the little fellow came out, but either his perch was too high or he was holed up in a warm, dark den. The bottom of his hole is lined with chewed leaves, just like the one I'd seen earlier in the day. It looked soft and dry. I could imagine being comfortable in a larger version, something like this tree that I spotted on the same road.
This is just the sort of tree I imagined Sam Gribley living in when I read My Side of the Mountain. Ever since reading that book for the first time as a young teen, I've sized up each hollow tree I see as having housing "potential" or "no potential". It's just as well I don't own the tree, or one like it, because I'd have to see if a mouse's homeis really as comfy as it seems. Which is only fair since mice keep wondering the same thing about mine.
All of this talk about mice has reminded me of the wonderful short story Misdirections by David Ebenbach. The story appears in the collection Beyond Camelots (the picture in the right sidebar will take you to it on the Amazon website). I first encountered it when the author read it as part of WBUR's radio show Morning Stories. The story is bittersweet and so perfectly crafted it deserves to be part of the American literary canon.