Little Lives of Earth and Form
Drummers in the Walls
By Tamia Nelson
December 25, 2007
The little lives of earth and form
Are not like ours, and yet
A kinship lingers nonetheless
From "Little Lives of Earth and Form"
by Philip Larkin
It happened almost thirty years ago, but I remember it as if it were yesterday. I wakened slowly from a deep sleep and realized that my arm needed to come in out of the cold. Even in midsummer the nights are chilly at 6,000 feet in the North Cascades, and though I was one of eight climbers huddled under a single tarp on the eve of the summer solstice, my sleeping bag was on the exposed periphery of the group. This had been my choice. Our tarp was staked close to the ground, and the atmosphere under its impervious fabric was thick with reminders of the evening's meal, a one-pot dish of curried beef and beans. Thanks to my foresight in placing my bag at the edge of the pack, however, my face was turned outward, where I could drink deeply of the crisp mountain air as I drifted off. Now a new day was dawning. The alpine meadow in which we were bivouacked was suffused in half-light, and I struggled slowly toward wakefulness, conscious of the morning chill biting deep into my exposed arm. Then, just as I was about to pull my frozen limb back into the warmth of the sleeping bag, I felt something soft and light leap into my outstretched hand.
My eyes were still bleary from sleep, but I could see clearly enough to identify my early-morning visitor. She and there was no question on that point; she was definitely a she was a deer mouse. And there she sat, in my cupped hand, methodically grooming the luxuriant fur on her mahogany-brown back and creamy white belly. I could feel the heat radiating from her body on my palm. Not wanting to startle her, I breathed as shallowly as I could, but she showed no sign of fear. Her morning toilet complete, she extracted a tiny seed from her bulging cheeks and started on her breakfast. It didn't take her long to eat, though. Soon she was washing up. She wiped her mouth with her hands and combed her whiskers between tiny pink toes, every movement as quick as a hummingbird's wingbeats.
I must have begun to shiver about then, because she stopped her methodical combing and sat very still. Her nose twitched, and her onyx eyes examined my upturned face. Then, in a twinkling, she was gone, leaving me alone in the frosty morning air with only my thoughts and the snores of my seven companions for company.
This wasn't my first such close encounter. I grew up in an aging wreck of a house. Mice came and went with impunity, particularly at night, scurrying through unseen passages in the wall behind my bed and foraging noisily in the bowl of hazelnuts and walnuts I kept on my desk. Yet even though food was often in short supply at home, I didn't mind sharing. In fact, I came to think of my nocturnal visitors as benevolent "night watchmen," living embodiments of the spirit of the old house, occupying much the same place as the genii loci of the ancient Romans. That being the case, I didn't begrudge the mice an occasional nut. Nor was I alarmed when, somewhat later, I found myself sharing my first tent a heavy canvas affair made from two surplus shelter-halves with a rambunctious herd of deer mice. All through a long summer evening they chased one another in a seemingly endless round of tag, often scampering over my inert form, as I lay awake, a fascinated spectator. Later in the same night they discovered the tent's guylines, and quick as a flash, they all climbed up to the ridge. Then, one by one, they slid down the sloping canvas to the ground. This must have amused them, because they repeated the performance again and again, until I drifted off to sleep at last. When I woke in the morning, they were gone.
Others have had similar experiences. Colin Fletcher, of Complete Walker fame, wrote about the mice who delighted in sliding down the fly of his tent, and when writer Helen Hoover and her husband moved into a lakeside cabin in Minnesota's Canoe Country, they soon learned that they weren't the cabin's only tenants. On their first night in their new home the Hoovers were kept awake by mice scuttling along the rafters, scurrying over the floors, and leaping onto their bed. Naturalist Olaus J. Murie also had close encounters with mice. A scientist of the old school, Murie spent months at a time in the backcountry, living amidst the animals he studied. And he, too, was often awakened by the squeaks of mice passing close by his ear, or by the patter of their feet as they scrambled over his sleeping bag.
Squeaks? Ah, yes. Whoever coined the phrase "quiet as a mouse" wasn't listening very carefully. Mice are indefatigable conversationalists, always chattering, squeaking, and trilling. Their trill, in particular, is wonderfully musical, more like birdsong than anything else. Don't imagine that this exhausts the small rodents' repertoire, however. Mice are great drummers, too, tapping their feet and tails against hard surfaces to produce a buzz of electric intensity. Back when we lived in a cabin on the Flow, I once left our bed at midnight to find the source of a puzzling rattle. It seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere at the same time, and if it wasn't quite loud enough to wake the dead, it was certainly loud enough to wake me. My search eventually led me to the pantry, where I found a rather truculent mouse perched on top of a soup can. I looked at him and he looked at me, neither of us prepared to give ground. This impasse continued for several minutes. Then the mouse began to drum on the can lid with his front feet and tail, producing a strident buzz that echoed around the little cabin. Its message was unmistakable "Don't tread on me!" Suitably chastened, I turned off the light and slunk back to bed.
At the time, I was sure that the little drummer in my pantry was uniquely talented. But soon I was hearing other drummers everywhere: in remote cabins, backcountry lean-tos, and aging farmhouses, even in the walls of newly built motels. Now I'm amazed it took me so long to recognize the drummers' music for what it was. Of course, our experiences shape and channel our perceptions. For the most part, we hear (and see) only what we expect to see and hear, the things we understand, the things that have a place in our mental map of the world around us. Until my midnight encounter in the pantry, I was deaf to the music of mice. Yet afterward I couldn't escape it. Farwell had a similar epiphany. He can remember when he first learned to "see" the blackfly larvae that carpet the rocks in shallow streams in late spring and early summer. They had always been there, obviously, but it was only when he was employed to map them literally employed to put them on the map that he saw them for what they were. Until that time he'd simply dismissed the waving black carpet as "moss." Since his belated awakening, however, he finds blackfly larvae almost every time he ventures onto moving water, at least between the months of April and July, in any place where the water runs fast and fresh and clean.
But let's get back to mice, shall we? It turns out that they've got a lot to say for themselves. Or, to put it more accurately, they have a lot to communicate. And they've got a fair number of different ways to do it, too. They talk (well, squeak, anyway), trill, and drum, often using frequencies far higher than the upper limit of human hearing. But they also make good use of their other senses. For example, they leave distinctive scent trails behind them everywhere they go. Even their pee tells a story it reflects ultraviolet (UV) light, and mice, unlike men, can see UV. The upshot? No matter how far a mouse is from his own neighborhood, or how far off the beaten path his travels have taken him, he always knows the way to go home. We humans, on the other hand, are so easily "confused" by a single wrong turning, and so dependent on our compasses and GPS receivers, that we can only shake our heads in envy.
One more thing: Mice don't read the guidebooks. Most of the experts claim that deer mice are nocturnal. Well, you can tell that to the murines! Yes, it's true that mice are most active after we go to bed probably because they prefer their own company but they don't shrink from moving about in daylight when they have good reason to do so. One afternoon some years back I was at my desk, hard at work building the wing of a classic salmon fly, a Jock Scott, to be exact. It's a painstaking process, involving "marrying" a medley of tiny strips scissored from colorful feathers, and I was engrossed in the effort, only pausing now and then to steady my hand with a wee dram of Laphroaig.
Suddenly, I heard a soft pattering sound. And when I looked up, what did I see? You guessed right! A deer mouse, caught in the act of leaping from my desk onto the spine of E. J. Malone's Irish Trout and Salmon Flies, with a strip of grizzly hackle measuring at least four inches long gripped tightly in his teeth. He bore his burden easily, however, ascending the pitch in seconds and effortlessly mantleshelfing his way onto the next higher tier, where he tackled the broad spine of George Kelson's The Salmon Fly. Then, with this last obstacle overcome, he sprang onto a suspended phone cord and executed a flawless Tyrolean traverse across the room to the opposite wall, finally disappearing from sight into a small hole, his treasure still in tow.
I assumed I'd seen the last of the tiny alpinist, and I turned my attention back to the fly in my vise. I'd underestimated the power of the murine work ethic, however. Only a couple of minutes after he'd vanished into the wall behind me, the deer mouse was back on my desk. This time he carried away a speckled guinea fowl feather, repeating his earlier high-wire act in every particular. It was a sight to see, well worth the small price of admission, so I moved a selection of feathers closer to the bookshelf above my desk, hoping for yet another show of mountaineering in miniature. But the mouse never returned. He'd taken what he needed to feather his nest, and that was enough for him. Mice may indeed be Robin Hoods at heart taking from the rich (us) in order to give to the poor (them) but, in my experience at least, they're never greedy. Unless chocolate is involved, that is. Then their appetites know no bounds. I can understand that.
All in all, mice set us humans an impossibly high standard against which to measure ourselves. They're temperate, enterprising, energetic, and courageous. What's that? You find it hard to believe that a mouse could exhibit courage? Then think again. One wild night on the Flow, when gale force winds had the 80-foot white pines around our cabin swaying like saplings in a summer breeze, and the crash of falling trees made sleep impossible, I went for a walk. And as I shone my flashlight up into a big maple on the slope behind the cabin, wondering if it would be the next to fall, what do you think I saw? Two amber points of light, that's what the eyes of a mouse. He (I suppose he might have been a she; I really couldn't tell) was sitting in the crotch formed by a large branch and the trunk, calmly grooming himself.
The wind was now rising to near hurricane force, shrieking through the woods with a banshee wail. Surf crashed heavily on the shore, and tree limbs as big around as my thigh rained down with deadening regularity, while the maple on the slope above me whipped back and forth before my eyes, groaning in protest. But the little mouse in the crotch of the protesting tree never showed the smallest hint of fear. As I stood transfixed by what I saw in the circle illuminated by my flashlight, he calmly licked his toes and scrubbed his face, then combed his whiskers and washed his back and limbs. Hurricanes, he seemed to say, were all in a day's work for a mouse. And by the time he'd finished giving his ears a last scrub, his courage had stiffened my own resolve to the sticking point. So I returned to my bed, comforted by the thought that the cabin's "night watchmen" were continuing their ceaseless patrol.
When I woke, the wild wind had died away, leaving only a gentle breeze in its wake. But I heard soft twittering in the walls. The watchmen were going off shift, their duty done. I drifted off to sleep again.