My Bushy-Tailed Wood Rats

WHEN I bought a forested homestead in northeastern Washington's frontier country, I went into the deserted cabinet shop on my new property. There, along a ledge of antique-brick chimney, posed a creature I had known before: a bushy-tailed wood rat with three young ones riding the ridge of her luxuriantly haired back, their own fuzzy tails dangling down over her side.

Pop-eyed, they looked like three monkeys. While I stared, the four just "froze" in place. They sat there and stared back at me; we were all exhibits in the "zoo of life."

Only their whiskers moved - especially those clustered about the mother's face and extending, it seemed, three inches from nose and cheek; they twitched, all quivering inquisitiveness. It may be that the young ones had never seen nor scented a human being.

But I had scented them and their nest that might be in the brick chimney or in the 50-gallon drum stove: a musky, bogsy, sort of damp-leaves-in-autumn mouldering smell that says "wood rat" to anyone who knows them. I'd smelled it first years ago on my first homestead on Tiger Mountain southeast of Seattle in Washington's Cascades.

That was the winter a pack rat moved into the cabin my friend Bill McCauley and I built on the rim of rushing McCartney Creek. We built a snug 12-by-18-foot cabin, with the few boards we didn't use laid out across rafters overhead. The finished cabin was practically mouseproof; but somewhere up under the eaves, there must have been a hole big enough for a cat because, late autumn, a bushy-tailed wood rat moved in.

The shelf of boards became her storage place as well as ours. She kept a pile of things beside Bill's trunk: gingham cleaning rags from the car; tiny, chrysanthemum-painted tea cups Bill had brought when his ship went to Japan; chunks of blue glass; a spool of colored thread. She also had an impatient way of stamping her feet on the rafters up there after the lights were out in our part of the cabin below.

When I told my friend Audi Agnew, who lives in a home of squared logs built just after 1900, about this, she said: "When my husband and I first moved in here, we knew there was something pounding around upstairs. Sounded like an elephant."

She laughed and tossed her blonde-curled head: "Then we thought it was a rat - carried off all our dog food. Then we bought rat poison; it ate that, even took the box." She giggled.

"Anyway, my husband set a rat trap in the stairwell to downstairs. Hadn't been set a minute - I was cooking on the stove - I heard a `snap.'

"Well, he went down and got it. It was that long" - Audi measured out a good 18 inches - "and then its tail!" She had a vivid memory: "Gosh, that's kind of a pretty animal. But huge. HUGE. I never dreamed anything could be that big."

From my experience, I told her: "Its fluffy fur makes it look a lot bigger. And it just took your dog food off to the attic and stored it. Rat poison, too: It didn't eat it. They're vegetarians and what they really want to eat is grapes and apples. And grain. The last one in my barn, the old cabinet shop up there, used to make night trips into the corn-and-wheat grain bin."

I told her of my hermit friend, John Beaty, who lived in an ancient two-story farmhouse. Wood rats moved in en masse with John. Some nights when he could not sleep because of their racket on the ceiling, he'd slip upstairs to see four of them doing a dance, putting their forepaws on each other's shoulders, face-to-face, in some kind of a ritualistic mating or sparring rite.

It seemed to John, a shy man, that they owned the house and that he was being allowed to stay there only as long as all could peacefully coexist.

Every few nights one huge old elder of the species used to appear on or beside his pillow. He would awaken to see it there. Then, as if having made certain that John was where he should be for the night, the pack rat would proceed to the kitchen and go about his business of knocking over spice cans, rearranging soap dishes, and gnawing at the curtains.

John stored hay for his cow in his parlor. Pack rats took the hay and stuffed it into the old sewing-machine's drawers, took more hay upstairs where they wedged it into unused dresser drawers and between wall studdings.

Salish Indian legends of the northern West Coast recount the time when "Bush-tailed Rat," giant-sized, sneaked into villages on winter nights with a sack over his shoulder. This pack rat, of course, was a hoarder. Besides "all manner of riches" that he stole from village lodges and hid in his cave, he sometimes carried off the ultimate riches: Indian children.

When the tribesmen finally got together and trapped him, they threw him over an icy precipice from which he fell and fell, shrinking as he descended, and finally scampered away, cursed to live among the stones and to exist on "rose berries and prickly wild cucumbers." The children he had stolen were found in his cave, thin but alive, and were reunited with their parents.

Proclaiming my own possession of the cabinet shop, I caught that wood rat and her three furry riders in a large live trap baited with sliced apples and taxied them to the rocky, probably 3,000-foot crest. I opened the cage to let them scamper, leading their bushy tails to a mountaintop Eden, a place of Oregon grape bushes, chokecherry thickets, blue elderberry trees, and "rose berries," as the Salish legend says, "a plenty." `Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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