A philosophical approach to a mouse in the house

Keep in mind that he's a peaceful underdog and even ... a family man.

It's the little things that annoy us most, someone once said. Right now I am more than annoyed by little things – brownish gray, swift-as-a-blink-of-the-eye things. My wife shivers and shakes, and I feel a bit scattered. We are beset by mice.

We went away for two months. When we returned we met them – here, there, everywhere around us. I laid traps, with some effect.

But more appeared.

We had an exterminator come in (such a word, "exterminator," so Schwarzeneggerish.) He found the tracks they make as they slink through the kitchen; he sprinkled his magic powder in all the nooks and crannies: the population shrank, we could tell.

But still they came on.

I made efforts to keep them at bay, stuffed every hole behind the range and refrigerator with coarse steel wool. After all that, my wife surprised one trying to eat her grapes. It disappeared under the stove.

We bought electronic machines that boasted, unequivocally, that they would drive all pests from our apartment with a mixture of ultra high frequency sounds, disconcerting to the mice. We waited to hear the scurrying and scraping, evidence of their emigration.

Our exterminator laughed, but politely. He sprinkled more powder.

We live in an old building, a place that compensates for its antiquity and sweet disintegration with its architectural splendor. It has holes on the outside of it where the little beasties can enter. Maybe that's why our neighbors in the other apartments are nearly all equipped with cats. I like cats, but mine died.

In fact, I think that cats, when compared with mice in the mind of the great public, do not fare well. People say sympathetic things about mice more readily than they do about cats. The mouse in our culture has become something of an underdog, which is a good thing to be, since all Americans profess to love the underdog, even if it's a mouse. This has been going on for some time. Think of "Mickey Mouse" and "Stuart Little" and "Tom and Jerry," the classic animated cartoon series, as perfect examples of what I'm talking about. Jerry the mouse is cute and clever; Tom, the cat, is stupid, inept, even clumsy. (Whoever heard of a clumsy cat?)

The Scottish poet Robert Burns, it is said, owed his success to a mouse, the subject of one of his most famous poems, titled, naturally, "To a Mouse." The verses describe a touching encounter between the poet and the rodent in the moments right after the poet, who was also a farmer, had run his plough over the mouse's nest, and put her out in "bleak December's winds."

The poem is an apology to the "cow'rin, tim'rous beastie," from Burns, his "earth-born companion,/ An' fellow mortal!" It also contains, a cautionary reminder that disaster cannot always be forestalled, no matter how hard we try:

But, Mouse, you are not alone,
In proving that foresight may be in vain;
The best laid schemes of mice and men
Often go askew,
And leave us nothing but grief and pain,
Instead of promised joy!

That stanza is a modern English verion of the 1785 poem, translated by James Dunbar McPherson, a Burns devotee and scholar, literally since his early youth, and later a teacher of mathematics at George Washington University.

Mr. McPherson lives in the Maryland countryside in a house occasionally visited by field mice. He displays little of the sympathy for the breed that Burns felt. "I just kill 'em," he says.

Where Burns was sympathetic and philosophical toward the mouse, the late Joseph Wood Krutch, famous American naturalist of some decades back, was his admirer and fierce defender. Some 50-odd years ago he enumerated the rodent's high qualities in an essay for the Virginia Quarterly Review, titled, "Mice: A Dispassionate View."

Ha! It was more a eulogy than anything else, though one based on a careful study of the communal life of these diminutive creatures.

They love their children, he wrote. "Father will curl up with the babies when the mother leaves them for a few minutes."

They are "fanatically clean," he continued, "washing themselves and their young with exactly the same gestures a cat uses."

They are fun-loving, never aggressive. "No feet walk more persistently in the paths of peace than the feet of the mouse," Krutch writes, anthropomorphically. A model of virtue and good intention they are indeed, but not exactly blessed by nature.

They live – if they can avoid being eaten by "cats, skunks, weasels, snakes, owls, hawks, crows, and even foxes" – no longer than two years, and with that array of predators searching them out, most mice don't last that long. Their only advantage, that which keeps the species going, is "the astounding and precocious fertility which is, from nature's standpoint, just as good."

With all these favorable references from distinguished humans, it is not easy to work up a case against the mouse. So I expect they will remain with us, an affliction that matches their size.

Yet there are compensations: Long ago, maybe 2,000 years, the late and respected naturalist, Pliny the Elder, observed that, "when a building is about to fall down, all the mice dessert it."

Which suggests that nature has assigned a purpose to the mouse other than that of satisfying the appetites of its fellow creatures, feathered and furred. The mouse serves in a way similar to that of the canary in the coal mine, a first responder to imminent disaster. As I said above, ours is truly a venerable building and, well, you never can tell....

I find it good to know all this, and am ready to accept the myriad virtues of the little critter who, though in diminished numbers, still cowers behind our stove.

Still, I think I'll be getting another cat to make sure he stays there.

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