You who think of gardens as tranquil refugia from death’s entropic gaze, you who think of delving the soil as a peaceful pursuit, you likely have clean fingernails. There may be more individual suffering represented in a loaf of whole wheat bread than in a leather jacket, as anyone will tell you who has plowed under winter stubble.
The compost was alive this morning when I lifted the lid from the bin. The top foot of it, mainly rabbit manure and hay with a few egg shells mixed in, was powdery gray and crawling with ants. Beneath them, hiding from the dim winter sun a quarter inch below the surface, were sowbugs. The compost was loose, friable. Really, it was ready to put in the garden beds, and I turned it into the new bin instead mainly out of duty: I had not turned this pile all year. The stuff was fine and dry. It fell through my pitchfork tines. Once I’d taken a few forksful the old bin was in turmoil, disturbed out of its December drowse. Ants hurried to carry eggs to safety. Sowbugs tumbled over and under flakes of hay like polar bears on floes too small to support them. I kept shoveling.
The bin is beneath a coast live oak, prime salamander habitat, and so I do not stab randomly at the pile with the fork. I have blunted the tines, and I slide them gently beneath the compost and lift. I speculate that this will give slippery amphibians a better chance of escaping my delving without injury, and it is easier on my back besides. A third of the way through the pile today I saw a small hole open up, about half an inch across, and something moving hurriedly away from the light. I put the fork down, expecting an arboreal salamander or an Ensatina to emerge, perhaps a slender salamander, and then the thing poked its head out of the hole again, regarded me anxiously with its black bead eyes, long whiskers quivering against dark brown fur.
It leapt out of the hole and scampered toward the back corner of the pile, where the bin backs up against the fence, and squeezed down between them.
We had lots of mice in our compost pile in Richmond, to the point where Zeke would wag his tail furiously and jump with excitement when he saw me grab the pitchfork. It was doggie Whack-A-Mole time, and he’d shove his face between the tines and the pile, grabbing as many mice as he could. I didn’t really mind the interference. It slowed me down. On one day without Zeke, a fork thrust into the compost emerged with a little mouse impaled, speared through the abdomen and shoved about four inches along a center tine, wriggling. I pulled it off with a gloved hand, as gently as I could, intending to put it out of its misery. It bit at my glove — can’t say I blame it — and ran away to die in some dark corner of the garden. I spent half an hour that afternoon dulling the tines with a four-way file.
If there is a single species that sparks most often my internal conflict between compassion and reality, it… well, it would be human beings, of course. But after that, definitely mice. There are people who harbor fears of vermin, who shudder viscerally at the naked tail and dirty-colored fur and stealthiness and turds in the silverware drawer. I am not one of those people. True, my image of mice has been tainted by close association with Norway rats, who — though confused with mice in many minds — are orders of magnitude friendlier, more loyal and affectionate and intelligent than mice. That said, I have to admit that mice are, to a first approximation, the definition of cute. And my usual interaction with them consists of killing them. I’ve lost track of my body count. It’s in the three figures, about half of that lifetime accumulation of bad karma having been earned in four years in that house in Richmond.
Some people can’t bring themselves to kill them. You can buy little live traps in which you catch the mice, take them to “the wild” and release them, the theme song from “Born Free” playing in your head. Despite the sentimentality, this is not a good idea. They die prompt and usually agonizing deaths outside their natural habitat. House mice, members of species Mus musculus, have coevolved with Homo sapiens for the last several millennia. Their natural habitat is not the woods. It’s your house. Or your garden and compost pile.
Or your cultivated field, for that matter, where they thrive in the landscape most disturbed, if not devastated, by human activity. (Even a parking lot is not plowed twice a year.) They eat weed seeds and insects, a boon to farmers, and fruit and grain, for which they are often reviled. They burrow in the loose cultivated soil, and many are thus killed when the field is plowed, hence the remark above about suffering in your whole wheat bread. (Figure a pound of wheat per loaf, thus sixty loaves per bushel, thus about 3,000 loaves from a fertile acre, and while mouse population densities greater than 3,000 per acre are high enough that the farmer would likely be frantically emailing her Extension Agent to send over a tractor-trailer full of little plastic humane traps so that she could release them all in downtown Bakersfield, they are not, strictly speaking, unheard of. Even 3,000 per acre is a paltry number compared to some years. In 1926 and 1927, mouse densities on Central Vallley farms exceeded 80,000 per acre. No typo: eighty thousand per acre.
My compost pile this morning had a mouse population not even a quarter that dense: just 19,360 per acre. Which given that my compost bin has a three by three footprint works out to four mice. The second one, another gray adult, jumped out of the bin with my next careful forkful. It sat atop the pile cleaning its face blearily for a moment, and ran off toward the brush pile. “Good luck with the cats,” I thought. “Stay out of the house, or else Becky will make me kill you.” (Becky isn’t fearful of mice, only of hantavirus.) The third was smaller and black, an adolescent, and it clambered down the plastic side of the bin and hid beneath the pallet on which the bin sits. I didn’t set out to evict a family when I started this chore, I thought, and then the youngest sibling emerged.
It had charcoal fur, a body smaller than a table grape, and eyes that were somehow bright and black at the same time. It walked toward me, sniffed at me from the edge of the pile. I laid my gloved hand behind her, palm up. She stepped on calmly. (I decided without checking that she was female.) She was beautiful; clean-looking, well-proportioned, clearly still growing. I lifted my hand. She began, rather calmly for a wild mouse who has just been caught by someone who kills mice, to wash her face. I reached up slowly with my other hand, stroked her head and spine slowly, gently with a gloved fingertip. She did not flinch. After a moment I lowered her toward the leaf litter beneath the oak. She didn’t want to go, clambering up my wrist and almost down into the glove. But then she changed her mind, dropped down onto the leaves, walked into the brush pile.
I can always finish turning that pile tomorrow.