Thursday, August 1, 2013

The Rat

You might cross paths with all manner of beasties while in the Northwoods; from Pileated Woodpeckers to porcupine, from cougar to glow worm, from beaver to bear and a host of creatures between.

The rim of forest around Superior remains a last refuge for other nations fallen before Manifest Destiny’s march to glory.  Though some now exist only in memory, critters like raccoons & coyotes emigrated to our cities and today prosper on bountiful refuse.  Others tentatively return to their former range as wildness fills in scars left by mining and logging.  Some species managed to hang on in spite of us, deep in the woods, keeping well out of our way and passing life much the same as since they first claimed their niche in the wild.

Encounters between man and beast are often frightening and occasionally dangerous.

Though civilization may have bred from us the habit of engaging animals on mutual terms instead of strictly our own, the owl still bewitches through its power of observation, the bear intimidates with indomitable character and the wolf employs native intelligence to survive centuries of slaughter waged against it because while we’re often unknowing and fearful, the wolf is rarely so.

Wander the wilds of Superior long enough and there’s no surprise left at peoples presumptions. Disneyland it’s not, though some folk seem to think it is.

In full dark, I once heard a lady at a neighboring campsite exclaim, “Look!  He’s just like a kitty!” as she hand fed bread into the toothy mouth of a fully potent, rabies vulnerable skunk come to beg.

Encounters between people & wildlife are likely not so different now than they’ve been for ages, which is to say they remain unpredictable. Critters aren’t much changed. We are.  And sometimes, there’s the rub…

Taken from a vintage 35mm transparency

It was a crisp blue morning at the edge of Superior.

Cool and breezy, the air stung with freshness.  We’d finished breakfast and cleaned up, a perfect time to take a seat.  A couple of yards beyond our tent, the land pitched near to straight down maybe a hundred feet or more to meet the shore of the freshwater sea with only eroding earth between.  I sat comfortably at camp and looked out over the water from sublime vantage.

Chipmunks crisscrossed the worst of the precipice, small enough to hustle about on sure trails where we’d find only the most treacherous footing.  They darted through camp and raided each promising spot to claim some piece of valuable scrap we didn’t even know we’d missed.  They’re shameless beggars and sometimes come right up to you, looking for a handout then streaking away should anything suddenly startle.

We keep a clean camp and don't 'feed the animals' but this is a battle well and fully lost, so we routinely carry unsalted nuts for these little friends.  They fill their cheeks until puffed like furry balloons, then run off to secure their treasure for some later hour of need.

Taken from a vintage 35mm transparency

I was lost in reverie when a short movement at the edge of the cliff caught my attention.  I focused on the spot as a creature’s nose cautiously peeked above the rim.

I’ve never seen a healthier rat.

This was no over-bred clump of whiteness living for rat chow and the lab technician’s knife.  Neither was it the black scourge of history, stealthy and disease ridden, stealing the plague and darkness into our lives. Instead, this little critter was alert as a bird and clean as a housecat.  It's hair almost yellow, the rat’s bright pink nose wrinkled with the brisk air to send shivers down its whiskers as it read the breeze.

Rats scared me as a boy because I’d had my share of surprise encounters with vile looking and aggressive rodents.  I sat very still.

The rat was fully engaged and soon relaxed, as I posed it no threat.  It sat up on its hindquarters and carefully cleaned itself, taking due diligence to assure its smooth fur was immaculate.  It glistened in the morning sun.  I watched the little fellow’s tongue and paws work every inch of its plump body.  After a while, the rat turned its back to me and disappeared back down the hill.

I should have known.  I did know and was still surprised.

What’s true is that there’s nothing intrinsically evil or unwholesome about any species of living being. It is what it is and all that it is remains well outside those reductions of philosophical convenience we apply to it.  Whatever moral or esthetic character we choose to ascribe to animals is simply us looking at the world through a narrow prism of vanity and finding only our own pallid reflection.

I supposed I knew the rat.  I’d thought it a scurrying, nasty beast with gleaming red eyes and fierce disposition.  I’d bought in to human nightmare.

The visitor at camp that morning reminded me that it was we who first made and continue to nurture the rat of our fears.


  1. You write so beautifully, Frank. Your subjects always engage me, even when writing about rats. I would have enjoyed seeing this one. We used to have woodrats that rustled up in the palm trees, but I think my habit of feeding the stray cats in the neighborhood has chased them to other backyards. They never bothered me, though; they are nothing like city rats.

    1. Thank-you, Nonnie. Before this particular morning, the only rats I'd ever seen were either white and tame, or viciously aggressive & filthy. I hold steadily to this memory to remind myself that the human perspective on our animal cousins is most often nearly entirely based on only ourselves.