Mus Ex Machina

 

I recently spent $511 on long-overdue servicing for my ride-on mower. Then I got busy with work for a couple of months, spent a lot of time out of town, and finally got around to mowing this weekend. The mower didn’t start. I briefly entertained the idea of pushing it up onto the trailer and hauling it back to the service center, but decided to first disassemble it and see if I could figure out what was wrong. The problem seemed simple enough: the starter clicked but wouldn’t turn the engine. I’m not mechanically adept (my engineer clients worry whenever I pick up a screwdriver, and with good reason), but I thought it was worth a quick look since the machine had worked when I drove it into the garage just a few weeks before.

The problem, it turned out, was that a family of mice had taken up residence in the engine. The mother had built her nest precisely at the point where the starter gear engaged the flywheel (or whatever you call it) on the engine, and the dry matted vegetation was sufficiently dense to prevent the starter from spinning.

I removed the nest, trying unsuccessfully not to dislodge the mother mouse and her two tiny babies, one of which fell to the garage floor. As I retrieved it, I wondered: just how big is a life, anyway? I mean, look at the thing. It’s as alive as I am, though no bigger than a large grape. It’s a simple-minded little animal, but it’s still miraculously alive.

I have a mechanistic sense of things, a belief that life is the wildly improbable energetic organization of molecules in precarious balance. In that sense, every living thing expresses that improbable order, and so is an instance of something as far removed from inanimate nature as I am. This isn’t a theological or spiritual understanding, but a recognition of the vast category difference between something alive and something inert.

In his novel American Pastoral, Philip Roth described the religious practice of Jainism. Non-violence is a prominent component of the Jains’ religion and, according to Roth, they carry it to seemingly absurd extremes: not only are its adherents vegetarians, but they eschew washing their bodies to avoid killing whatever invisible organisms might inhabit their skin. I thought of that as I mowed the lawn today, sure that I was ending an uncountable number of lives visible and invisible.

It didn’t bother me, not really. I’m not overly sentimental, however much I might appreciate life in the abstract. The lawn has to be mowed, and most creatures face unpleasant ends: being run over by a Husqvarna ride-on mower likely has the virtue of being quick and unexpected.

Still, life is amazing. If our planet were the size of an apple, the entire habitable portion, the area where we know life exists, from the highest mountain peak to the deepest ocean trench, is about as thick as the skin on that apple. That’s it: in all the universe, that thin patina is the only place which we are certain contains the unique dynamic organization we call life. Everything else, however cosmic and dramatic, however vast and energetic and mysterious, pales in its simplicity when placed beside the still-developing Mus musculus I held in my hand.

I hope, and more than half expect, to have confirmation during my lifetime that ours is not the only life in the universe. I think we’ll find its remnants on Mars, or find it still living on a moon of Jupiter or Saturn. That will please me.

I put the nest, with its mother and babies, in a back corner of the garage. I don’t know if holding the infant doomed it, or if the mother will take it back — or if they’ve all already fallen victim to the numerous predators my son’s game camera routinely reveals to be living on our property in the woods behind my house.

It’s surprising what goes on in the wee morning hours, fifty yards from my open bedroom window.

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  1. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Good for you for at least trying to save the little guys when you had the chance! Destructive little beasties that they are (ate their way through the control panel of my washing machine during the unhappy days of an infestation we had several years ago, and I don’t know how many times they’ve chewed out the wiring harness for the little trailer outside).

    On a happier, or at least somewhat humorous, note from that time, I’ll never forget sitting, enthroned, in the bathroom and wondering what on earth was wrong with Xena’s (one of my Great Pyrenees) face. She appeared to have a quivering shoelace hanging from one side of her mouth, and she kept grimacing and pulling faces as if she was trying to sneeze. I finally figured out she’d got a mouse in there, took her outside, and she opened her mouth and let it go. She must have rescued it from the cat.

    This is Phoebster, a tiny Phoebe (about as big, but not as long, as my thumb) who fell out of her nest (never did find it, it probably got blown away) after a huge thunderstorm. After feeding her raw ground beef, chopped up raisins, and bits of hard-boiled egg, together with sips of water from a 3mm syringe for a couple of weeks, we took her outside and let her go, down the hill where the Phoebes live. For a couple of years following, and most unusually, a Phoebe would occasionally fly up to the house and sit on the living room windowsill. I’m sure it was her. Or she, as I should more properly say.

    Life. Ain’t it great?

    • #1
  2. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    Henry Racette: I mean, look at the thing. It’s as alive as I am, though no bigger than a large grape. It’s a simple minded little animal, but it’s still miraculously alive.

    If I had found it it wouldn’t have been alive for long. Vermin.

    However, I would save a bird. Except for nasty house sparrows which should be put to death for killing bluebirds.

    • #2
  3. Chris Campion Coolidge
    Chris Campion
    @ChrisCampion

    Lots of murderous intent following Henri’s introspective.

    Mice have the benefit of being cute, if destructive. Roaches get no such love. How much we care about critters seems to directly proportional to cuteness. See: The Manatee.

    Or, if you have a stuffed manatee at home (no, not a real one, a stuffy), then you name him Hugh. Hugh Manatee.

    And then you can never question the utility of manatees ever again.

    • #3
  4. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    Henry Racette: I thought of that as I mowed the law today

    We need more machines capable of doing that!! Where did you get yours, please?

    Sorry, couldn’t resist, back to reading your OP ;>)

    • #4
  5. Fred Cole Member
    Fred Cole
    @FredCole

    We never have problems with mice. If one ever has the misfortune to stumble into our home, it is dispatched promptly. Not quickly though. It’s usually tortured some first.

    Maybe a month ago, I hear my wife scream, because she saw a mouse run through the house. It was quickly followed by Night, who brought the unfortunate creature into the living room to enjoy. 

    As quickly as I could, I found Pumpkin and brought her to the living room, and put her in front of the mouse. (I should explain. Despite being two years old, we don’t let Pumpkin outside. I hate to limit her freedom, but she has a congenital head tilt, and doesn’t hear or jump like other cats. So her exposure to vermin is extremely limited.)

    You could immediately see her switch modes from beloved companion animal to that of killing machine. I watched for a while and then went to bed, secure in the knowledge that I didn’t have to worry about the mouse anymore.

     

    • #5
  6. OkieSailor Member
    OkieSailor
    @OkieSailor

    Chris Campion (View Comment):
    Mice have the benefit of being cute, if destructive. Roaches get no such love. How much we care about critters seems to directly proportional to cuteness. See: The Manatee.

    Yes we Homo Sapiens seem to prefer creatures with aesthetic appeal, based, of course, on our own biased opinions. Seems pretty natural to me, even if there isn’t any logic behind it. Even I am somewhat moved by the cuteness of mice though I don’t tolerate them in either the garage or the outbuilding where I keep my mowing equipment. I’ve had bait there to do them in since building the place out here several years ago, not because I despise them (that’s Mrs. OS’s job) but because they chew wiring and cause expensive repairs to necessary equipment. Outside, they are welcome, inside they must go. 
    I go so far as to leave the moles and gophers alone, but only in the yard. The gophers leave mushy trails around but, not having horses, I don’t mind it and Mrs. OS seems willing to tolerate it as long as not too many flowers disappear. 

    We do share this planet with an amazing variety of lifeforms and I find all of them fascinating. However there are some (grizzly bears, for instance) that I don’t ever want to be close to, for various reasons. And some that carry diseases that could be bad news for me and fellow humans. And some that have habits that just plain make them bad neighbors. I try to live a balance between coexistence and defensive warfare, mostly leaving alone those that don’t bother or threaten me and giving space to the dangerous ones as much as possible while taking action only when really necessary. For instance, we work around bees all the time in our yard but if wasps build a nest near a doorway they are doomed. 

    • #6
  7. Muleskinner Member
    Muleskinner
    @Muleskinner

    Or as Robert Burns wrote:

    But, Mousie, thou art no thy-lane,
    In proving foresight may be vain;
    The best-laid schemes o’ mice an’ men
    Gang aft agley,
    An’ lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain,
    For promis’d joy!

    • #7
  8. PHCheese Member
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    My daughter had a brand new Mazda X9 and the check engine light came on. She took it back to the dealer and a mouse family was living under the hood. The mother had chewed a wire bare that caused the light. Cost her $200 to replace.

    • #8
  9. Fred Cole Member
    Fred Cole
    @FredCole

    PHCheese (View Comment):

    My daughter had a brand new Mazda X9 and the check engine light came on. She took it back to the dealer and a mouse family was living under the hood. The mother had chewed a wire bare that caused the light. Cost her $200 to replace.

    About 15 years ago, my father had a Ford Explorer that started having transmission problems. He took it into the shop and the mechanic poked around and found an unknown rubber object, which he could not identify.

    The mechanic called a friend who knew Ford transmissions and described the object. The friend guessed correctly the mileage of the vehicle, at which point he said “Yeah, that’s a rodent plug.”

    So it turns out that Ford would build these transmissions and stick them on a shelf in a warehouse until they were ready to be used. But the warehouse had a rodent problem. And the rodents would climb into the transmissions and cause them to fail.

    Rather than call an exterminator (or use more efficient natural methods), Ford designed a plug to plug the transmissions so the rodents couldn’t climb in. But being Ford, they didn’t take the rodent plug out when they installed the transmission, so at a certain mileage it would work its way loose cause problems.

    • #9
  10. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Regarding the afore-mentioned mouse infestation we suffered several years ago, and the damage they did to the washing machine control panel:

    Several of the cycles stopped working, and I was pretty much left with the “boil everything and then spin the living daylights out of it” tender mercies of the “sanitary cycle.” Not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, if you live on a farm, but it’s a bit hard hard on my ladylike unmentionables, and shortens their useful life considerably.

    We’d had the machine for quite some time, and I was about resigned to having to buy a new one, so I thought I’d take the front panel off, and have a look.

    Well. The little so-and-sos had obviously set up shop on the motherboard (the machine was pretty much run by a computer), and they must have spent a considerable amount of their waking hours (when we were asleep, apparently), marching through the bathroom, jumping into the glass jar containing the Q-Tips (I am much more assiduous about keeping the lid on it these days), removing the contents one by one and dragging them over to, and inside, the washing machine (I imagine a scene very much like our conception of how early man moved the monoliths to Stonehenge, complete with cranes, ropes and pulleys). Once there, they unwound the cottony tips from the sticks, threw the sticks aside, and made themselves nice fluffy beds. There were dozens of the sticks in there, and they must have been at this for quite some time.

    I “do” computers, and wasn’t intimidated by the mess at all, so I got online, found the right part at Sears, ordered it (couple of hundred dollars), photographed all the connections and cabling, and put the new one in when it arrived 48 hours later.

    We got several more years of use out of the machine before it finally gave up the ghost for real.

    Shortly thereafter, we identified our open border issue, put the right controls in place (not a wall, in this case), and that was that.

     

    • #10
  11. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Yeah. I do tend to anthropomorphize. Apologies if that offends anyone. But then there’s this (someone write the inevitable childrens’ book, please):

    • #11
  12. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    What an amazing picture! We had a mouse in a couch once when we lived in the North GA mountains. I freaked and made a line of cheese out the front door while I stood on a chair. That mouse came out and grabbed a piece of cheese and ran back to the couch and repeated until all the cheese was gone and I was still on the chair……

    • #12
  13. EJHill Podcaster
    EJHill
    @EJHill

    I’m too far up the food chain to be kind to mice. If they keep their business out of my house, fine, then live and let live. (Or be owl food, or whatever nature really designed them for.)

    Walt Disney, God love him, has given us a distorted view of wild animals. They don’t help us make our beds, or sew us clothes for the royal ball, or return lost man-cubs to the village. They spread disease, destroy our stuff and, when big enough, try to eat our face off.

    • #13
  14. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Fred Cole (View Comment):

    We never have problems with mice. If one ever has the misfortune to stumble into our home, it is dispatched promptly. Not quickly though. It’s usually tortured some first.

    Maybe a month ago, I hear my wife scream, because she saw a mouse run through the house. It was quickly followed by Night, who brought the unfortunate creature into the living room to enjoy.

    As quickly as I could, I found Pumpkin and brought her to the living room, and put her in front of the mouse. (I should explain. Despite being two years old, we don’t let Pumpkin outside. I hate to limit her freedom, but she has a congenital head tilt, and doesn’t hear or jump like other cats. So her exposure to vermin is extremely limited.)

    You could immediately see her switch modes from beloved companion animal to that of killing machine. I watched for a while and then went to bed, secure in the knowledge that I didn’t have to worry about the mouse anymore.

     

    Our two cats, brothers, stalk things together and do well. Only occasionally do them bring something back to the house these days. At least the dog lets us know it when they do. 

    • #14
  15. GrannyDude Member
    GrannyDude
    @GrannyDude

    Sorry, but that is adorable. Nice OP, Henry—I may quote you in a sermon sometime! 
    Was it a field mouse or a house mouse? (Big difference IMHO!) 

     

    • #15
  16. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    We have cats. And they love nothing more than catching a mouse, then showing it off to all the other cats with an arrogant, “It’s mine, SUCKA” air.

    To entertain ourselves, we put bird feeders just outside the window where we work all day. The birds love it – blue jays, cardinals, the works. We sometimes have as many as 12 birds on the two feeders at once. Since some birds are too big for the feeder, they get to work on the ground where a significant amount of birdseed ends up.

    Our cats infest the tree holding the feeder, stalk the birds on the ground… endless entertainment. I imagine the seed would also attract mice, which is even more fun for the cats. 

    • #16
  17. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    She (View Comment):
    Well. The little so-and-sos had obviously set up shop on the motherboard (the machine was pretty much run by a computer), and they must have spent a considerable amount of their waking hours (when we were asleep, apparently), marching through the bathroom, jumping into the glass jar containing the Q-Tips (I am much more assiduous about keeping the lid on it these days), removing the contents one by one and dragging them over to, and inside, the washing machine (I imagine a scene very much like our conception of how early man moved the monoliths to Stonehenge, complete with cranes, ropes and pulleys). Once there, they unwound the cottony tips from the sticks, threw the sticks aside, and made themselves nice fluffy beds. There were dozens of the sticks in there, and they must have been at this for quite some time.

     

    That is absolutely fabulous! What effort! What ingenuity! What a pain in the neck!

    • #17
  18. Cow Girl Thatcher
    Cow Girl
    @CowGirl

    She (View Comment):
    Yeah. I do tend to anthropomorphize. Apologies if that offends anyone. But then there’s this (someone write the inevitable childrens’ book, please):

    Oh my gosh!! You have the BEST animal stories!! And that bear looks sooo comfy! At least he’ll eventually go off and hibernate finally. The mice will just continue their antics, rain or shine, snow or ice.

    • #18
  19. YouCantMeanThat Coolidge
    YouCantMeanThat
    @michaeleschmidt

    GrannyDude (View Comment):
    Was it a field mouse or a house mouse? (Big difference IMHO!) 

    Yup. A field mouse is in the field, where it belongs. No problem. A house mouse is in my domain, and forfeits ALL rights and privileges. Full stop.

    • #19

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