READY: A narrow fellow and the folly of mouse plans
Watering my little backyard garden, I got a surprise. Out from under the strawberry plants slithered a dull gray, small snake. I screamed, dropped the hose, and reached for a nearby hoe.
But before I could bring the blade down on that wriggling little creature, I remembered a poem by Emily Dickinson.
Yeah, I know how weird that sounds.
She wrote, after encountering a snake in her garden,
“A narrow fellow in the grass
Occasionally rides —
You may have met him — did you not
His notice sudden is —“
The poet wasn’t frightened, merely fascinated by the movement of the snake as it combed through the grass escaping contact with her.
So, I stepped aside and let him (her?) seek refuge under the juniper. No harm, no foul to either of us.
Now for the mouse tale.
It broke my heart to trap that little field mouse on one of the sticky trays that the exterminator put out. But, it had been eating the cookies and crackers in my pantry for months and leaving its droppings everywhere for me to clean up. All humane options had failed. As a last resort, I opted for the slow, painful death trap. I say that because, once the creature steps on it, the poor thing is stuck in the “goo,” and can’t be extracted. It’s caught in a living death. I couldn’t bear to dispose of it alive, so I did something even worse. I waited for it to die and then buried it, tray and all.
A sensible person would’ve just thrown the thing into the trash instead of giving it a solemn interment. In my childhood, I would’ve held a ceremony, erected a cross made of Popsicle sticks, and sung “Amazing Grace … that saved a rat like me.” For some reason, I assumed that all rodents — and animals in general — were Christians, maybe even Baptists.
My compassion for mice comes from yet another poem, one I studied in British Literature and then taught to my own high school seniors. One cold November in 1785, the Scottish poet Robert Burns accidentally destroyed the nest of a little mouse family. Knowing that the mother and her babies would now be cast out into the bitter weather and probably die, he wrote a poetic apology to her in his “To a Mouse.”
In the poem, he acknowledged that mice had been making a mess in his corn crib and eating his hard-earned crops. But he also wrote that man’s encroachment upon nature’s creatures had caused them to make other plans, especially plans that interfered with the lives of men. He assured her that he didn’t resent the food she had stolen from him and felt “truly sorry man’s dominion has broken nature’s social union.” And now he had unwittingly caused her harm that couldn’t be made right.
He tells the mouse, in Scottish dialect, “the best-laid plans o’ mice an’ men gang aft agley and lea’e us nought but grief an’ pain for promised joy.” My translation: “the best laid plans of mice and men usually end up in disappointment instead of fulfillment.” John Steinbeck in his 1937 novel Of Mice and Men told a story along that very theme.
Like Burns’ mouse, mine had made plans. It had come in from the awful summer heat in search of food. Now, I don’t know much about rodent diets, but I assume groceries must be scarce in my heavily-trafficked neighborhood with its carefully groomed lawns and rapidly diminishing natural environment. Like the birds and squirrels that eat my pears, figs, and blueberries, God also made field mice, and I don’t mind sharing God’s bounty with them. Yet, it seems inevitable; people and critters are going to end up ruining each others’ plans.
I don’t know what plans my little snake had for the day, but I opted not to interfere with whatever was on the reptilian agenda.
Confucius may have warned us to “plan ahead or find trouble on your doorstep,” but the truth is it doesn’t always work out that way. My best dinner parties have been spur-of-the-moment, throw-it-together affairs, and my worst ones have been those I spent weeks obsessing over. I planned a peaceful retirement, becoming a world traveler, and writing a novel or two. Instead, I collect stray dogs and stray humans. I rarely leave Destin, and my big writing career is this silly little column each Saturday in The Log.
When I got married, it never crossed my mind that I’d some day be a widow. And it wouldn’t have made a difference anyway because no plan would have mitigated the loss.
Not that I don’t respect the wisdom of planning. As I’ve often heard, “It wasn’t raining when Noah built the ark.” But expecting the unexpected should be factored into any vision of the future.
So the mouse, the snake, and I have come to realize, as the saying goes, “If you want to make God laugh, try telling Him your plans.”
Mary Ready of Destin is a twice-retired English teacher and long-time area resident. Her columns are published on Saturdays.