Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Bushy-Tailed Wood Rats

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

My Bushy-Tailed Wood Rats

Article excerpt

WHEN I bought a forested homestead in northeastern Washington's frontier country, I went into the deserted cabinet shop on my new property. There, along a ledge of antique-brick chimney, posed a creature I had known before: a bushy-tailed wood rat with three young ones riding the ridge of her luxuriantly haired back, their own fuzzy tails dangling down over her side.

Pop-eyed, they looked like three monkeys. While I stared, the four just "froze" in place. They sat there and stared back at me; we were all exhibits in the "zoo of life."

Only their whiskers moved - especially those clustered about the mother's face and extending, it seemed, three inches from nose and cheek; they twitched, all quivering inquisitiveness. It may be that the young ones had never seen nor scented a human being.

But I had scented them and their nest that might be in the brick chimney or in the 50-gallon drum stove: a musky, bogsy, sort of damp-leaves-in-autumn mouldering smell that says "wood rat" to anyone who knows them. I'd smelled it first years ago on my first homestead on Tiger Mountain southeast of Seattle in Washington's Cascades.

That was the winter a pack rat moved into the cabin my friend Bill McCauley and I built on the rim of rushing McCartney Creek. We built a snug 12-by-18-foot cabin, with the few boards we didn't use laid out across rafters overhead. The finished cabin was practically mouseproof; but somewhere up under the eaves, there must have been a hole big enough for a cat because, late autumn, a bushy-tailed wood rat moved in.

The shelf of boards became her storage place as well as ours. She kept a pile of things beside Bill's trunk: gingham cleaning rags from the car; tiny, chrysanthemum-painted tea cups Bill had brought when his ship went to Japan; chunks of blue glass; a spool of colored thread. She also had an impatient way of stamping her feet on the rafters up there after the lights were out in our part of the cabin below.

When I told my friend Audi Agnew, who lives in a home of squared logs built just after 1900, about this, she said: "When my husband and I first moved in here, we knew there was something pounding around upstairs. Sounded like an elephant."

She laughed and tossed her blonde-curled head: "Then we thought it was a rat - carried off all our dog food. Then we bought rat poison; it ate that, even took the box." She giggled.

"Anyway, my husband set a rat trap in the stairwell to downstairs. Hadn't been set a minute - I was cooking on the stove - I heard a `snap.'

"Well, he went down and got it. It was that long" - Audi measured out a good 18 inches - "and then its tail!" She had a vivid memory: "Gosh, that's kind of a pretty animal. But huge. HUGE. I never dreamed anything could be that big."

From my experience, I told her: "Its fluffy fur makes it look a lot bigger. …

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