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GUEST COLUMNIST: Of mice and men and more

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Stanley Tate

Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors and is a former Chieftains Museum board member. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers.

I was waiting for the light to change at the Old Newnan Road intersection at the Bypass when something moved across the windshield just below the wipers. It was about the size of a mouse. In fact, it looked very much like a mouse. It was about six inches long, it had a mouse’s whiskers and a mouse’s tail, and it had the pleasant shy manner of a mouse. It climbed easily over the windshield wiper and into a space under the hood and was lost to view. I’m sure it was a white-footed mouse but there was no place to stop the car and look for it. What was it doing there? How did it get there?

The white-footed mouse occupies the most extensive range of any North American rodent, maybe of all North American mammals but us. It thrives everywhere from the Canadian tundra to the Sonoran Desert.

Who doesn’t think of a mouse as a pest? Who doesn’t set a trap when one invades our space? Worse than finding a mouse may be finding only evidence of one — food half chewed, droppings left behind, a nest in your sock drawer or in the engine compartment of your car. What had it touched in the pantry? What wires and hoses had it chewed in the car? Is anything safe from their “nasty” little feet?

I wonder if other creatures view our species the way we view the white-footed mouse. Do they see our footprints as evidence of “nasty” big feet? We, too, are highly adaptable, successful and destructive. Are we a pest? Harvard biologist E. O. Wilson defines a weed as a species that can spread successfully into new habitats and even come to dominate them. Maybe we and the white-footed mouse are both weeds.

Not long ago I saw a documentary about how animals survive harsh northern winters. We humans require great amounts of external heat — wood, coal, oil, natural gas. The mouse survives by wits alone in an ice world between the ground and the snow. Tunnels are created when heat rising from the earth combines with sunlight to melt the snow closest to the ground — an inch or two of open space is created under the snow. The temperature in this space is consistently slightly above freezing all winter. And if the mice create enough entrance holes to the world above, fresh air replaces the stale air resulting from their respiration. Sunlight filters through the snow and ice to light their winter world. That this space forms and creates the microclimate that allows the mouse to survive the cold northern winter and that the mouse evolved to take advantage of it is a miracle.

This microclimate is wonderful for the mouse, but it is vulnerable. Humans and large animals can crush the snow supports around mouse tunnels. Tiny footprints surround places where this happens. They also surround the entrance holes created by the mice. Sometimes these footprints disappear not into a hole, but between wing imprints of a hawk or an owl. Birds of prey have learned to linger near these trails in the snow to capture mice forced to the surface when a tunnel collapses.

Even when we might not recognize it, our connection to other species is there. Maybe we should feel bad that our activities disturb the mouse’s world, but whenever I catch or kill a mouse in my cabin I feel no sense of guilt or loss. And there is no shortage of mice, even as they navigate their perilous world populated by so many predators and people out to get them.

I am awed by the mouse’s evolutionary adaptations that help it survive such a harsh and dangerous world, but every species faces equally difficult challenges and is adapted to overcome them. That is the beauty of evolution and why it fascinates me. It is a system with endless complexities, yet operating within simple rules of competition, adaptation and survival. Despite happenings great and small, from the asteroid impact that wiped out the dinosaurs to subtle shifts in weather patterns that may eliminate others, the system continues to self-correct and adapt.

Reflecting on my callous attitude toward the mouse’s attempt at survival by invading my space, I think about our history of expansion into the space of others such as wolves, coyotes and even indigenous peoples. We are not much different from the mouse.

Philosopher and ecologist Arne Naess argues for the inherent worth of all living beings, that all of creation should be respected and that all life has certain inalienable rights to live and flourish. This is not to say that no creature should kill another, because the sustainability of the ecosystem relies on creatures killing and consuming one another. Wolves eat deer, foxes eat mice, and so on. Some would even kill and consume philosopher-ecologists if given the chance.

In the end, here we are, wrestling with our past, preparing for the future, and living in the present, trying to find our places in a complex system.

Rome native Stanley Tate sits on the Berry College Board of Visitors. He retired as executive vice president and chief environmental officer of Southwire and now writes a nature column that appears in several Georgia newspapers. Readers may write him athenryt@bellsouth.net.