Adaptation, or Rats, Mormons, and the Rest

February 4, 2010

Human beings can adapt to almost anything, a wonderful attribute, and frightening. The strange, even the repulsive, becomes normal, acceptable, appealing even. Take the rat in my compost pile. I’d never seen a rat in Vermont. In New York City, yes. But Vermont was all about deer, and woodchucks, hunting season and gentle hippies with their Have-a-Heart traps. Rats were dirty, dangerous, subversive, carriers of disease and worse — not like woodchucks, not real Vermonters. Yet there she (or he?) was in my capital city compost pile, happy as a pig in … well, happy as a rat in a compost pile. Well-fed, warm, solitary, not hurting anyone or anything. No problem. Taking the kitchen waste out to the pile became a pleasant feeding ritual. He (she?) would always have dug new burrows since the last dumping, fresh dirt would be piled up in new corners, everything neat and tidy but always in some new configuration. I had composed (compost, composition- to put with, pose together, arrange) a little ecosystem in my backyard and it had beckoned to the rat, and it was all the more complex and satisfying for it.

But I didn’t tell Jo, or my rodent phobic daughter, or the nearby neighbors – of which I have several. They might not have been so sympathetic, to me or the rat. But to me she/he was just fine, and I enjoyed glimpsing her/him fulfilling his/her rat dharma and making good use of our refuse. I remembered that an old friend had had a rat for a pet, a fugitive white lab rat, named Sigmund. “They make good pets,” she had said. “They are very smart, and loyal. They bond.”

One day, not long into the summer, while dumping the compost, I lifted the green plastic hood and saw a tight little bundle of tails and tiny rats. My rat was a she-rat, it turned out, and her dharma, of course, included swarming little blind baby rats. What to do? My little ecosystem was suddenly exceeding expectations and transforming itself, in my panicking mind, into a seedbed for a citywide infestation. As my Southern friends would say, “there was nothing for it.” My social conditioning kicked in, my own species instincts took over. They must die. All of them. Quickly. Before shame and approbation was heaped upon my head, before neighbors and wife shunned me.
Before the babies were weaned, before their eyes opened. But how? Poison was too ghastly, slow, painful, uncertain. I found a hatchet amongst the gardening tools, old and rusted, and returned to the pile. This would be the method, swift and sure. There was nothing for it. It had to be done. I had to adapt, to change, quickly, to a new attitude, an opposite attitude, and kill the entire family. And I did. The first stroke was difficult, and felt contrary to some deep and loving instinct within me. The second was easier, the third, fourth, fifth, and sixth were almost (frighteningly) enjoyable. How quickly we adapt. I had crossed over. No longer the feeder, but now the killer, of rats, and keeper of social norms, protector of cities and sleeping children.

This was years ago (neighbors take note) and I have never shared this story with anyone, until now, and it is because of the cover of this month’s National Geographic which features a photograph of a polygamous Mormon patriarch, his five wives, forty-five children, and uncounted scores of grand and great-grandchildren stretching deep and wide into the background. All I could think of were those rats, swarming fertile rats. It was made all the worse when I read the article and came across this quote from one of the well rutted Mormon males: “The foundation of this life is your belief in a life after this. Where are we going after this life? That is the big question.” A billion other interdependent life forms might beg to differ, as they and the the earth itself suffers the consequences of our species’ fertility and adaptability. And the fantastic Mormons are not alone in this nature-demeaning, existence-demeaning, attitude. Most of our grand religious traditions tell us that humans are special, born to be masters, shapers, stewards, and namers of nature. Special and above. Made in the image of God even, with a destiny higher than all the other myriad members of our planetary families.

We are special, I grant that, and marvelous; we understand the structure of the atom and the solar system, we know how stars are born and have begun to decode the very formula of life. And yet, from just outside, or above, when you lift the cracked green plastic hood of our self-assuring and self-congratulatory stories you find an earth that is riddled, utterly infested with one very powerful, adaptable, and ruthless species.

Adapt. From a root that gives us apt, aptitude, adept, inept. It means, essentially, to fit, to fit in, fitness.

We are turning the planet into one grand human-serving and ever-shrinking compost pile; and we assure ourselves that we fit in, that what we do is just and good, even brilliant. We worship (large numbers of us) at the church of the Holy Fetus while ecosystems across the globe begin to collapse and fail. There are far too many of us and our silly stories do not serve the greater good. Is there nothing for it? Is it hatchet time? Will the earth find a way to rid itself of this troublesome species? Or will we adapt? Find a way to make peace with our planet and learn to truly “fit in.?”

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4 Responses to “Adaptation, or Rats, Mormons, and the Rest”

  1. Catherine Says:

    Kinda scary, but thought provoking, as usual. Rodents are a good example. They are the only species of mammal more numerous on the earth than humans. Did you know that rats are the only species that will send their children into danger before risking their own lives? It’s why they are so smart … they live and leaan and pass on the learning (I guess evolution favours the self-centred)

  2. SK Werner Says:

    Wow. Very good essay.

    My experience with rats is unusual. Born and raised in Chicago itself, I never saw a rat until I worked at the zoo, where one, a Norwegian Spiny Rat, was on exhibit. In the back of various houses zoo employees bred rats (and mice and chicks) as food for reptiles, birds of prey, or to give heart worm medication to wolves and foxes. Of course rats and mice bite, so to protect the zoo residents the rodents had to be killed before being fed out. (A tiny bite, infected, can kill a big, expensive exotic snake very quickly.) The larger rats and chicks were gassed (separately), the mice were “knocked off” as needed, by hand. I hated that part of the job. I also hated killing the cute little wild mice that found their way into the houses, so pretended I didn’t see them. These adaptable little mice lived everywhere, in actual exhibits, in hay/feed rooms and kitchens.

    My understanding of rats is that they live everywhere—cities, forests and fields and in pretty little towns across the country. They are what is known as Opportunistic Feeders (along with coyotes, bears, ect., animals smart enough to adapt.) And rats are smart, loyal, and can grow very large—large enough to kill cats. (There is an excellent book about wild rats in NYC, “Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants” by Robert Sullivan, an excellent read: http://www.amazon.com/Rats-Observations-History-Unwanted-Inhabitants/dp/1582343853).

    When I was 18, I smuggled a good-sized fat white and tan rat onto an airplane in a coffee can in a brown paper bag, and by the time we landed, s/he had chewed through the lid and was almost out. I got her home and hid her from my mother. The rat lived in a large doll house that my grandfather built, and was quite a nice and interesting pet until my brother fed her raw meat after hearing it made them mean, and the meat led her to bite.

    I do know some about Mormons, too, from books fiction and non, so I do have my opinions which I will not go into here. I admit I admire rats more, although they, too, are prone to child abuse if they send their babes into danger first, and they are known to eat their young.

    I believe that most organized, patriarchal religions are fairly dangerous to this Earth (and not very good for the female half of the human population, either). Most mainstream religions (I’m a recovering Catholic) preach that heaven comes AFTER life, so the hell with THIS life. Our Earth is continually trashed, as this is “merely a way station.” Even if this were true, what about the condition of this way station for the nests of new little Mormons? Should they live in nuclear waste and trash and scant food and water conditions while their Elders, having taken what they needed, are now cozy in their heaven?

    Rats, along with mosquitoes, ticks, Mormons and myself, all have a place on this Earth. I believe this because WE ARE HERE. But I don’t know Who or What put us here, so as far as I am concerned, I am no more special than they are. I just think differently.

  3. Dan Wetmore Says:

    You are quite the rat expert Krake. thanks for all the history and personal stories. I agree regarding the patriarchal religions,
    tho the only one I really know about from personal experience is Christianity and its belief that the real life is the one to come
    creates all kind of liberty to destroy and manipulate the earth. All in the name of stewardship, but any view of life that is not the
    human centered view makes our “stewardship” look more like rape. We are not essential in any way to any ecosystem, we don’t
    make anything better for anything except ourselves. That is an awkward truth, embarrassing, perhaps, to “God’s greatest work.”
    We didn’t make ourselves, any more than the rats created themselves. We emerged, we evolved, we are here, and we have a place here
    but we are also ruining the place, and ruining all sorts of other critters. Can intelligence and consciousness help us to find a better way?
    Or will continue to wallow in self-congratulation and other-world oriented religion??

  4. SK Werner Says:

    Preaching to the choir. Big sigh.

    I sure hope so, before it’s too late.


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