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In defense of Rats

As winter grows near, the green herbs and leafy vines that once covered the bare earth in my garden are dying back to the roots. The ground is more visible now, what was once hidden is naked and exposed. My secret is no longer so safe. I'm just going to be honest about this: there's a colony of rats living in my garden. You can see them now, scurrying on trails cut into the mud, leaping down the mouths of burrows that gape from every corner, no longer hidden beneath the leaves.
Oh, I knew they were there, all right. They've lived there for several years now. I used to watch them through a telescope from my upstairs bedroom, before I realized I could watch them from much closer if I wanted to. I talk to them at night when I wander around the garden. And yes, I even feed them sometimes. They built elaborate tunnels snaking under the tomato patch, through the squash, and in and out of the chicken hut. Every night after the chickens go to bed, the rats tunnel into their coop and gather up the leftover grain. Some are as small as my fist, others are as big as my foot, and none seems to mind my presence. They know who tends the garden and where the grain comes from.

In the summer, they climbed the tomato vines to take one big bite out of every one of my caspian pink tomatoes as fast as they could ripen. I'd have preferred that they eat one whole tomato at a time and leave the rest for me, but apparently the first bite is the best. They never bothered the cherry tomatoes or the san marzanos or the brandywines or the sungolds or the big, weird roma things that volunteered there. Only the caspian pinks. They like cucumbers, too. I planted 10 vines this summer, and I don't think I got a single cucumber before the rats did. Lemon cukes and pickeling cukes and armenian cukes, all nibbled and gnawed. And so it went, all through the summer.

When fall came, their peaceful co-existence with the other beings in the garden was challenged by an early end to what had been a bountiful harvest. It happened in the tomatoes. Usually, I leave my tomato plants up all winter. Most gardeners don't do that -- one is supposed to clean up the garden in the fall, I'm told. It's just good hygeine. But I love to watch the gothic cathedrals they become after the first frosts. Blackened vines hang shrouded with the black, tattered remnants of summer's leaves and summer's leave. The ghastly remains become a labyrinthine fortress for the sparrows and the juncos and yes, the rats. Whatever fruits remain begin to rot where they hang. Slowly, the tops begin to froth with microbial activity. Seething and oozing, they break open, exposing pale seeds which the sparrows eagerly feed upon. Life living off of life. Whatever is left, the rats drag away to underground burrows before the cold sets in.

This year, though, I had to take the tomatoes down early. As the fall came on, I noticed the first signs of sickness in the plants. Perhaps I imagined it, I don't know. But it looked like the first symptoms of late blight. As an Irish woman, I have a special horror in the pit of my unconsciousness when it comes to late blight virus. Thousands of my ancestral kin starved to death when it swept through Ireland, striking down every potato on every vine in every field. I had to remove the tomtatoes.

It was painful to do. They were still green and growing, still reaching questing shoots into the warm autumn sun. Even though I knew the frosts would not be long in coming, I did not want to hasten their demise. I had planted most of them from seeds. I had nursed them through a cold, wet spring and a hot, dry summer. The first fruits had ripened in the first days of July. They had fed me (and the rats) all through the warm summer harvest. And now, in order to spare future generations of tomatoes and potatoes and peppers and eggplants, I had to uproot them from the beds I had made for them. Yes, it hurt. But it had to be done.

As I unwound soft tendrils from the hidden bamboo cages and wooden supports I had erected for them six months before, I heard a rustling among the leaves. When I stepped back, I saw that I was not the only one who did not want to see the tomatoes go. A strong and voluptuous rat had crept from her burrow to survey the damage. She stood about a foot from my ankles. Nearby, others waited just below the surface, staring from the cavernous burrow under the vines. Together we paused briefly to consider the symbolic nuances of the moment. Then, we went to work.

The tomatoes had been very important to the rats. They had been a jungle that had sheltered them from hawks and hungry cats, and had hidden their nighttime forays from the sharp eyes of owls and raccoons. They had provided sweet sustenance that would soon vanish with the warmth of summer. Like me, the rats had anticipated a longer harvest. It was a sobering chore, but we worked out there together, trying to minimize the damage. As I pulled each plant, the ripe fruit thudded softly to the earth near my feet. And as soon as each fruit fell, that big, furry brown rat came forward and solemnly rolled it away. Tomato after tomato was quietly rolled off to the mouth of a burrow in the corner of the garden and pushed down into the hole. Three small rats no bigger than field mice sat just under the lip of the burrow and gnawed and fussed with each tomato until it fit. Then, they dragged it down out of sight.

As the afternoon wore on, we sweated, the rats and I. We worked until the last web of roots let go of the ball of earth it had held all summer. Until the last vine untangled itself from the last wooden support. Until the last of the tomatoes had gone. We said our solemn farewell to those tomato plants, and the tomatoes bravely forgave us. All of us felt the ponderous weight of the moment, and all of us worried about how the colony would fare without the jungle.

That was two months ago now. The rats have had to make many adjustments since then. The squash is gone now too, except that huge, half-eaten pink thing in the corner of the herb bed. I left that for them because they seem to like it. The cucumbers have withered away and the flowers have mostly gone dormant or died. As have the beans and the peppers and the corn and the strange peruvian vegetables whose names I have forgotten but whose flavors linger still. The hops are dry and brown now and no longer provide much shelter. The honeysuckle and the locust trees have lost their leaves, and the hollyhocks have all been cut down. Even the fennel has died back to the ground. The weather is growing colder. The earth is wet and fat brown mushrooms grow where the canary vines used to be. But the colony is thriving. And so, my secret is out.

Soon, I think they will curl up under the earth and wait for spring. At least, every year around this time they disappear for awhile. Whether they will hibernate or just hide, I will miss them but it will be good for them to be more discreet until the leaves come back. I don't really want people who don't appreciate them to see them. It puts us all at risk. But when the jungle springs to life again, so will the rats in the colony. I eagerly await them all, the spring, the plants, and the rats.

Fascinating! 16.Dec.2004 18:06

gk

Quite a sensitive account of common rats and gardening. I shall look upon the creatures differently, maybe.

Great article! 16.Dec.2004 18:09

--

Thanks Cat!

wonderful writing 16.Dec.2004 18:19

yanqui latina

That was a beautiful story. I always enjoy your writing.

another thanks 16.Dec.2004 19:06

Rob

Thanks. Simply wonderful.

potatos don't grow on vines. 16.Dec.2004 19:12

squabbit

"Thousands of my ancestral kin starved to death when it swept through Ireland, striking down every potato on every vine in every field."

they grow underground.

but nice story, rats are sweeties.

potatos don't grow on vines 16.Dec.2004 19:14

potato man

they be in the ground.

Nice writing 16.Dec.2004 19:24

PHH

I will have to review my policy on rats.

oh rats! 16.Dec.2004 22:26

kindred animal spirit

i delighted in reading about your garden rats; a jolly good story.

bucky 16.Dec.2004 23:12

tbh

I had a domestic rat once that would scavage my garden in the spring and my kitchen in the winter. he had free reign over my house and me. He was different than the rats you speak of and the kindredness if felt with mine was way beyond what most folks could fathom. Bucky died at age 3 1/2 years. the same month mother teresa and princess di passed on too. it was a devestating week but i do treasure the little friends we are fortunante to come across and share in their space. great writing. thanks

I suppose 17.Dec.2004 00:04

Dorothy

"rat", too, can be an adjective instead of a curse.


And those underprivileged Norway Rats by the harbour. The mind boggles.

Perhaps, it should.

it's been said many times 17.Dec.2004 00:12

evolution

but i'll say it again...great writing. this is the kind of thing that i like to read. quality work. wow!

kill the city 17.Dec.2004 00:24

once a mouse

cities are probably to blame for creating the vermin of notoriety that rats are known for. In the country, they probably are just another pleasant component of the food chain.

simply incredible 17.Dec.2004 02:24

a fan

CatWoman might be not only one of the best writers on portland indymedia, but one of the best writers in activist circles in the u.s., period. damn, you ROCK, girl friend!

Wow! 17.Dec.2004 04:31

melee melee@resist.ca

Incredible. In-effing-credible, CatWoman.

Even beautifully still unspoiled by all the irritating attention seeking types correcting you... Who cares, potatoes could grow on TREES for all I care... it's a DAMN GOOD STORY!!


Potatoes 17.Dec.2004 05:46

And Vines

Actually, while potatoes are tubers that grow in the ground, the portion above the ground could be considered a vine.

Potato vines 17.Dec.2004 09:04

Gardener

Not that it matters at all to the spirit of this story, but potato plants are, in fact, vines. At least, that's what they look like to me, and I had them all over my garden this summer. Yes, the potatoes themselves grow as tubers under the ground, but that doesn't mean they aren't growing from plants that are vines. Again, though, not that it matters.

They are cute, but 17.Dec.2004 09:19

The Secretary

Don't get me wrong, I think the little rascals are cute and make much better pets than most people might expect. The problem with the common rat is they are a non-indigenous species. Like starlings, grey squirrels, English ivy, and kudzu, they have over taken the native species and have become an ecological hazard. Not as bad has humans, for sure, but as a species that has accompanied human expansion through the millenia, they are our partners in eco-crime.

Two Thought 17.Dec.2004 10:52

rat-lover

This is beautiful. Thanks for posting.

I met some rats recently that were raised by hand from birth. The reason I mention their upbringing is to explain that in terms of relating to humans, these are incredible creatures. They are curious, loving, and alert. They were whole, confident individuals. I had never experienced a rat that way before (though I know to love all species). The experience made me feel much more sensitive to the real inner experience of rodent individuals in the wild. What wonderful beings!

In terms of the environment, yes, non-native species are a problem. Some enviro endorse killing them (I'm not being mean--I was asked if I was willing to kill starlings when I joined Bluebird Recovery. The woman was very polite and explained that some people are and some people aren't). Anyway, my take on it is that yes, it's a problem. But humans caused it and the individual creatures deserve as much respect as any other. If we as a species ever used our brains to solve problems compassionately rather than using them to create new horrors for innocent people like the Iraqis, I have no doubt that we could find loving ways of lessening the damage we have done.

Eco Crime 17.Dec.2004 11:06

Gardener

Like most "criminals," the label in this case is a matter of perspective. While I do not hesitate to acknowledge that non-native species can be devastating to local communities, I also become skeptical about the fervor with which ecological xenophobia sometimes takes hold. Migrations and evolutionary developments take place all the time on this planet, and nature is used to that. While the introduction of a new species can play momentary havoc, even species extinctions, the fact is the earth is not a museum. Trying to make it one says more about our will to control and dominate than about the way nature works. We can do what we can to lessen the impact of non-native species, but I don't think we should necessarily consider every one of them an eco criminal. The best way to handle most non-native species is probably to work with nature to restore balance rather than to eradicate the culprits.

In the Garden 17.Dec.2004 13:30

basalt

Given that the biosphere (of which that somewhat anomalous species Homo s. is a part), and that the biosphere is in more or less, faster or slower, state of constant change on manifold levels (think Nth order differential equation) in time and space, and that some kind of law of entropy appears to be in force, what I'm wondering about in CatWoman's local ecosystem, is if the Rattus sp. population is in some kind of steady state.

The "problem" (from the "all knowing, all seeing" perspective of Homo s.) with introduced, invasive species is the spike of dominance that they exercise. Certainly, at some point, the starling population, for instance, will stabilize, while it presently is growing. It's effects on the native avian population is the aggressive displacement of the natives from nesting cavities, while at the same time, Homo s. "management" of standing dead trees, snags, etc. reduces the resource for the woodpeckers to make more nesting cavities, which in turn are used by the non-excavator species many times over. Maybe if Homo s. by some ordering of priorities lets peregrine falcon numbers increase dramatically, the starling population might reach a relatively steady state. If biological controls are used in "pest" management, one must live with the necessity that some minimum, steady state population of the "pest" is kept viable.

Personally, I would have felt comforted to learn if perhaps a raptor occasionally took from the prey base in CatWoman's magical garden. It's reassuring, finding evidence of complex ecofunctions and biodiversity in one's experience and province. I'm glad to see the sharp shinned hawk get a laggard finch or junco around my feeders, where this Homo s., in characteristic conceit of the species, effectively and "unnaturally" concentrates the prey base for the avian predator. Has the sharpie trained me, as CatWoman's rats might have trained her?

Whether "her" rats are knowingly in a nutrition continuum or not (not just being fed but also being food!), CatWoman remains a masterful story teller--to say that she is real spinner of wonderful yarns, is a weak compliment! When her byline appears on a longer posting, I have to make a cup of tea before sitting down and reading it.
The Artful Dodger Keeping the Flock Fit
The Artful Dodger Keeping the Flock Fit
Improving the Gene Pool
Improving the Gene Pool

Blight can also infect potatoes. 17.Dec.2004 16:51

Idahospud

A spud with late blight will not store well, if at all. No winter storage. I loved the story Catwoman.

"Eventually the Irish became dependent on the potato, but since they grew only one vulnerable variety, late blight destroyed almost the entire crop and caused the infamous potato famine. This exposed the dangers of relying on a narrow gene base."

 http://www.mastergardeners.org/newsletter/spuds.html

When the Camp Starts to Stink, It's Time to Move On 17.Dec.2004 21:16

basalt

The most prominent exemplars of the dominant species, Homo s., used to move around relatively more in its life stages, before embarking on sedentary agriculture, settling and establishing cities, somewhat severe specialization and rigid divisions of labor, industrialization--what would be called civilization. Now, living in a civilized, advanced society implies staying in one place or places like other places. There's no buffer, like in rural or frontier situations, or like in nomadism, allowing the camp to heal and the balance to quickly return after a short stay in one place. There are still Homo s. cultures that retain the nomadic, hunter-gatherer relationship.

"Advanced" Homo s. alteration of the planet, concentrating those alterations for his own parochial purposes--ease of governance, accumulation of power and profit, et al, have inflicted imbalances. Food is concentrated, structures serve other purposes than for which they were "designed", prey-predator balances are wrecked and prevented from occurring. The urban setting, concentrating Homo s. population in fixed, hardened, durable structures with hollow walls, ceilings and floors, the abundance of nutritional vectors--food droppings, garbage, soft sided storage containers--the deliberate suppression of predators, like coyotes for one, create breeding paradise for vermin. Homo s. institutions and priorities--property and profit--ensure that the urban setting remains a haven for population explosions of vermin, controlled only by the food supply and mortality owing to concentrations of vermin population.

Building owners, while not particularly intending to proactively support vermin populations (unless it would be profitable), are moved to do something about it as a lower priority, if at all, in the case of classic slumlords. They, and corrupt building officials and health inspectors, would rather continue sucking up income and revenue, resisting the specter of their tenants and citizens being overrun with vermin, instead of tearing the building down and starting over--which is probably the closest thing there is to the nomadic life under a capitalist, urban system.

In the absence of predators, the tenant then becomes the "biological control", using traps and other lethal methods devised by industrial capitalism.

The city, that extreme expression of civilized Homo s. myopic dominance over and impulse to obliterate and/or selectively control the natural world--a device committed to and perpetuating the commodification of every living and inert thing, in the capitalist/totalitarian state form--isn't ecologically viable.

Hello, Basalt 18.Dec.2004 07:18

The Secretary

I like what you have written. I would like to hear more. I have been read up on the history of agriculture and it sounds like you know about this topic.

Rats May Well Move In To Any Home 18.Dec.2004 12:21

Casbah

Rat fan,

I think you are being a bit hard on Demoncrat's situation. The first house I rented years ago was a small place without insulation and very old; it was what we could afford at the time. The house and shed were infested with rats. And yes, we had a large garden, too. Rats and mice come into houses during cold and/or damp weather - first, because a house is a warmer place to live and nest than the out-of-doors in the winter and second, there are more sources of food in our cupboards (and, if you have kids, accidentally left around on the floor). We kept a very clean house but they chewed right through the backs of the cupboards to get to the food; the insides of the cupboards were covered with the reinforcement and patches we put in place. They could often be heard knawing in the walls. They also got into the dresser drawers and chewed up clothing to construct nests.

I have had the pleasure of meeting pet rats owned by friends. These are wonderful pets with real personalities. The only thing wrong with keeping a rat as a pet is that they do not live very long so the heartache of losing them comes faster.

Anyway, my two cents worth is that I would not encourage rats to build up a colony near my home. I wouldn't hurt them, but I would not feed them. The time will come (as Catwoman so eloquently described) when food is short, the weather is terrible, and the rats will be trying their darndest to find a warmer, better-stocked haven (in or under your house, if they can get in). You'll be setting out humane traps all winter and your neighbors - if similarly invaded - will hate you.

Multnomah County Vector Control says that it is already getting numerous reports of mice and rats moving into human dwellings. It's particularly troublesome this year because all of the warm weather during the summer caused a breeding explosion in cats, mice, and rats.

How bad this year? We keep two terriers and three mice still managed to move into our house and build a nest under the condensor in our refrigerator! Our kitchen is spotless - they were daring enough that they managed to grab dry dogfood while it was down for the dogs during feeding times. We noticed the presence of these mice when the refrigerator began making strange ticking noises and smelled funny. When I took the back off of it, I found the nest and a drip tray full of a mixture of rodent droppings, dog food and water. It took all afternoon to dissemble the area over the drip tray, remove, and clean it. Then we had to leave the fridge pulled away from the wall until we could catch the mice in humane traps baited with peanut butter and let them go miles away.

Wild rats living in the ground out-of-doors are non-native, wild animals - not the domesticated rats kept as pets. If they contract illness or overpopulate their area because of a surplus of food that would not generally be available to them, they can also be a health risk. I honestly wouldn't fool around with them.

I too have a rat 19.Dec.2004 08:57

Calvin

I too have a rat, which lives in a small aquarium. It loves to curl up in the corner and pull nibbled up socks over itself to make a house. It's begun to love its little house so much that it hardly ever wants to come out to play anymore. It is also great friends with some other animals, such as birds. Before it made this house, it used to love to come out and check out the other animals of the house. It began to make friends with a dog that must be 100 times its size. Me and the rat are thankful that the dog doesn't bite.

Rats are 100 percent cleaner than us 11.May.2005 19:04

Princess Ratlina

Anyone who thinks rats are filthy apparently has never interacted with one. All i know is when i pull my baby girls out for playtime they have a hayday licking fest cleaning themselves before they do anything. Anyone or any company who can willingly hurt one of these creaturs is only doing what there parents or god did to them.