Andersen: Death by peanut butter
November 17, 2014
The body count has been high this fall in the Andersen household. The victims died for peanut butter smeared on the trigger of a mousetrap.
We toss the mice out with guilt, only to load the traps again for unsuspecting rodents that unwittingly die for peanut butter. We could trap them live, like we do the packrats, but then what? Where do you transplant dozens of potentially infectious mice without plaguing another neighborhood?
As the cold settles in, the mice come indoors looking for a warm place to build their nests, have their babies, nibble on crumbs and spread their potentially fatal feces. Mouse-borne hantavirus killed a man in August in Eagle County. That's where we live. A health warning states that 40 percent of these cases are fatal, odds on which we would rather not gamble.
So we set traps to get rid of the mice. We justify it as an exercise in home maintenance. And we do it every day.
Some might think it silly to weigh the morality of cunningly taking the life of a mouse, as if a rodent deserves empathy or even sympathy. A far more insightful writer than I offers rich verse on the subject.
The Scottish poet Robert Burns took a literary and philosophical approach when in 1875 he poeticized the viewpoint of a mouse whose home he inadvertently plowed up while preparing his fields for winter. Spying this suddenly homeless mouse, roughly uprooted from her home, Burns feels for the creature.
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"Wee, sleekit, cow'rin' tim'rous beastie," he addresses the mouse. "Oh, what a panic's in thy breastie!"
Burns understands the mouse's fear as if it were his own. He reflects deeply — all while standing there with his plow in hand — how his chance contact with the mouse speaks to a larger relationship between man and nature.
"I'm truly sorry man's dominion / Has broken Nature's social union / An justifies that ill opinion / Which makes thee startle / At me, thy poor, earth-born companion / An' fellow mortal!"
Burns honors that social union with Nature by making himself equal to the mouse — a fellow mortal. He says that all living things — whether man or mouse — belong to the same sphere of life.
Burns acknowledges that he has destroyed the mouse's security with his plow. "Thy wee-bit housie, too, in ruin … An' bleak December's winds ensuin'." He understands the mouse's viewpoint because he feels it himself, preparing as he is for a long winter.
"Thou saw the fields laid bare and waste / An' weary winter comin' fast / An' cozy here, beneath the blast / Thou thought to dwell / Till crash! the cruel coulter (plow) passed / Out through thy cell."
Though Burns realizes that the mouse's abode is a humble "heap o' leaves," he gives it respect for the "mony a weary nibble" required to create it. Shelter is another shared value that the poet signifies between him and the mouse.
Then Burns lays out the philosophical punchline. He muses about the difference between the nature of human existence and the nature of mouse existence. All of this flashes through his mind while he's looking down at the helpless mouse at his feet.
"The best-laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft a-gley," Burns says, suggesting that our aspirations are prone to failure, vulnerable to unanticipated circumstances. The plight of the mouse reveals that foresight is often futile, given the chaos that governs us all.
Then comes a poetic coda of incredible humility, where Burns says he might rather trade places with the mouse and accept a more immediate, live-in-the-present life experience.
"Still thou art blest compared wi' me! / The present only toucheth thee: / But och! I backward cast my e'e / On prospects drear! / An' forward though I canna see, / I guess an fear."
Perhaps my agony over killing mice is too much of a "backward cast," but that's what happens when I step out into the dim morning of a new day with a dead mouse by the tail.
I ponder my action and dismiss it with convenient rationalization for killing a fellow mortal whose only crimes are petty thievery and vagrancy.
I willfully break nature's social union, and I feel a pang of guilt through an ambiguous moral conundrum focused on peanut butter and a tiny mouse.
Paul Andersen's column appears on Monday. He can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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