I like the nightlife, but lately things have been getting out of hand.
“Hey, did you hear that?” I mumble to my groggy bedmate in the predawn dark. The alarm is about to go off, but it’s been preempted by the scratch and maw overhead. A muffled thump, small footsteps — these early morning audio extras disrupt my sleep, and disrupt the cozy feeling I savor, all tucked in my warm bed, that my home is my dominion, my territory. I’m not sure what the critter is, and I sure as heck don’t know how the sneaky varmint squirmed and wormed his way into the tiny spaces between the drywall and the roof frame, but somewhere overhead, out of sight, he’s there, nesting in the insulation, making himself at home.
We must be especially hospitable — this is not the first time we’ve played unwitting host to nocturnal guests. Winter after winter, as the temperature drops, the noises begin. There’s the lighter, playful pitter-patter of squirrels over the family room, with the occasional drop and roll of acorns, as if they’ve got big bucks on game of marbles. The plywood ceiling that delineates our “finished” living area from the dark netherland above acts like an amplifier: every scratch, every move sounds like it’s in the room with you. Just ask our terrified babysitter, who thought Jason from Friday the 13th would crash through at any minute. Mothballs thankfully took care of the squirrels, at least for a little while, but the damn possums are a different story.
Just when you think they’re gone for the season, taking their ropey tails, yucky snouts and dark narrow eyes (ugh, shivers) with them, we hear the dreaded “thump, thump” again. Possums don’t win cute points. They’re smelly, wiry, dumb as a doormat, but smart enough to find some teeny door, undetectable to us, into our attic. My husband is getting good at playing Marlin Perkins, hauling down the loaded Havahart trap, its dazed occupant clueless and disgusting.
Possums and squirrels and god-knows-what overhead, fire ants and moles that trench beneath, and heaven forbid, the rats that once claimed our outdoor shed, with its generous stash of bird seed, as their official party shack — these are the creaturely and not-so-comforting reminders of another order among us. We may pay the mortgage, but our visitors remind us that my family and I are the renters, the interlopers, the squatters. These wild things are the literal land lords, belonging to the place by nature. Quarterly pest control, mothballs, baited traps and bedtime prayers (lest they claw through the walls) are how we maintain the illusion that wilderness is somewhere “out there” and that here, in our insulated, burglar-alarmed homes on paved cul-de-sacs, is the rightful human domain.
Cursing the scritch-scratch of whatever is bedding down above me, imaging the mess its it’s making of the insulation, worrying about its appetite for wiring, I remember the baby squirrel I found as a kid and tried to nurse back to health. I was devoted to its care, coaxing it to take milk via an eyedropper as it lay in its Stride Rite shoebox incubator. I once also had a female cardinal with a damaged wing, until I went out to change the water one day and found it toppled over, stiff with rigor mortis. As a child I nurtured nature, and was its rescuer, its hero; now I shoo it away. How is it that childhood is so close to the natural world, populated as it is with Pooh Bear and Owl, Jemimah Puddle-Duck and Peter Rabbit, and then somehow the wind in the willows turns to stale AC in the cubicle as we supposedly mature in the world?
“Wilderness is the element in which we live encased in civilization, as a mollusk lives in his shell in the sea,” writes Wendell Berry (a writer I’d follow into any forbidding forest, critters or not). “It is a wilderness that is beautiful, dangerous, abundant, oblivious of us, mysterious, never to be conquered or controlled or second-guessed, or known more than a little.”
Just how oblivious to us the wilderness can continue to be, given our voracious consumer appetites and inane environmental policies, is the question. “Perhaps the most difficult labor for my species is to accept its limits, its weakness, its ignorance,” continues Berry. In the “mysterious wilderness… the power and knowledge of men count for nothing.”
Well, maybe so. My own preference is to encounter this “mysterious wilderness” in places more exotic and awesome, more earthy and green and majestic, than my creepy attic. I’d rather come face to face with my weakness and limits in the incredible Sierras, for instance, than face-to-snout with a hideous possum. But until my power and knowledge can help pinpoint how the damn things are getting up in the attic, I’ll just have to endure more wild nights, coming to sleepy grips with my humble place in the ecosphere. No worries, though — I’m getting pretty good at playing possum.