By Michael Caduto
We two-leggeds build inviting habitats and fill them with ample food supplies. We heat these spaces in winter, cool them in summer, and keep them dry year-round. And when our wild neighbors have the audacity to move in, we frequently kill them on sight.
My wife and I recently restored an old brick farmhouse that was built in 1790, back when Vermont was still an independent republic. We removed walls and ceilings to expose and repair the original structure, then vacuumed every nook and cranny to remove debris left behind by two centuries of sundry inhabitants.
The cavities were crammed with butternut shells and tiny ears of corn that had been stripped clean—the work of red squirrels and mice. After we pried back a battered kickboard near the kitchen, a river of ancient wheat seeds cascaded out onto the floor. These must have been pilloried from human food stores and cached by mice during an era when Vermont farmers still grew their own wheat. I saved some of those seeds to see if I can resurrect what could be a lost heirloom variety.
Most of the wall and attic spaces were stuffed with clumps of useless insulation, replete with evidence of mice: countless droppings, pee-infused nest material, rodent skeletons and desiccated mouse-mummies. These were the remnants of nesting deer mice or white-footed mice—the most common denizens of homes in the hinterlands.
The house also boasted an extensive collection of spiderwebs, which festooned the rafters in the basement. Most of the webbing I encountered was spun by the common house spider, Parasteatoda tepidariorum—a round-bodied arachnid, about one tenth to one third of an inch in size, often with banded legs. This species is one of the “cobweb” spiders, known for their messy-looking snares. It seeks warmth and shelter in the quiet corners of our homes, and earned the species name of tepidariorum—which is Latin for “warming house”—because of its propensity for living in greenhouses.
In time, I worked my way up to the top of the house. Balanced on a rooftop while painting a dormer, I inadvertently invaded the flyway of a colony of paper wasps going in and out of a soffit vent. They buzzed loudly to warn me off; sometimes a wasp landed on my face or neck and crawled around ominously. Since I had no free hand, I allowed the wasps to creep around on my skin, trying to quell my nerves and exude an air of calm, all the while continuing to paint.
I now do my writing in an office alcove beneath that same roof. As with many south-facing locations in old houses, this is the most active animal abode. I maintain a live trap for mice in the nearby crawl space. Some time ago, I heard skittering in the wall, followed by the sound of the trap tripping. When I checked, the trap was closed and the seeds gone, but there was no mouse inside. Over the next few weeks I tried every conceivable contrivance to catch whatever tiny creature could pull off such a trick.
Finally, I stayed up one night, tweaking the trap and re-baiting it repeatedly. Sometime after midnight, the trap clicked shut and started to rattle. I looked inside to find a masked shrew—one of the smallest mammals in the world—wiggling its tiny, tubular nose at me.
My encounter with that diminutive shrew was an epiphany: it put an end to any remaining hopes I harbored of critter-proofing a house that was more than two centuries old. After three years of trying to block every conceivable crack and hole that could serve as an entryway for mice, ladybugs, spiders and the like, I realized that “our” house is as much an extension of the natural habitats that surround it, as it is a domesticated refugee from the wild.
Michael J. Caduto is an author, ecologist, and storyteller who lives in Reading, Vermont. The illustration for this column was drawn by Adelaide Tyrol. The Outside Story is assigned and edited by Northern Woodlands magazine and sponsored by the Wellborn Ecology Fund of New Hampshire Charitable Foundation: [email protected]