Muskrat (Ondatra zibethicus)
This water-loving mammal is often seen along the creek, but they are shy, and avoid human contact as much as possible. I have seen them swimming, usually alone, and they always seem to be at work. They move back and forth from the shore (and their den) to the open water. I have seen them gather strands of a plant that has ribbon-like leaves (possibly Bur Reeds). They pull them in long, graceful trails behind them, back to their nest, where they can eat them in safety,
Their back feet are partially webbed, and larger than their front feet, and their tail acts as a rudder, so they are good swimmers. Muskrats also have the talent of being able to swim frontward or backward, with equal ease. They build large houses that contain a nesting chamber, with an underwater entrance, so they can come and go with the relative safety such cover provides.
My neighbor’s son was telling me how he and his grandfather were killing “pests” the other day, and that he’d shot a muskrat in the tail end with a bb gun. “I didn’t kill it”, he said, “just surprised it”. He laughed as he told me this, and my heart broke to think that so many young people, even with the vast amount of knowledge about ecosystems, and the inter-related nature of all living things, which is available today, could still be so out-of-touch with the senselessness of such an act.
But then, I was painfully reminded of my experiment with a spider a couple of weeks ago: I’d noticed an interesting web, on a branch, near the shore, and I took out my hand-lens to get a closer look. It was a lovely pinkish-brown, about 2 cm long. Upon closer examination, its body looked like a semi-unripe plum, complete with the typical bloom of such a fruit. It sat upon a nettle leaf, near the stem; it’s glycerin-like legs all bunched about its body: two, reaching backwards, wrapped around its round little abdomen; one pair extended to either side; and two pair reaching frontward, over its head! It sat in a shroud of silk, silently waiting. When I jostled the leaf, it readied itself for action: its legs extending outward.
At that moment, a much smaller spider crawled across my leg, and I could not help but wonder if the gossamer web could hold this prey, and so, in God-like fashion, I placed the spider upon the leaf. Instantly, the spider I’d been watching leaped into action, attacking the prey with its fangs, injecting paralyzing venom. Then, sucking the juices from its victim, the pink spider seemed to balloon in size – suddenly it was fat with life, while its unfortunate visitor shrunk in collapse.
Quickly the host made repairs to its web, and then began dance-like movements: back and forth – its body writhing as though in labor. Sometimes it would turn itself entirely upside-down, so that I could see the opening from which the silk ensued. The gap had little prongs emerging from it, so that it looked, for all the world, like a female about to give birth to a live young – legs first! After having secured its home, it turned its back upon its prey, and continued its vigil.
Though I had pangs of guilt for having caused this death, my curiosity was not yet satisfied, and I placed another victim upon its lair – this time, an ant. The host lost no time in securing this meal with a venomous sting, but already sated, chose not to dine, and went back to its post.
It sat there for about ten minutes, and then went back to its first victim, and drank some more. It placed its fangs upon the unfortunate’s abdomen, and left them there for many minutes. The meal, no longer recognizable as a living thing, its black and white legs the only remaining feature.
In the meantime, the ant had made an escape; somehow he found the strength to make his way to the underside of the leaf, and down the leaf stem – an inch removed from its captor. At first, it advanced with difficulty, its movements, awkward, and legs flailing, but then, it moved no more, whether dead or paralyzed, I did not know.
This memory came back to me now, as I thought of my neighbor. I realized the parallel between my actions, and the boy’s, were obvious.
It was, I realized, simply a matter of perception: to me, the muskrat, being a mammal (like me) was easier to identify with; also, it’s beautiful, and its presence enriches the environment in which I live. As such, I would never dream of harming it.
Yet, a spider, from a seemingly different universe, is perceived as different enough from myself, that somehow, it doesn’t seem to hold the same value.
I am not sure, where the lines are drawn, if any, but I know that now that I am in possession of a hand-lens, whole new worlds are open to me: a nondescript “grey” caterpillar, under a hand-lens, is seen for its true magnificence: elaborate, colorful, distinctive markings suddenly become evident. How can something so magnificent be any less important?
Maybe a kind of hand-lens for the heart is what we need: something that can boost our perceptions, and help us to see that which should be obvious, but yet somehow, we often miss.