Mice in the Greenhouse
It happens every year. I go out to the greenhouse to check on my seedlings, and in the seedling flats I find rows of tiny excavations where the seeds had been. A mouse has been in the greenhouse, digging up the seeds.
The mouse doesn’t bother with the tiny seeds, like tomatoes or onions or snapdragons; she goes for the bigger seeds—squash, cucumbers and melons. Some of the hybrid melon seeds that I grow are outrageously expensive, and the mouse’s humble meal costs me more than dinner for two at Chez Panisse. And so the situation demands action, and in the past that action has been to set mousetraps.
The old wooden Victor snap traps that were so nerve-wracking to set have at last been replaced by better designs that are easy to use. I bait the traps with a combination of peanut butter and bacon—irresistible to any mammal. Sometimes I absentmindedly munch on the bait as I’m walking from the kitchen, and arrive at the greenhouse empty handed.
If the trap has done its job, I will find, next morning, a small corpse that fits in the palm of my hand—a tiny mouse with a gray coat and white belly, and white whiskers, and delicate round ears. This is a deer mouse, a native species. It is a heartbreakingly innocent little animal (“poor wee sleekit beastie,” says Burns) and I always feel terrible for having killed it, and pass the remains of the day in a cloudy mood.
And so this year I decided that I was finished with the traps and that I would no longer kill mice. Instead, I would distract them from my crops by offering them a better alternative. On the greenhouse bench I set out a bowl of sunflower seeds and a few raisins and an old rind of Parmesan, and sure enough, the mouse preferred that to digging up my melon seeds. Problem solved ... perhaps.
At this point I imagine some old Malthusian wagging a stern finger at me. ‘You know that the mouse that you’re feeding so freely will soon whelp a dozen young, half of them females, and in a few weeks each of them will breed, and their offspring in turn will breed, and if you do the math you will find your entire farm knee deep in mice before the summer’s over.’ I’m aware of this argument, but like most purely theoretical positions, it’s false. As it turned out, after a few weeks the mouse stopped coming to the greenhouse. I suspect that the old orange tomcat that lives in the upper reaches of the barn might know something about that.
But one is left with a question: What is the proper relationship of a man and a mouse? I believe that Robert Burns got it right in his famous poem (“To a Mouse”): The human should be deeply apologetic for his clumsy interference in that humble creature’s life. In taking this stance, Burns rejected the Elizabethan notion of the great chain of being—the idea that all of the animals could be ordered into a hierarchy with the humans at the very pinnacle, holding dominion over the other creatures. (I would have formulated the hierarchy differently, putting toucans and barn swallows at the very top, and placing the humans about halfway down, at the same level as mice, or beetles. It’s true that humans at their very best are admirable, but that’s a rarity; most of us are disappointing creatures whose failings far outnumber our virtues.)
I expect that 99 farmers out of a hundred, faced with mice in the greenhouse, would set mousetraps. That’s one of those unexamined cultural values that we acquire as children, unconsciously and effortlessly, such as: our country is the best country; a lavish life is preferable to a humble life; to vanquish one’s enemies is honorable; the path to success is to set a goal and pursue it relentlessly; my religion is the only true one—the others are misguided nonsense; and if you have mice in the greenhouse, set a trap. With a bit of reflection one can find better alternatives to all of these, and a thoughtful person cannot help but reject the conventional wisdom of his culture.
In the case of setting traps for mice in the greenhouse, the better choice is to offer the mouse a good meal, and be honored that she keeps your company. The trapper has been deceived by the notion of scarcity that is deeply engrained in our culture: There is not enough to go around, and so you must unfailingly protect what is yours. In reality, abundance is more often the case than scarcity, and taking abundance as a premise, many problems on the farm solve themselves.