Monday, July 26, 2021

All these this hand laid breathless on the ground

Last year it was yellowjackets, which are predatory wasps. A swarm of them built a nest in one of our front garden beds, burrowing down against the wall of the bed and then defending a fairly large territory of our front yard from, well, us. An aggressive defense, they put up, biting Mighty Reader and me almost daily. Our first impulse was to peacefully coexist with the yellowjackets, but predatory wasps do not know d├ętente and continued to attack us whenever we ventured out front, denying us access to our vegetables, harassing us when we came and went on our bicycles, no doubt menacing the postal carriers as well. A nuisance they were, a clear and present danger.

We do not use pesticides or other toxins in our yard, to protect our vegetables yes, but also to protect the bees and other pollinators, the birds, the squirrels, the neighborhood cats, and anyone else who might wander through. So we weren't going to poison the wasp nest, but something had to be done about them, and unfortunately "something" in re wasps who burrow underground means destruction of the nest and its inhabitants. Mighty Reader and I approached this task with reluctance, but I still claim that the wasps fired the first shot in this brief and violent war.

How to destroy as wasp nest: First, locate the entrance to the nest. (This will be easy, because it's a hole in the ground with a lot of wasps crawling in and out of it. If you get near this location, the wasps will swarm around you and deliver as many painful bites as it takes to drive you away. The longer you remain near the nest entrance, the more wasps will emerge and attack.) Second, acquire a bottle of peppermint soap (you will see why below). Third, acquire (or build, as we did) a large funnel with a long tube (two feet is a good length; we used 2" PVC pipe for this). Fourth, wait until dark. (Yellowjackets are mostly active during daylight hours, though they post alert sentries at the nest opening in case of inquisitive intruders. These sentries will not hesitate to wake the rest of the wasps in defense of the nest. However, if one acts quickly, there is a bit of time between being noticed by the sentry wasps and being swarmed by a cloud of irritable wasps who've been roused from bed.) Fifth, boil a pot of water and a kettle of water as well. Add the peppermint soap to the boiling water.  Sixth, and maybe this should've been fifth, put on heavy long sleeved shirts and long pants, as well as gloves. Had we possessed beekeepers' suits, we'd have worn those. Seventh, when the water is boiling, carry the funnel, the pot, and the kettle quickly to the entrance of the nest. Position the funnel directly over the entrance, ignoring any sentry wasps. Pour the boiling soapy water down the funnel into the nest. The soap makes flight difficult if not impossible for the wasps, and the peppermint is said to stun them. Follow this up quickly with the kettle of hot water. The hot water, both soapy and not soapy, is of course intended to kill the wasps. One imagines horrific carnage below the earth. Eighth, retreat quickly to the safety of the house.

If you act immediately upon discovering the nest, you might be able to destroy it on your first attempt. We had to repeat the assault the following night, because a large number of wasps survived the first bombardment, one surviving wasp being the queen. It is imperative that the queen be assassinated or the nest will remain active. In fact, I think, you really only need to kill the queen. She is the brains of the operation, and upon her death, any surviving wasps will drift away after a few days, no longer having a purpose in life and no longer so interested in protecting the nest. It's all horrible, really, all of it. One has to side-eye Nature for thinking up such an arrangement, and while we congratulate ourselves on vanquishing our many tiny predatory foes, I still am conscious of a certain wrongness about the whole thing, a conviction that conquering nature is by definition unnatural and therefore not to be desired.

These miniature domestic skirmishes feel, at the time, like epic conflicts. I remember thinking of the Peloponnesian war during the wasp episode, imagining myself the besieged inhabitant of one of those island cities attacked by the pestilential Greeks who have dug in just outside my city walls. 

While raising the mound the Peloponnesians also brought up engines against the city, one of which was brought up upon the mound against the great building and shook down a good piece of it, to the no small alarm of the Plataeans. Others were advanced against different parts of the wall but were lassoed and broken by the Plataeans; who also hung up great beams by long iron chains from either extremity of two poles laid on the wall and projecting over it, and drew them up at an angle whenever any point was threatened by the engine, and loosing their hold let the beam go with its chains slack, so that it fell with a run and snapped off the nose of the battering ram.

After this the Peloponnesians, finding that their engines effected nothing, and that their mound was met by the counterwork, concluded that their present means of offense were unequal to the taking of the city, and prepared for its circumvallation.

First, however, they determined to try the effects of fire and see whether they could not, with the help of a wind, burn the town, as it was not a large one... 

We happily broke the siege, and the yellowjackets have not returned to Plataea .

This year, as you may know from my previous post, it's rats. We thought at first that it was just one rat, who had dug a burrow beneath a large stone in the back garden, under the apricot tree. I moved the stones away to expose the entrance to the burrow, we took in the bird feeders and stopped filling the bird baths, we made a lot of racket in the garden and generally were unfriendly to rodentkind. I even took a garden hose and flooded the rat's nest, standing nearby in heavy shoes and holding a sharp spade, though nobody came out of the hole. You may well imagine my relief about that.

The trap I set up near the burrow went unnoticed by the rats, as did the trap I set up along the side of our neighbor's shed, which runs along the property line on the north side of the yard. Professional ratters recommend putting traps around the perimeter of the yard and along fences and walls, because rats tend to travel next to walls and fences and buildings, rather than out in the open. Nothing was caught in these traps, which I baited and set in the evening and checked each morning. One morning I saw Ratticus wandering around the yard, over the lawn, under the Adirondack chairs, sniffing and pawing at the dirt and behaving in ways rats are not supposed to behave, having made herself quite at home in the yard and moving back into the den under the apricot after the waters subsided. Later that day I saw Ratticus showing a young rat, a mouse-sized rat, how to climb the grape and get up to the birdbath (the water in which had not all yet evaporated away) for a drink. I stood at the kitchen door, watching the young rat and his mother scurry down the grape and under a boxwood, and I had the awful realization that I had become the villain in a Disney movie, the human attempting to eliminate a family of wild animals. An unhappy moment in this epic conflict.

I bought more traps, having read that the ones with the large bait trays/triggers were more effective than the traditional traps with the narrow metal triggers. I set four traps up in the yard that evening, all in places where we'd seen the rats scampering gaily along during the day. I pause to mention that rats are not supposed to be so active before dark; if you see rats in the daytime, allegedly it's because there is an overcrowded nest and the rats are not able to gather enough food for the whole family during the night. An overcrowded nest is, as you may well imagine, a bad thing both for the rats in the nest and the neighbors of the rats. It is also true that rats in cities generally have been moving out into residential neighborhoods from downtowns that have been closed up due to the pandemic, the supply of fresh restaurant garbage drastically reduced, forcing the downtown rats to forage more widely. Or so I have heard.

After setting my new traps, I went about my evening business in the house while twilight gathered outside. By the glow of the setting sun I watched a young rat discover the trap on the patio, baited with organic peanut butter (only the best for our guests). Young Ratticus ate a good deal of the peanut butter from the trap, which his feeding did not trigger. I have a theory that rat traps, at least the Victor brand, are designed for adult rats, and require the weight/action of a fully-grown rat's feeding to actuate (that is, to snap the rat's neck with the spring-loaded metal bar). Young Ratticus hadn't the heft to trigger the trap and so he was able to eat most of the bait. It was only when he decided to wander off that he stepped on the trigger and so put enough weight on it to release that spring-loaded metal bar.

Rat traps, at least the traditional mechanical ones I bought, are designed to break the rat's neck while he feeds. They are not designed to kill a rat who is lying across the trap. The metal bar struck young Ratticus across his back, probably breaking his spine below his ribs. After a few seconds he began to claw at the cement floor of the patio, terrified. I know he was terrified because he began to shriek, a terrible sound, pathetic and no doubt audible all the way to the throne of heaven. No, no, I thought, you are supposed to be dead, little rat; the trap is supposed to have killed you instantly, painlessly, silently. I had to break his wee neck with a shovel. It took several tries. I could not sleep that night and was quite not myself for much of the next day. I buried the rat along the back fence. 

The morning brought a second dead young rat to light, his wee neck properly broken by the trap. He was interred along the back fence. In the afternoon we discovered that two more young rats, one larger than the other, were hiding in the compost bin. Mighty Reader roused the first of them when she was turning the compost with a pitchfork, working alone. I was with her when she surprised the second rat, who bolted past us and ran up the steps into the garden. If you are keeping track, you will now be aware that we had at least three rats in the yard: the original adult rat and two of her surviving progeny.

The next couple of days are a blur, rat-wise. One morning I found the adult rat, dead in a trap, her neck snapped as the Victor people had intended. I buried her next to the first two rats. The temptation was great to put up a sign over their graves reading either "Rats in Paradise" or "Panama", but I resisted the temptation. Anyway, I still had two young rats at large, and possibly a worse problem in the wings: I had seen, on several consecutive mornings, a large rat along the back fence, in the shadow of the clematis. This rat was careful to back away slowly whenever he saw me looking at him, although one morning he climbed from the clematis into a mallow, at the base of which one of the young rats was waiting. A family reunion, probably. I reached over and gave one of the mallow's branches a tug and the large rat shot out of the underbrush and across the yard, not a foot from my feet, disappearing into a bed of day lilies. A large rat.

That afternoon, while I was making a cup of tea in the kitchen, I glanced out the back door and saw one of the young rats venture out from beneath the boxwood hedges to have a go at one of the rat traps that I'd disarmed and set aside until the evening. We don't like to have traps set during the day, because we get squirrels and jays and sometimes cats in the yard, and the spring-loaded death is reserved for our rodent interlopers, so I'd taken to springing all the traps in the early morning and piling them up by the boxwood, where young Ratticus III discovered them. So it's like that, is it, I said to Rat. I'll give you a good meal, I said, and loaded the trap with fresh peanut butter, set the mechanism, and placed the trap next to the hedge before I retreated into the kitchen. Young Ratticus obligingly ventured forth and began to eat the peanut butter off the trap. Kind of cute, actually. I was sure that he would eat all the bait and wander off to find a drink or play Nintendo or whatever small rodents do after a good free meal, when the trap went off.

Once again, it did not kill the rat. I warn you that what follows is pretty bad. The "kill bar," as the spring-loaded metal arm is called in the trade, caught the rat across his face, breaking his nose and jaws and pinning him to the trap. At first I thought he was dead because he was unmoving, but he was just in shock (understandable, I think). By the time I got outside, he'd started to struggle, trying to free his maimed face from beneath the kill bar. Horrible, I tell you, but at least he was silent, his mouth having been destroyed. Shovel. Whack. Whack. Pause. No, sorry. Whack. Jesus God in Heaven how can this be my life, I said to nobody. Another grave along the back fence. That's four. One young rat unaccounted for, one large adult rat lurking somewhere.

If last summer's wasps were from Thucydides, this summer's rats are from Ovid. Ovid's Metamorphoses is full of over-the-top violence, gratuitous gory details (that hearken back to and mock--according to the introduction of the edition I just read--the Iliad, which certainly has its hyperbolic bloodbath passages). Here is Ovid on the centaur battle at the wedding of Perithous and Hippodame:

The monster nought reply'd: for words were vain,
And deeds cou'd only deeds unjust maintain;
But answers with his hand, and forward press'd,
With blows redoubled, on his face, and breast.
An ample goblet stood, of antick mold,
And rough with figures of the rising gold;
The hero snatch'd it up, and toss'd in air
Full at the front of the foul ravisher.
He falls; and falling vomits forth a flood
Of wine, and foam, and brains, and mingled blood.

 Bold Amycus, from the robb'd vestry brings
The chalices of Heav'n; and holy things
Of precious weight: a sconce that hung on high,
With tapers fill'd, to light the sacristy,
Torn from the cord, with his unhallow'd hand
He threw amid the Lapythaean band.
On Celadon the ruin fell; and left
His face of feature, and of form bereft:
So, when some brawny sacrificer knocks,
Before an altar led, an offer'd ox,
His eyes-balls rooted out, are thrown to ground;
His nose, dismantled, in his mouth is found;
His jaws, cheeks, front, one undistinguish'd wound.

That's pretty much the story for another hundred lines or so. I will never be able to read Ajax on the plains of Troy the same way. Speaking of Troy, when Ovid's book moves to the Trojan War, things pick up quite a lot after what had become a dragging wander of a middle. Ovid is smart enough not to retell the war, but to focus instead on personality conflicts (the same narrative gambit that makes Homer's beginning of the Iliad so terrific). I particularly enjoyed the debate between Ajax and Ulysses, contending over Achilles' armor. Ulysses is quite himself, bending the truth however he must in order to cast himself in a flattering light. 

we with great Achilles had been bless'd;
But since hard Fate, and Heav'n's severe decree,
Have ravish'd him away from you, and me
(At this he sigh'd, and wip'd his eyes, and drew,
Or seem'd to draw, some drops of kindly dew),
Who better can succeed Achilles lost,
Than he, who gave Achilles to your hoast?

Yes, Ulysses seemingly sheds tears over our lost hero, while warming up to a long ramble during which he claims the glory for not only his own alleged acts of bravery, but also for those of Achilles ("whatever he perform'd in fight is justly mine, who drew him back from flight") and, for that matter anything useful the other Greeks might have done. Ulysses takes personal credit for the whole of the Trojan War, in short. Well, at length, really. This is exactly my impression of Ulysses, who I admit I have never admired. A smarmy egotist hiding behind others and taking credit for their accomplishments. An oily politician. Reading this speech I was reminded of the large cowardly rat who skulks in the shadows of our clematis. I shall name him Ulysses. If his ugly neck gets snapped by one of our traps, I shall raise a triumph over Ulysses along the back fence.

[Passages of Ovid here quoted are from the Internet Classics Archive's Metamorphoses, "Translated by Sir Samuel Garth, John Dryden, et al"]

Tuesday, July 6, 2021

once more, with feeling

Over the long holiday weekend, I spent a considerable amount of time and effort trying to kill a rat. He (or she) is a brown rat, a small character maybe seven inches long excluding the tail, possibly what we call in Seattle a "roof rat" as opposed to a Norway rat, which nasty fellows weigh about a pound. I have had plenty of opportunity to observe our rat, who I have named Ratticus, though of late I've taken to calling him (or her) Ratty Pants. I don't know why; it came to me when I was yelling at him one afternoon. A few weeks ago, Ratticus dug a burrow beside the apricot tree in our back yard, the burrow's entrance hidden cleverly between a pair of very large and heavy granite stones in a patch of iris. Mighty Reader and I have glimpsed our new neighbor skulking around the edges of the garden, or lurking under the boxwood where the steps lead up from our patio into the yard. Seattle is a port city with a lot of green space, and there have always been rats. As long as they are merely passing through the property and not setting up shop here, we have been tolerant of them. Our neighbors on both sides have poison dispensers in their yards because they are less tolerant, and it is true that when I've discovered burrow entrances near our foundation, I've set traps and done some rodenticide myself.

Our garden has not, as long as I remember, been somewhere that rats have dug in to live. Rats used to live in our neighbor's shed and would rustle around in the clematis of an evening, up to no good, and the cat used to chase them across the yard and even catch them sometimes. The cat was diligent about defending her realm, chasing away intruders like other cats and peripatetic rodents. The cat is now out in the yard, in what we refer to as the Memorial Bed, lying forever beneath the marker we put up for her last December. She is less diligent in the defense of the realm than she once was, though I make it a habit of reassuring her that we her servants remain in the premises and I at least will run out any trespassing feline who has the nerve to put a paw over the property line. Do those foreign cats not know whose yard this is? I digress, and what I'm getting at is that with the passing of our cat, our yard becomes over time a little more of a wildlife habitat. The Stellar's jays have made themselves comfortable dropping by in the mornings to demand peanuts and stroll in a leisurely manner over the lawn, rabbits have been spotted as they pause to thoughtfully chew a blade of grass or two next to the Adirondack chairs, and we had a downy woodpecker and its fledgling in the magnolia last week, having a relaxed meal of suet. And oh yes, we now have a rat who has dug a hole next to the apricot tree. 

I said in my first paragraph that Ratty Pants dug her/his burrow a few weeks ago, but to tell the truth, it's been probably two months at least that we've known about our squatter. I bought a rat trap at the local hardware store about a month ago. I've given Ratty several stern warnings about the fate I am planning for him/her. I've been dragging my feet about murdering the rat, though. Since putting our cat down I have been more sensitive, if that's the right word and I'm not sure that it is, to the idea of dying, of having one's existence stopped. I worry about accidentally killing a spider or a moth, I am saddened at the sight of a squirrel or crow or other small animal on the street, having been run down by a passing motorist. I worry about my own death, and how it could happen suddenly, at any time. I worry about the death of Mighty Reader, of our friends. I worry, as you have seen coming, about snuffing out poor old Ratty Pants, who ain't doing nothing but rat business, the way nature made her/him. It's not Ratty's fault that I have ideas about the sanctity of our property, or that we have a longstanding "no rats" policy regarding the house. Ratty is just doing Ratty, as they say.

But Ratty is marked for death, as are we all. I could tell myself that I'm merely an instrument of nature, of the divine plan, und so weiter, but really I'm just a guy with a rat trap and a rat, trying to get them together. I find it depressing, and I do it with a great deal of regret. As I said to Mighty Reader on Saturday afternoon, I think it was, maybe I've just killed too many small animals in the last year and my heart is not in the job.

Nonetheless, were the cat still on the job, she'd have no compunction about snapping our rat's wee neck and calling it work well done. And the rat's presence in the garden is, after all, an insult to the spirit of the cat who so diligently defended that garden. So I set myself to work. One of the large stones which formed Ratty's doorway has been levered away to reveal the tunnel mouth in the dirt. The stones weigh something like eighty pounds and I did not enjoy that. The tunnel mouth has been filled in with dirt and stones, and I happen to know that Ratty Pants was away from home when this was done, as I've since seen him/her skulking unhappily in the shadows around the edges of the garden. There is a chance, I have read on the internet, that doing this will give Ratty the idea that she'd be happier digging a new den in someone else's yard. However, at present Ratty remains on our property, continuing the above-mentioned skulking. The rat trap, also previously mentioned, is now set and baited with a bit of feta (rats, I have read, like cheese with a strong smell), and I've set it up in a long, low box along the edge of a garden bed that Ratty has been using as a path to and from the den. The box has a rat-sized door cut into either end, the loaded trap waiting in the dark interior. This is another recommended ploy used by professional rodent killers. The trap has been set for about thirteen or fourteen hours at this point. Ratty Pants has not cooperatively stuck his/her head into the box and obligingly had his/her neck broken. I feel vaguely mocked, depressed, and out of sorts in several directions. It will not do to let Ratty stay on in the garden, though. He or she would likely be encouraged by our forbearance to have a large ratty family, some of whom would likely try to get into the house when the weather turns cold, and we stand by that "no rats" policy re the house. So I am trying, in an increasingly clumsy way, to outfox a rat, if I can be allowed that construction.

In the meanwhile, I have somehow managed to finish the rough draft of yet another piece of book-length fiction. It is a collection of linked stories that I'm calling for now "Islands (and other stories)" because that title suggested itself and I am suggestible that way. Like our house and garden at this time, the book is haunted by death and I'm not at all sure if I am pleased with it. I don't know if I'll write anything else.