Barefoot-Hearted: A Wild Life among Wildlife

Barefoot-Hearted: A Wild Life among Wildlife

by Kathleen Meyer

Hardcover(1 ED)

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780375504389
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/14/2001
Edition description: 1 ED
Pages: 368
Product dimensions: 5.80(w) x 9.54(h) x 1.17(d)

About the Author

Kathleen Meyer was born in New York City and raised on the New Jersey shore and in California's San Fernando Valley, coming finally to the intermountain West to live in 1989. A longtime outdoorswoman, she is the author of the bestselling How to Shit in the Woods: An Environmentally Sound Approach to a Lost Art. She makes her home now with Patrick McCarron in the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana.

Read an Excerpt

1 Twisted into Corkscrews

Living on This Earth Is No Simple Matter

In setting up housekeeping in our new domicile, we became the first of the species Homo sapiens to nest-build and vie for domain under the broad gambrel roof. During the long-light days of summer, we’d made acquaintance with the extended marmot family. As nights chilled down and they took seriously to hibernation, another species lobbied for top contender of our space.

Had someone asked me, before we moved into the barn, to sit down and ponder the worldwide parade of wildlife that humans have displaced, I’d have listed grizzly bears and wolves, caribou and turtles, coyotes perhaps, whales and manatees, certainly all the spectacular African beasts, and a broad range of brilliantly graceful waterfowl. Never mice! In the perennial trigger-finger and backhoe desiccation wrought on the world by humans, some species fare better than others. Some are the fortunate ones, the ones we take to passionately with preservation in mind (albeit, frequently after they’re almost gone). Pandas we love. Snakes, skunks, slugs, grubs, mice—though equally sentient beings in the eyes of any great spirit, are to most of us two-leggeds not so cuddly. In our first years in the barn, we were overrun with deer mice. We caught them with traps, old-fashioned ones we bought at the hardware store, Victor brand, two for $1.25.

The war was on. Miniature massacres took place daily, and the traps required attention. Without pang of conscience, I went about my tasks, never once thinking that in staking out a place to live I shouldn’t just clear away whatever critters were distasteful to me.Extirpation full ahead: I’d been taught well by my lineage. Here in the northern New World, such behavioral characteristics are traceable directly to my own muttlike bloodlines: Irish, English, French, and Germanic peoples, a smidgen of Dutch, and then the hearty Scottish clan, descended—my mother once read, to her horror—from cannibals. These were the folks in the westward claiming and taming of America who had seized every spot that was to their liking, appropriated unbidden rights to mow down all irritants standing in their way. Pomposity. I was, it appeared, a further shining example.

I found it amazing that we required no cheese for the traps; it took only a bit of fibrous material, invariably a scrap of shredded yarn, brushed with a hint of peanut butter, to snag their teeth. Tucking the lure into the curve of the bait pedal, I set each spring-loaded mechanism, oh so carefully, so as not to trigger a sudden mashing of my thumb. I performed my half of the baiting and disposal chores dutifully—shirking only when it wasn’t too obvious. Patrick’s balanced outlook on male and female workloads, careers, opportunities was, upon our meeting, part of his great appeal. His unique “equal-everything-equal” philosophy, so suited to my own, most likely harkened back to 1975 when NOW, the National Organization for Women, started chipping away at the traditional family foundations in his hometown in Michigan. A friend corralled him into “filling up a chair” at the initial get-together. When the evening closed on Chippewa County’s new chapter of NOW, it was Patrick who was its secretary. What woman doesn’t love the man who will do, if not quite half the cooking, then more than half the dishes! Wash his own clothes! Sew on his own buttons! Yet, naturally, the female counterpart must pull back from throwing over her own set of philosophies just because an instance turns fusty—just because Patrick’s current “Your turn today!” applied to grim mice chores. To my emptying the traps. I now admit I fell disgracefully short of the mark. But my probable 30 percent felt, at the time, like 85. I was, indeed, plagued by a pervasive sense of ickiness—a dread of having to touch the dead bodies. Still, I took a certain pride in coping better than one woman I met. She lived for a spell in an old farmhouse ravaged by mice, and with every cold carcass, so as not to lay fingers on it, she tossed out a spanking new mousetrap, then dash to the store and purchase another dozen.

With autumn full on, the mice were burrowing into walls and under floors, stashing supplies for the long, cold months ahead. Their scamperings took them everywhere. This hulk of a structure, red paint faded and peeling, was their legacy. For how many generations? I tried to imagine. Calculating conservatively, the female deer mouse, or Perom- yscus maniculatus, has three litters per year. With four pups (or pinkies) to a batch, two or three of which are themselves females capable of reproducing within five to six weeks, the numbers amass to 210 generations since the building of the barn. Not taking into account loss by disease, embryo mortality, old age (at two years), predation by owl, fox, coyote, and human hand, and beginning the tally each spring with a judiciously estimated number of five females “in the family way,” I came up with a sum that rose exponentially to 90,000 mice!

.  .  . It was an October afternoon in the old hay mow, long since cleared of the last stem of timothy, and I sat at my computer. Almost a reflex swiveled my gaze from the screen and heeled it floor level to the corner of a red metal filing cabinet, pillar to the sheet of plywood serving as my writing desk. She was in cross-floor sprint, perhaps reconnoitering another cache for seeds. Our roving glances linked, and we fell fixed—each full upon the face of the other.

Yi! Who are you?

Well, who are you ?

The strange, instant warmth that flooded my heart—something reserved for sisters—led me to believe this small mammal was a she-mouse. She had come fully into view before skidding to stone. Taken together, her soft eyes, her big, round ears, her crop of fine whiskers arching off sides of a slender nose supplied the perfect complement to a plump gray frame, white at the underbelly, and riding atop scores of minuscule footsteps. Ours was a meeting of aliens, a brush with utterly foreign, even enemy worlds: we might have been cockatoo and snow leopard, horny toad and great blue whale. The air between us held surprise mingling with curiosity—all shot through with wariness, trepidation, defense of territory. We were perhaps more like long-standing, hostile heads of state, momentarily come to the bargaining table.

It was her barn!

It was my barn!

My heart beat with the suddenness of our encounter. It had halted my work as abruptly as someone’s throwing an ax through it. I found myself trying desperately not to move, not to scare her. I barely breathed. Our mute, unflinching stares stretched to fill minutes, almost going over to sweetness and friendship, sweetness definitely on my part. Whatever was she thinking? Or feeling? Suddenly the phone rang, seeming to bounce out of its cradle. In a scurry of tiny toes, she spun, streaked back along her route of entry, and was gone.

Just as suddenly the phone ceased ringing, and I sat in silence. Then a thundering guilt of the ages washed down over me like a mountain avalanche. Deep sadness. Uncrossable chasm. The sight of her—the innocence!—inked its permanence on my memory.

I thought of our nights with the trap line set, ten altogether, cleverly baited and stationed in obvious runways throughout the barn. Whap! A trap’s springing, piercing the cool night air, could bring me fully awake. Snuggled safely beneath quilted layers, curved to the sweet warmth of Patrick, I often listened to the plap-plap-plap of some little bugger with a leg caught, dragging the trap across the floor. Then more slowly. Plap. Plap. By morning there were corpses, drools of coagulated blood, the crushed skulls and chests of stiff, warmthless bodies lying torqued into grotesque shapes—a head turned half around, pink twigs of legs thrust at odd, immodest angles. In trying to wrench free, some had twisted themselves into corkscrews. Others seemed barely hurt, yet just as dead. Had those last died of fright? Given up at the overwhelming odds? Or had they parted this planet with broken hearts, at the unfairness of it all?

To a mouse spouse, I wondered, would it be like a husband’s going out for a carton of milk and never returning? Certainly they do not couple as wedded partners in the sense that we do. Partnerships, of any sort, probably don’t exist—promiscuity their way of life. Yet at least one species of mice (the house mouse) we know lives in groups, sharing escape hatches and communal eating and toilet areas—they even groom each other. What, then, does their assemblage think when a spot at the breakfast table comes up empty? The ill-fated ones in our barn died without family (so it appeared), their only partner in death, struggle against the Victor vise. I felt oddly grateful for the ones with smashed skulls: the instantaneousness of it.

The thought of dying alone or of suffering slowly is to most humans unthinkable. How could we be certain that mice, in their own way, were any different? Humans and mice share 97 percent of their deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA), a substance associated with the transmission of genetic information. In the evolutionary chain, it was not long ago that we forked apart. And it had taken only that one unwavering, unfeigned look upon that delicate face, the face of another mortal—a warm-bodied being, small of frame but perhaps not of stature, with digestive tract and reproductive organs much like my own, and for whom I had plans tonight to set the deadly traps—to start my mind paddling back over my own closest experiences with death.

There had been a time when I sat quietly at the bedside of my father and then, eight years later, of my mother, stroking a forehead or an arm, holding a hand. The strong grasp that had once punched and tugged and lifted a world around, for ninety-two years in my mother’s case, gradually surrendered and for all practical purposes lay limp. In my hand, hers was no heavier than a leaf that has been pressed between pages of a book. Her skin had taken on the translucent properties of cellophane, affording little camouflage to the port-dark delta of veins still carrying along blood, giving me the sensation I might see my own hand by looking down through hers. My father, at the end of seven months of diagnosed lung cancer, lay quietly for the final five days, in a coma in his own bed, an intravenous catheter in his arm to receive the morphine.

During the days, Mother and friends and I had gathered with him on the big bed. Nights, his wife alone curled to him. It was a scene I’ll not forget, that bedroom of twenty-two years: carpet worn into shiny paths, Father’s force reduced to slender bends beneath a light bedsheet, his forehead and cheeks gone waxen and white. With facial plumpness vanished, flesh laying close to bone, his aquiline nose became an even longer, thinner, and somewhat ungainly protuberance, accentuated all the more, laced as it was with plastic tubing winding to a green torpedo of oxygen. In the low light of the room, his skin took on an almost phosphorescent glow. For the large-framed, physically meaty, and dynamically inventive, the sometimes irreverent and ribald and explosive man I had known him to be, his last hours were wreathed in an uncanny, ethereal stillness. Just the basics, I thought: skin, bone, light breaths. What a time to know him—in this simplicity—this world without words and assumptions and expectations. His heart slowed and the space between breaths lengthened ever so gradually, until, at the end, his labored inhalations seemed minutes apart.

I never honored my father’s last request; I couldn’t bring myself to it at the time. Now, years later, I wish that I had—and not coddled my own needs. You had to have known my father to understand his outlandish request as befitting of his humor and his Great Depression–based horror of wasting money. He had said with an oddly drollish sincerity, not as a way of self-deprecation, “Just put me out with the Thursday garbage.” When I picked up his box of ashes from the crematorium, I clung to it with a protective fierceness. My father inside a garbage can? Then inside a clanging garbage truck, slathered with slime, foul and reeking stuff on its way to becoming sludge, compacted along with tossed-out Big Mac wrappers and soiled disposable diapers, slick-paper junk mail, plastic popcorn and bubble wrap, moldering leftovers sprung from the backs of refrigerators, scooped-up lumps of stinking cat litter and backyard doggie shit—all buzzing with flies? Not on your life! I wasn’t certain what dreadful things might befall a person who violated deathbed wishes, but no matter what I imagined, I couldn’t make myself deposit that box, smaller than a shoe box, rattling with the last physical remnants of my father, into that big, cavernous, brown plastic garbage can. Though I did buy him a drink, and I think he would have liked that.

My friend Ronita and I took him for dry martinis and a Maine lobster dinner—Father’s two favorite things in the world—at Scoma’s on San Francisco Bay. We ordered for him, and then drank and ate for him. “Another for Harold please!” We pointed to the third chair, empty save for a peach-colored Chloe shopping bag with matching tissue paper peaking out the top: Father’s box of bone shards masquerading as a just-purchased Victorian negligee.

Some years before their deaths, my parents had made their cremation arrangements. When the time came for my mother, a man from the funeral society arrived with a bare-board gurney. He was drunk and disheveled. He wrapped her body in a sheet of tough, clear plastic, without ceremony, the way you would roll up a rug. Working as if alone in his carpet warehouse, he threw her first one way, then another—getting the job done. I wilted when he whipped the plastic around her head, encasing her white wisps of hair, and snugged it across her face. It lent her that quizzical look of someone’s pressing a nose to a windowpane, thumbs in ears, fingers waving, “Nyah, nyah!” But in her case: an immutable good-bye. “She can’t BREATHE!” I cried. I should have punched him.

All in all, the serene and natural manner of my parents’ deaths had been a gift. Their easings out of this world had been strangely lovely, infused with a miracle quality like a birthing—an ethereal gearing down at the other end of a springing to life. I’d felt terribly blessed, though it was a funny thing to tell anyone. Your father died on Saturday? So sorry, how awful for you. No, no, it was quite nice. Yet I never knew how either parent saw it: they were days past speech, hours past offering signs of recognition. It is said that people in a coma can hear what’s taking place around them. I had hoped my presence was felt.

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Barefoot-Hearted: A Wild Life among Wildlife 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Over a decade ago Kathleen Meyer moved from urban America to the Bitterroot Valley of western Montana. In Barefoot Hearted she tells two tales -- how she and Patrick, a farrier who is her partner, adapt to each other and their closeness to the primal earth, and how she comes to view the natural world of bears, skunks, mice, bats, flies, snakes, and all the other fauna that adorn the relatively unpeopled landscape of Montana. She reflects on the place of humans in a fragile and complex world while examining with a wry eye the complexities of her own very human relationship with Patrick. If you are fond of memoirs and environmental essays this is a fine book, for those two themes are merged in a highly personal and engaging way.