Thursday, August 6, 2009
Johanna and I were at the end of the field as Steve started the tractor and made a second pass down the row to turn up any last potatoes. He was pleased with the size and quantity of the spuds and we had all congratulated him on the good yield, due, he said, to the cover crop of peas that had been plowed under to fertilize the soil. John, Jeff and Francisco followed close behind the green tractor intent on the task at hand with white plastic buckets to hold the harvest. As the blade bit into the soil and cleaved a furrow something shot up into the air, thrown by the force of the metal pushing through the clods of earth. The men kept on moving forward. Johanna and I, our mouths agape, watched as a squealing grey field mouse catapulted through the air. But what the hell was that? A slender pink form was trailing the back of the mouse; at first I thought it was the guts, ripped out by the tractor blade. I blinked and stared and then realized the pink mass was a live creature. The mouse was giving birth at the very moment she’d been ripped from her nest. She landed on the ground and ran off with the half-born baby hanging out of her body. At our feet another new- born mouse, pink and mewing lay near the remnants of the nest. Johanna picked it up and it rooted about in the palm of her hand seeking a teat. Perfect, hairless, pink and doomed. We yelled to the guys but they were engrossed in their work and couldn’t hear us over the tractor noise. We both realized they probably weren’t going to be so…so… what were we feeling?
I’m not sure about Johanna but in a few seconds I cycled through feeling stunned, freaked out, helpless and awed. Then words and thoughts cascaded through my mind: ‘don’t be so sentimental,’ ‘that’s nature,’ ‘it’s the way of the world’, ‘that’s how it goes,’ but there was more that I couldn’t access in the moment. An incongruous word, “Darfur” floated up and I said it out loud and then immediately apologized. But Johanna said: “Yeah, somehow to these creatures we’re like that. Who knows how much else we kill with digging, but that’s agriculture…” I felt her mirroring the multiple voices in my own head. We did that thing that women friends do, we affirmed some common emotional experience in a shorthand of words that might seem excessive to someone overhearing. Johanna is no airy-fairy California “Dharma-squito” intent on saving the life of every ant that crosses the kitchen counter and neither am I. We both felt we had witnessed something profound and complicated, something that would require more attention. As I write this I am aware of a peculiar yet familiar sensation, a heaviness and itchiness in my breasts. It’s the way I felt twenty-six years ago when I was a nursing mother and stepped out for a break from child care to do a few errands. I was in a store and heard someone else’s baby cry. My milk let down and soaked through the front of my shirt even though my own baby was safe at home with her dad.
I admit, I wept for that mouse, stunned that the common thread of motherhood stitched me to her so intensely that my body cried out against her loss. The mind can run the gamut from a Cassandra-like drama equating an unfortunate mouse with a child bayoneted by janjaweed warriors in a far off place to a stern and philosophical farmer’s voice that says creatures die every day, hour and minute by the hand of man or a thousand other ways. Just a fact, Mam deal with it, no one and nothing gets out alive. Yet I am grateful to be reminded that the body flows toward feeling, toward caring, toward empathy. We shut these capacities off at our collective peril. The body suffers and by suffering deepens our connection to life. I am deeply grateful to the mouse.