Of mice and a literary lumberjack

| 23 Jun 2016 | 03:18

Toiling with wood yields only a few real benefits: cheap heat, fresh air and opportunities for contemplation. A simple analysis of the economics of the firewood business would bring dismay to most sensible people. I prefer not to do the math. The work requires free time, a lagging interest in conventional leisure, and an aberrant tolerance for blood, sweat, urushiol and splinters.

The profits boil down to an hourly wage that is hardly worth the effort, given the risks involved. The hazards are many: rashes, tick bites, smashed digits, inguinal hernias, back pain, toe trauma, contusions, abrasions, and inflammation of the spouse.

One year, owing to a reckless frenzy of effort with a 27-ton log splitter, I acquired an exquisite piece of jewelry for my right wrist. It is a glimmering plate of titanium with 13 threaded fasteners to match, which I had installed under the skin through a process known to surgeons and litigators as “open reduction and internal fixation.” I have never actually seen it, but I can always pull out the X-rays when I want to show it off.

This past winter, when the maple sugar man called to put in an order for a truckload, I went out to pull it down on a Sunday afternoon. The pickup bed was half full when I grabbed two logs from the top of the stack and uncovereded a nest. Two deer mice, a bit dazed by the sudden exposure to sun and sky, scrambled down the far side of the pile and took refuge in gaps below. To look upon their clump of fluff was to conjure the Bard of Ayrshire.

That wee bit heap o’ leaves an’ stibble | Has cost thee monie a weary nibble! | Now thou’s turned out, for a’ thy trouble, | But house or hald, | To thole the winter’s sleety dribble, | An’ cranreuch cauld.”

- Robert Burns, To A Mouse

Having exposed the nest of the deer mice, I faced a choice: obliterate it with a clumsy swipe of my work glove, and dismantle the pile; or put their roof back on, and work around them. The essence of a line by Kant came to my mind.

If he is not to stifle his human feelings, he must practice kindness towards animals, for he who is cruel to animals becomes hard also in his dealings with men.

- Immanuel Kant, Lectures on Ethics

Yea, a lively flame will sometimes get past the clinkers that accumulate on the lower grates of my brain.

I chose not to evict the mice. In fact, I made a modest improvement to their roof by selecting two flat pieces of wood and laying them crossways over the nest. I filled the truck, but left enough wood on the stack so that it would not fall over. And I kept an eye on them over the next few months.

Diogenes of Sinope was said to have refined his ability to adapt himself to situations and environments by watching a mouse as it went along the shadowed angles of the city. He observed that the mouse had no fear of the night, no worldly goods to drag around, no need to pursue the fancy things that people desire. Diogenes abandoned his plan to buy a cottage, and instead took up residence in a clay tub in the agora. He was shameless, extreme and derisive. Plato described him as “a Socrates gone mad.” He was, in my book, the original Cynic, a proto-anarchist and a bona fide badass.

I named the mice Lif and Lifthrasir. They weathered only a small dose of Fimbulvetr, a stretch of three days when the winds blew hard and the temperature did not go above zero. On a milder day that followed, I went over to the woodpile and thumped it with the toe of my boot. I bent down and saw the mice stir from beneath their covers; I watched them watch me. Greatly pleased, I went inside to get Bellows’ translation of the Poetic Edda and went back outside and read to them.

In Hoddmimir’s wood shall hide themselves Lif and Lifthrasir then; | The morning dews for meat shall they have...

Now April is gone, and I have not seen Lif and Lifthrasir in weeks. They have gone out to repopulate the world with their kind. With the nights of frost behind us, I am sure that when I get around to pulling down the rest of their woodpile I will find not mice, but snakes.

I refuse to read to snakes.