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Little Things

Bill Meredith

"Why not learn to enjoy the little thingsÖ there are so many of them!"
  -Jimmy Byrnes, an Irish friend.

"Happiness is the sum total of the small things."
 - Norman Clegg, "Last of the Summer Wine."

(May, 2014) Throughout most of my adult life, the semi-annual cleaning of the yard was a big thing with me. I raked and composted the leaves every fall and then when spring came I picked up the dead branches that winter storms had broken off the trees and raked the leaves that had blown in from the field just west of us. It was all very well planned and orderly, and it gave me a sense of accomplishment; but last fall I didnít get it done. The thought that I was getting too old to maintain standards bothered me a bit, but after a while I decided maybe it wasnít that important after all, and forgot about it. But when the weather finally broke this spring, I had to face both my wife and last fallís residue, in addition to the usual winter detritus. So on the first nice day in April, I stood there with the mid-morning sun warming my back and surveyed the situation.

The trees we planted 20 years ago on the west side of the house have grown well above roof level and formed a canopy, so that part of the yard is completely shaded; there are plenty of leaves on the ground, but grass doesnít grow there any more. I rationalized that it would make good sense ecologically to just forget about the leaves in that area; they will enrich the soil and reduce erosion if I just let them stay where they are. Thus what had been a big problem was converted into a little thing that could be either ignored or appreciated as my contribution to Earth Day.

My wife never goes into the side yard, so she didnít care if the leaves were not raked there, but she insisted that they must be cleaned up in front of the house. The first part of the job was the removal of a boxwood bush that had been mangled when snow and ice slid off the roof after one of the snowstorms last winter. In previous years I didnít rake out the leaves behind it; they were not visible from the front, and they decayed into a layer of soft, rich soil. But now, with the bush gone, they were unsightly, so I began raking off the upper layer. This exposed an intricate network of tunnels, which led eventually to the edge of the edge of the porch. As the last leaf was raked away, a very small head protruded from the tunnel. It sniffed in my direction with a pointed, pink nose that was surrounded with stiff white bristles, peered at me with eyes almost too tiny to notice, and then vanished back into its hole. My mind instantly flashed backward 59 years to the West Virginia University Field Biology station near White Sulphur Springs, where I began my graduate studies, and from the cloud of dusty litter inside my head there came the name: Blarina brevicauda, the short-tailed shrew.

You might think recalling a name like that from so many years ago is beyond the realm of probability, but in fact it happens all the time. That course on field biology in 1955 was both a formative experience and a jolt of reality, my first real encounter with biology beyond the scope of textbooks. The instructor was Dr. Frank Schwartz, who had just joined the WVU faculty and was destined to become my thesis director, mentor and lifelong friend. He was a big man, jovial in manner, with enormous energy and always in a hurry. He took us on field trips every day in an old 2-ton army surplus truck, which he drove over the winding country roads as if it were a tank. He seemed to know all of the plants and animals we encountered, and he referred to everything by its scientific name. It was quickly apparent to us that if we wanted to convince him we were interested in zoology, we would use those names also. On the first day of class, we turned over a rotting log, and under it was a shrew, the first one I had ever seen. Dr. Schwartz first warned us to be careful with it because it was the only mammal that had a poisonous bite, and then told us its name. That name was tattooed in my brain in indelible ink.

Now, if youíre looking for small things, shrews are for you; their family includes the smallest mammals in the world, and there are plenty of them. I was not surprised to see the shrew under my porch; they are common around here, and I find a dead one in the yard occasionally. They are often killed by prowling cats, but the cats seldom eat them. I have read that they have scent glands that some predators find repulsive. Owls, which eat a lot of them, have no ability to smell, so they arenít bothered by odors (they even eat skunks). A pair of barn owls used to nest in the bell tower of the Presbyterian Church, and I used to collect the pellets of bones and fur that they regurgitated to show to my ecology labs. Those pellets contained the bones of a variety of small creatures the owls had eaten, and the skulls of shrews were easy to recognize. It was a good lesson to illustrate the complexity of the food web; the shrews are eaten by many kinds of predators, but in spite of their small size they are predators themselves. They are ferocious hunters, and their poison saliva enables them to kill mice that are larger than themselves. They eat earthworms, insects, bird eggs, mice, and even eat each other when hungry. And they are always hungry; some of them are known to consume more than their own weight every day.

Being retired, when I find something interesting I have license to stop and think about it, so I stood and watched the entry of the tunnel for a while; but the shrew did not reappear. Somewhere under the concrete porch steps it has a nest chamber where it can rest and keep warm; it may already have a litter of five or six young ones. The nest will be scrupulously clean; wastes from the adults and young will be deposited in a latrine chamber further down the tunnel. Near the nest will be a larder, a chamber where mushrooms, plant roots or paralyzed insects are stored in case the weather does not allow foraging outside.

We can learn a lot from small things. Life on that scale may be short and brutish, but it doesnít always have to be uncomfortable. Juncos, the small gray sparrows we sometimes call snowbirds, arrived at my feeder on November 2, and I watched them every morning until April 16 when they left for New England and Canada, where they will nest and raise their young. Chimney swifts left here at the end of August and flew all the way to Argentina; it was summer there, and when the southern summer ended they took wing again and arrived back here on April 22. Things like that are amazing, even when you understand them. They prove to you that although life is uncertain, it can be endured by those who have enough determination; and that can give you hope, even if youíre old. Not a bad lesson, that.

Read other articles by Bill Meredith