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Of Mice and Omens

Bill Meredith

"The thing that has been is that which shall be;
… and there is no new thing under the sun."
The Preacher, ca. 200 BC: Ecclesiastes 1:9

"When choosing among alternative explanations,
select the one that requires the fewest unproveable assumptions."
William of Ockham, ca. 1320.: "Ockham’s Razor."

"The best laid schemes o' mice an' men / Gang aft agley."
Robert Burns: "To a Mouse," 1785.

(January, 2015) When we got married, one of the wedding gifts we received was an alarm clock. It had a light built into it, and when the appointed time arrived, it would begin to flash off and on; and then after a minute of so, the alarm would begin to ring. It became a fixture in our lives; we set it for 6:00 a.m., and after we came to Emmitsburg, it started our days for the next ten years or so until it wore out. Eventually, we no longer actually needed it; the rituals of getting kids ready for school and ourselves ready for work became imprinted in our brains, so the alarm became a kind of security blanket, like an insurance policy that was there but never actually used. But after we retired, things began to drift, at least in my case. I’m an "evening person," rarely to bed before midnight, so I soon fell into a more random pattern of rising. My wife, however, has always been an early riser, so in recent years she has become my alarm clock. Our original clock actually had a bell; more recent ones beeped. My wife does neither; when she decides the time has come, she calls, "Bill," from the kitchen; or, more recently, "BILL," as I have become more deaf.

One day last month the signal changed to "BILL!" which jolted me awake from the middle of a rather complicated dream, and sent me staggering to the kitchen wondering whether we needed an ambulance or a fire extinguisher. My wife was looking out of the kitchen window and pointing toward the bird feeder; she said, "That golf ball keeps moving around out there!" I looked, and indeed there was a round, white object about the size of a golf ball on the ground under the feeder. A light drizzle was falling and fog obscured everything beyond the driveway, so visibility was poor and I was momentarily puzzled; but then the "golf ball" turned around, and presented a side view. It had four short legs, a long pink tail, pink eyes, and prominent ears. Based on long years of experience as a biologist, I recognized it as a white mouse. It was busily eating sunflower seeds the birds had spilled onto the ground.

The first thing that popped into my mind was that I had finally found a case where Ecclesiastes was wrong. We have had shrews, chipmunks, field mice, rats, squirrels, rabbits, possums, raccoons, groundhogs, deer, foxes, a coyote and a bear in our yard, but never a white mouse, until now. We couldn’t see the sun because of clouds and fog, but I was pretty sure it was still up there somewhere, and we and the mouse were here under it. Never before!

We watched it for the better part of an hour, while we had breakfast and went through the newspapers. The temperature was in the low 40’s, and the drizzle continued, but the mouse did not appear to be in distress. It was plump and healthy looking; its fur was thick and and must have been well oiled from grooming, because it seemed to shed water. There were a couple of squirrels and several sparrows on the ground near it; they did not seem to be perceived as a threat. But, then, neither did anything else, as far as the mouse was concerned. Each time a car or a pedestrian came by, the natives… squirrels and birds… scattered to cover; but the mouse ignored them. It even ignored a delivery boy who came by and left the weekly collection of advertisements on the porch. The boy seemed equally oblivious to his environment; he was wearing earphones and listening to music, and walked within five feet of the mouse without seeing it. I guessed that both boy and mouse were members of the new digital age, and I did not envy them.

Eventually the mouse waddled off around the corner of the garage and disappeared into the Pachysandra ground cover. It probably made a nest there among the leaf litter, for it survived the night and appeared under the bird feeder again the next day. I watched it for a while, but when I left for a moment to refill my coffee cup, it disappeared. It did not come back.

Things like that always beg for an explanation, and sometimes I wish just a little bit that I could ignore a lifetime of training and fantasize. It would make a nicer story if the mouse was an omen that foretold the coming of a White Christmas… you could think of a whole raft of interesting conclusions to a story like that. But there are at least a dozen former teachers up there watching, and if I started thinking that way, there’s no telling what kinds of fire and brimstone would come raining down. I was taught that when you are faced with a new problem that has several possible answers, you should use a method called Ockham’s Razor (quoted above). In this case, the most likely explanation was that someone had a pet mouse that they no longer wanted, and they dropped it off by my yard because this is the last house on the block. The other obvious explanation is that the mouse could have been born in the wild and found its way to my bird feeder like the squirrels and chipmunks did… a possible but unlikely suggestion. Albinos are born to wild mice occasionally, as they are to most species of mammals; but their chances of survival to adulthood are small, and if they do survive their behavior will be quite different than the one I saw. No wild mouse would have been so oblivious to danger. The most inexperienced hawk, owl or fox would have caught it as soon as it left the nest; it would never have lived to be a fat, slow-witted adult.

Some 230 years ago, Robert Burns was doing his fall plowing on his farm in Scotland, and accidentally ran over a mouse’s nest. He was a poet instead of a biologist; he recognized the mouse as a fellow mortal, and apologized to it for ruining its winter home. But he also understood that the mouse had one advantage over him; it would be able to get busy and build another home, without wasting time cursing over its lost nest or worrying about what the future would bring. Burns ended his poem with these lines:

Still, thou art blest, compar’d wi’ me!
The present only toucheth thee:
But Och! I backward cast my e’e,
On prospects drear!
An’ forward tho’ I canna see,
I guess an’ fear!

On the whole, I guess I wouldn’t change places with the mouse, but I agree with Burns that there is some wisdom built into its nature. As we enter the New Year, we find our world in a pretty sorry state. Worrying about it will not help anything; but it’s hard not to worry. Maybe life as a mouse wouldn’t be so bad, after all. But not a white one!

Read other articles by Bill Meredith