“There’s a mice nest in here!”, she called out.
“Whereabouts?” I replied disinterestedly.
“In between the folded up mattresses and sleeping bags.”
I sighed. As much as I was fond of my girlfriend’s concern, she could just be a little over-caring for the animal kingdom at times.
“Well, there’s not much we can really do, is there?” I called back. “They have to go.”
We were in the middle of teaching an extended field (conservation ecology) course and my girlfriend was preparing one of the tipi tents for some much-needed rest. It had been a long day – I was exhausted, had lots on my mind and was not really up for sharing the little energy I had left with opportunistic field mice.
“But that means they’ll have to go outside in the cold”, she objected.
“They’re field mice! That’s what they do. They live in the field. They have to be moved – we can’t keep them where they are.” As I said this, I had this ‘moment’ which didn’t quite feel right – I became aware that I was being a little too cold and callous, but I soon found a way to rationally justify my stance.
A few hours later I finally got to tuck into the warm sleeping bag and mattress. It never felt so good. And I immediately fell into a deep sleep.
Suddenly, my dream stream was shattered by a stabbing pain above my eye. I was confused as I struggled to match dream reality with physical reality. I figured I had somehow moved in my sleep, and caught a sharp edge of the sleeping bag zip on my brow.
I gradually started to wake and remedy the situation.
“Aaagh!” I winced as another sharp pain was injected into my finger. It was instantly clear that something was biting me.
I leapt up, found the torch and started spotlighting around the tipi in search of this midnight marauder. In my groggy state, I freaked at the thought of it being a snake.
As I settled down and came to my senses, it dawned on me that I had been nipped by mother mouse. She was clearly pissed off, and I was the target of her blame.
I spent about the next half an hour, waiting. My girlfriend examined the bite and we just wanted to make sure that no sinister side-effects or symptoms would emerge, in case it was not a mouse after all. The bite was sufficiently powerful to have drawn blood.
Everything seemed to be ok.
Humbled, we gathered all our bedding and mattresses and did the midnight shuffle across to an adjacent vacant tipi tent. At the same time, I wondered why we just didn’t do this move to begin with.
As I nestled back into bed again, I was overcome by a sense of sorrow and regret for the fact that I had upset mother mouse’s family which she had been working so hard to protect throughout these cold early spring evenings – only to have some human buffoon give the orders for that nurturing to be insensitively disrupted.
In appreciating that physically I was unharmed (it felt worse than it looked), I experienced this real sense of contentment and gratitude in the sublime beauty and poetry of life.
I was amused at the irony and hypocrisy. The next day, I was due to give a presentation to my students on meaningful nature experiences. My girlfriend was going to facilitate a debate around interspecies communication. We would discuss symbolism in nature and our experiences with the Khomani Bushmen in the Kalahari – whose every word and action were seemingly imbued with a deep reverence toward nature.
And now here I was – a disrespectful oaf attacked by a courageous mouse in slightly unusual circumstances.
Rationally, I harboured lingering anxiety about possible infection. But deep down, I felt it would be ok – I had sufficiently learnt my lesson.
The next morning after waking, I walked past the tipi tent which had housed the nest. Outside, on my path was a juvenile mouse, lying motionless on its side, its mouth slightly agape in rigor mortis. I stared at its tiny protruding front teeth and its pitiful lining of fur, now sodden with the heavy spring morning dew.
I felt like a villain.
I had failed to maintain a sense of awareness and compassion for all creatures great and small. It was clear to me now that neither size nor sentience matters. Life is life.
I knew in the future there would be many other little creatures’ and their nests which I may be unable to protect or might need to relocate. But this experience taught me to do these things with the right intent – a respectful acknowledgement of the situation and my role therein. This may include a moment of silent apology to the creature about my own ignorance, for not knowing a better solution at that point in time – and the hope that at some level of creation, that gesture might be well received.
So as I began my presentation on meaningful nature experiences that morning to the students, I pointed to my forehead and said, “Well, you’re probably not going to believe this, but…”