EPISODE 103 MUSKRATS…PESTS OR CREATORS OF OUR WORLD
IN THE BEGINNING THERE WAS ONLY WATER…THE GODS LIVED ON TOP OF THE CLOUDS
THERE were four to them cavorting in the swamp. Young kits. Muskrat kits that
I had no idea were living and thriving in a hidden swamp on our farm. Only made
visible because I have been clearing brush to get a better view of the glorious
little swamp. Once they spotted me they arched their backs and dove down.
Muskrats can stay submerged for as long as17 minutes…longer than my patience
it seems. I waited and waited. Were they some kind of mirage? Not so, their
home is likely under the submerged roots of some cedars and the four ran home
to their mommy.
I was elated. Our swamps, of which we have four, seemed sort of empty of late since
the frog population has been immensely reduced and even the leeches (bloodsuckers is
a better word) have disappeared. A pair of Canada geese raise a brood each year
but once the little ones are big enough, they disappear somewhere.
So it was nice know the Muskrats have been thriving all the time. But unseen.
THE SWAMP…UNSEEN FOR 20 YEARS…NOW VISIBLE…AND ALIVE.
I am partial to muskrats but the internet sure is not. The word ‘pest’ is used
a lot. Why? Well they can punch holes in dams but more serious is the presence
of rabies and other diseases. Scary. But the presence of rabies is not
exclusive to muskrats. So do not get your underwear in a twist. The internet
goes on to suggest poisons and traps to kill or capture the Muskrats.
Largely herbivorous, Muskrats like our human gardens. They are nocturnal raiders
whose presence can be deduced by the tracks … four small feet about size of
a cat and a long streak of the Muskrat tail in between. That may account for the
anger some of us have towards muskrats.
SOMETIMES we forget Woody…he waits knowing we will remember him
Personally I think these little beavers (related) are rather smart. One late afternoon
a few years ago we were driving home and had to turn around to go back to
the farm. Maybe we forgot the dog, Woody. That happens occasionally. When
we drove in the farm lane, there was an adult muskrat on the pathway. He or she
must have waited all day for us to leave in order to get from one swamp to another…particularly
to the hidden swamp.
(I prefer the term pond because it sounds so attractive. But, that word, implies a wetland
that has been changed into a place for goldfish. The word swamp is better…allows for
wild things that are not controlled by human hands.)
The muskrat stopped, looked at us, and then turned around and disappeared into the
mass of goldenrod that clothes much of our open swampland in summer.
Why love a muskrat?
A few years ago I wrote a book on our indigenous people. It was written with good intentions
…to highlight their depth of culture and the wrongs that have been committed. The book was
a failure. Publisher went bankrupt the day the book came out. And, worse, I was accused
of appropriating indigenous voice. True. I had not considered there was a danger in my main
protagonist using first person voice. Writing exposes a writer to criticism. Painful always.
Which gets me back to the muskrat.
In Mohawk legendary tradition the origin of our world is explored in a charming manner.
Elements of this legend are also found in other First Nations explanations of how
humans first appeared on earth. The Christian Adam and Eve explanation is most
common to Canadians. Would that the Mohawk explanation was equally familiar.
The legend comes down through the generations in spoken form. Thus there
are changes since storytellers often like to make the story ‘better’.
Yes, the muskrat will be featured. Don’t get so anxious.
This is my interpretation of the Mohawk legend of creation. The basic elements conform
to the tradition. We are not dealing with something absolute. Not Holy Writ you might say.
“In the beginning, the planet was covered in water. There was no land…no earth. All
water. Above the earth was an envelope of clouds where the gods lived. One day
there was an opening in these clouds and a woman we call Earth Mother peeked
through the hole. In order to get a better view, she leaned over too far and fell
through the hole. She was tumbling head over heals through the sky. A loon noticed
her and flew under her thereby cradling Earth Mother. But the loon could not hold her
forever. The loon called out to the creatures below, particularly to the big snapping
turtle. “Can I let Earth Mother land on your back?” The snapping turtle agreed and
before long Earth Mother found herself standing on the top of the great snapping turtle.
Even though the turtle was large it was not large enough to hold Earth Mother forever
so the big snapper called all the water creatures together saying “we need some mud
from the bottom below us. If we can get mud we can build a home for earth mother
on my back.
“So all the creatures tried to get some mud…some earth. The beaver dove down
as deep as it could but never reached the bottom. Died trying. So the otter then
tried but also died trying. All the water creatures tried and failed. Then the big
snapping turtle turned to the little muskrat who had been ignored because it was
so small and insignificant. “Will you try?” The muskrat agreed and dove down
deep deep down. It was down a long time. Had it drowned like the others?
“Then the little muskrat come to the surface. Was ti dead or alive? We do not
know but there clutched in a little paw was a handful of mud from deep below
the water. When that handfull of mud was spread on the great snapping turtles’
back it suddenly began to expand and expand…got larger and larger until the land
we know of as our earth was created.
“All this happened because of the lowly little muskrat had an ability to live underwater’
for a long time. Without the muskrat none of us would be here.”
NOTE: Legends of human origin are common to most cultures. But the First Nation
legends, particularly this one have some striking features. The snapping turtle’s
back, for instance, fits the modern scientific of plate tectonics. The crust of the
earth is broken into huge plates that float snd clash. Below is a sea of molten magma.
To me, the Mohawk creation legend has another feature. All the creatures of
the world helped Earth Mother survive. Among the Mohawk the great Snapping
Turtle is given much credit…but most credit goes to the tiny Muskrat. There
is a recognition that all the creatures have value.
There are other features to this legend which I will not explore because my
story is about the muskrat but it is worth mentioning that Earth Mother was
pregnant when she fell. She bore two sons. One was a good son, the other
was a bad son. They fought. (as dud Cain and Able in western legend)
The good son just barely squeaked victory
but his victory is never secure. Rings true to the Adam and Eve legend. But
foremost in the legend is the role of Earth Mother. Among the Mohawk and other
Iroquois women are given great prominence. The Society of Matrons have been
traditional leaders and decision makers. It took a long time for British and
European ‘discoverers’ to understand that.
Bottom Line…Our family will not be spreading poison to kill the muskrats nor
will be hiding leg hold traps among the goldenrod.
P.S. Apologies if my interpretation of the Mohawk legend of creation differs
from others. Legends come from spoken traditions. I am comforted by the
fact that our Mississauga First Nations…now living on land given to them by
the Mohawk people in the 19th century…that these people invited me to speak
at their historical conference a couple of years ago. They were a most gracious
and broad minded people. We had a good time.