by Mike O’Brien
Another summer media detox successfully completed. I managed to spend the better part of five weeks in self-imposed (or self-gifted, depending on how you feel about connectivity) digital fasting, consuming only as much news as CBC Radio One deemed fit to announce at the top of the hour. It was glorious, and probably a boon for my mental health, both chemo-anatomically and in less tangible registers of experience. It’s not that I couldn’t have been as connected as I am in the city (or about half an hour outside of it, to be precise); I could have quite easily added some data to my phone plan and filled my days by the lake scrolling through alarming and depressing missives from The World. I don’t know why it makes sense to fill my October-May schedule with such soul-rending, hope-smothering news about which I can do nothing. In fact, I know quite well that it doesn’t make any sense at all, and yet I keep falling into a loop of terror consumption. But during the vacation months, a state of exception opens up in my habitual patterns that affords me some respite from informational self-mortification. If I had any spare willpower or future-oriented executive function, I might structure my “normal” life to avoid such useless brain flagellation and education-as-expiation. But I am still very, very tired, and not in the market for salvation yet.
I always intend to do much more during my cottage sabbaticals than I end up accomplishing. “I will read books! Especially important ones!”; “I will plan out a productive life!”; “I will write!”. I suppose it still does some good to say these things, even when I know they are almost certainly false. Maybe I fail a little less each time. Maybe I’m approaching a phase shift. Maybe I am already playing the long game.
Not to say that I didn’t accomplish anything at all. I got halfway through carving a bow that may or may not snap the instant I try to string it. I got slightly better at putting holes somewhere vaguely near a bulls-eye. I read the first half of a Kierkegaard anthology, reaching about fifty pages into the part of his oeuvre where I find him tolerable. I still think the Existentialism which he is now credited/blamed for spawning is a wankerish corruption of the phenomenological project, a way for moping, treacly, moralising poets to feign philosophical. But at least now I can appreciate that he had Style. A few choice excerpts caught my attention, ennobled by a resonance with Nietzsche. First, from Fear and Trembling: “What is education? I should suppose that education was the curriculum one had to run through to catch up with oneself, and he who will not pass through this curriculum is helped very little by the fact that he was born in the most enlightened age.” I’m a sucker for a deflation of the Enlightenment’s claims to epochal achievements. Second, from Repetition: “But in [the spectator’s] spontaneous reaction to the farce consists in great part the entertainment of the individual, and he must venture to enjoy it without looking to the right or to the left or to the newspapers to find a guarantee that he really has been entertained.” Having seen much farcical theatre, and having read many reviews of same- yes. The “rough magic” (not my coinage, but I’ll spend it) of the best Fringe-ish humour is often ineffable, and attempts to cage this strange substance in writing often effs it all up. I do appreciate the lovely reviews I received for my own work, though. Maybe my magic is more effable, owing to my lack of theatrical education.
The second half of the anthology is more philosophically meaty, so I may have some choice profundities to share when I finish the whole collection, some twenty years after it was assigned to me. Perhaps the delay was for the best; are such seductively stylish and emotive works least enjoyed but best understood by readers who have aged out of the target audience, and are unmoved by the sympathetic vibrations of the authors moods? That is a much more baroque and salutary spin than “I barely read anything that I was assigned for most of my education”.
Besides the anthology and a smattering of PDFs that were languishing in my reading docket, I had a rather lean reading schedule, supplemented by mostly fluffy podcasts consisting of conversations between comedians about the other comedians they know. Accordingly, my brain turned towards the actual events that punctuated the summer days, in which small animals were the main protagonists. In my usual media-saturated peri-urban existence, I read and listen to a lot of discussions of human-animal relationships, from the concrete experiences of animal rescue workers, to the most abstract concepts of meta-ethics and law. It is very easy to eat my vegan snacks and cluck my tongue at critiques of the anthro-supremacist carno-industrial complex, while imagining myself largely removed from the fray of animal-human interaction (if I ignore the presence of the household cat, which is very easy to do except for 5% of the day when she dedicates herself to making this impossible).
In the boonies, however, nature is a bit more ubiquitous and shamelessly takes up whatever space is available, being quite indifferent to our rock-solid legal claims of ownership and part-time physical occupation. And so, in my little psychological oasis from worrying about the whales and the pigs and the elephants, I found myself worrying about my own welfare being imperilled by the boreal denizens of southern Ontario. The central cast consists of chipmunks and songbirds, the former so habituated to our presence that they take shortcuts across your person in the course of their seed-centric scramblings. The local beavers are seldom seen, but their presence is attested to by the absence of half of the small trees that surrounded our cottage last year, neatly severed an inch above their protective wire sheathings. There are also spiders the size of your palm, who seem most at home in our outhouse. Having been around them for nearly four decades without suffering so much as a nibble, I can say with empirical certitude that they are harmless, though I do keep a roster of the largest ones and feel much more at ease when they are all accounted for before I begin my lavatory business.
There are deer (or, rather, there is deer, as I have only seen a singular one), which in theory might trample or gore you. There are eagles, hawks, weasels and otters which might make a meal of smaller pets, or of fantastically small children. But the real dangers, as Covid reminds us, are the tiny things. Nearly all of south-east Canada is a hot zone for ticks associated with Lyme disease, with our immediate area enjoying the distinction of suffering one of the worst infestations in the country. The local health authorities no longer test ticks that have been removed from people, and instead simply advise the former hosts that the ticks are almost certainly infected. I had to remove a severed tick head from one family member using tweezers, a pocket knife and an anaesthetising ice cube, which for all its MacGyver-esque coolness is not an experience that I need to repeat, let alone add to my standard summer repertoire. If that weren’t enough, the mosquitoes also carry the passé but still occasionally debilitating West Nile virus, or at least present some statistical likelihood of doing so, providing a once-terrifying-but-now-faintly-bothersome reminder that the bugs were always going to win.
It was not the raptors or the fanged creepy-crawlies or the flat-tailed engineers that most bedevilled us this year, however; it was seemingly harmless, even cute (until you get to know them) red squirrel. They cut a striking figure, rust-red with a brilliant white belly, and their scolding cries permeate the woods like nature’s car alarms. They are also terribly territorial, bullying chipmunks and even large birds away from the communal bird/rodent feeder and chasing their species-fellows (and grey squirrels treble their size) to borders of their home range. This territorial vigilance is very much warranted, we soon discovered.
We had the most unpleasant (in terms of odour and effort) experience last year when mice chose to live, and precipitously die, in the walls of our cottage. The scratching and pattering noises at night made it obvious that they were living there; the thick rank stench of death made it obvious that they were dying there (and that they were relieving themselves liberally while they were still with us). The tactical and strategic outlook for our domestic defence was bleak; it is nearly impossible to keep a mouse out of a place that they want to be in, and equally difficult to remove them once they are there. Faced with the prospect of an unlivable property (due to smell, drafts from ersatz points of ingress, and possible fires from the mice’s predilection for death by electrocution), the heart of even the most ardent animal lover hardens. Luckily for my sense of moral integrity, most lethal options were unappealing, either because they wouldn’t be effective, or because they would increase the number of dead mice in our walls. Prevention would be a more effective route, but would also require a Fort Knox level of penetration-proofing, given that an enclosed and insulated structure, uninhabited eight months per year, is awfully appealing to any critter whose main purpose in life is finding shelter. We are part-time recreators, while they are full-time survivors; how could we hope to match their dedication and time commitment?
The squirrels (or, as we believed at beginning of this saga, the squirrel) had followed the trail blazed by the mice, preparing a home in our walls and in so doing making much more noise than their predecessors had. Fearing a future in a hole-pocked, urine-soaked, conflagration-prone hovel that had once been our happy summer home, my parents began plotting to evict and forevermore exclude the trespasser. My mother began concocting chili sprays to inject between the walls, hopefully rendering such space uninhabitable, or at least less appealing than some alternative accommodation. My father managed to capture a squirrel (which we believed at the time to be the squirrel, singular and definite) in a live trap, from which it promptly escaped (“they’re smarter than they look!”) and in which it was promptly re-captured (“no, they’re not”). It was then humanely relocated to another shore. In less sensitive times, my forebearers would have relocated it somewhere between the shores. Later that week, while basking in victory, we heard another squirrel in the walls. At least, we assume it was another squirrel and not the relocated one, as they are not particularly adept swimmers (a fact to which my less sensitive forbearers can attest).
Another sign of the futility of whack-a-mole (or whack-a-squirrel) approaches to pest management was the influx of other red squirrels within hours of the exile. At least three other squirrels came onto our property and fought for the right of occupation in the absence of the prior resident. I suppose all their scolding and harrying was quite justified, considering the evident ubiquity of potential usurpers. Given the fecundity of rodents, I think it is unlikely that we could ever maintain a squirrel-free property. Or, even if that were possible, who knows what might take their place? Maybe squirrels are the least bad option.
This whole episode (which remains unresolved) raised certain feelings that were at odds with my preferred self-image as a beatific friend of all creatures. The prospect of having to spend years of dirty, gritty work critter-proofing our cottage is nearly as odious to me as the prospect of killing a squirrel unnecessarily. I hesitate to generalise that distaste to all killing, because there are exceptions which are quite untroubling to me. I feel bad when I step on bugs accidentally, but I swat mosquitoes with relish (and stun and crush horseflies and deerflies with feverish glee, which anyone bitten by such abominations should condone). I suppose my maxim is “do no harm, unless you have a reason to”, and some animals simply give me ample reason by following their most basic life instincts. I do think that I give myself licence to do harm in these cases, not gratuitously but also not tempered by any effort to minimize harm to the amount strictly necessary. I suppose I could put some effort into reducing the number of mosquitoes that I kill by grisly manual crushing, slathering myself in toxic chemicals to keep them at bay or non-lethally stunning them and setting them aside for some humanely administered euthanasia. But I don’t even entertain such ideas seriously, because, frankly, fuck mosquitoes. They annoy and they bite and they inflict more death and disease upon humanity than any other animal on the globe (oh, so now I’m making common cause with humanity? I suppose that indicates the depth of my hatred of mosquitoes).
Being aware of this wilfully maintained exception zone in my moral landscape makes me fear for the squirrels. I could just kill them and save myself and my family years of nuisance and possibly worse (rodents are also a significant vector of disease, and health dangers trigger a rather stark us-or-them logic in my moral reasoning). There might be a few wrinkles: is that legal? (I assume there is paperwork involved, this is Canada); would that work? (I assume an inhabitable space in the middle of the woods will end up inhabited so long as it is accessible); how would I feel? (I still feel bad about evicting a mouse during last winter, which either froze to death or found its way back into the house within an hour). I am sceptical of the overly convenient assumption that suppressing harmful speech is ineffective, as it relieves free-speech-defending opponents of hate speech of the burden of considering coercive solutions. I think there is a parallel to that case here, and like the free-speech fundamentalists I doubt that I would consider the unsavoury solution just because I received credible evidence that it would work.
I hope that this dissertation on the woes of second-property ownership has tugged many a heart-string. I’m fairly certain that the only effective solutions are constant vigilance, with the occasional sprinkling of chemical irritants, and/or building a structure that is impervious by design (this is also how I feel about rioting reactionaries, though I am more concerned about the rights and welfare of rodents than that of brownshirts). The great squirrel skirmish of 2022 has been a useful reminder that I am largely spared the hard questions of how much I should sacrifice to cede space to animals. Yes, I gave up animal-derived foods, but I just had a vegan cheeseburger and I don’t feel particularly ascetic or deprived. My willingness to adopt a stance of non-harm with regard to animals is no doubt assisted by the fact that I need not kill anything to maintain my safety or my livelihood. That is largely because I live in an urbanised space with a technologically abstracted material economy, both of which were afforded by processes that extinguished countless animals through displacement, starvation and pollution, not to mention the kind of deliberate culling that keeps suburban and peri-urban spaces leafy but not too wild. I never claimed to be a saint, though. Even St Francis wasn’t the saint he was made out to be. (I read that when he preached to the birds, it was really to reach anyone who might be in earshot, while technically obeying an injunction to stop preaching to people. As a Jesuit-educated knave, I can appreciate legalistic deviousness ad maiorem Dei gloriam, or just for mischief’s sake.)
I suppose the most selfless option would be to leave the property to the animals and content ourselves with a perfectly nice single property. But I only say that because I’m not the one paying two sets of property taxes. If Diogenes had inherited a cottage, I wonder how much he would have extolled the virtues of poverty. A cozy wine barrel in the country sounds nice.