Ambling Muskrat

Fri, 04/29/2016 - 8:30am

There is snow in northern Rhode Island, they are saying — in the dead spaces between the swooning over a Presidential candidate who made a whistle-stop in Rhode Island yesterday and confusion about “usual” polling places being closed, and insistence “no one has said anything” when it has been a topic of conversation for weeks. 

Maybe it is snowing in northern New England... once one gets north of Wakefield it gets murky and once north of Interstate 95 it all runs into one place.

We need the rain, the little vernal pond at my gate has been little more than a puddle; the muskrat that slipped out of sight below the surface other years scurries away, as much as a muskrat can, as the dog bounds noisily into the shallow water. My voice does not truly deter her, but it is enough of a distraction that Autumn loses the creature to the bank, perhaps to a culvert.

Weirdly, I wrote that sentence, got up for something already forgotten, when motion at the edge of my yard caught my attention. It was the muskrat — or one of its relatives — waddling though the grass in clear sight. It reached the dirt road, crossed it, then faced with a wall of uncut grass and weeds turned and headed southwest, hugging the vegetation but staying on the worn track.

I am glad I know about muskrats, know that this large, rounded, shiny thing is not some freaky rat. It is a descendent of a few animals brought over here in the 30s by my late uncle Bert, then a young man with visions of creating a mini-industry of trapping when muskrat furs were still in demand for ladies’ coats. The one crossing my yard this morning was dry and shiny, a pretty reddish brown on a gray day, not the wet brown to which I have become accustomed. It is plump with a big fat tail and I wonder how anyone could take it for a rat. 

There was some trapping, a long time ago, and when that became less lucrative, muskrats still worked mightily to keep the ponds clean. They built their houses, mounds of sticks held together with mud, like beaver lodges, with underground entrances and went about their little lives when people still knew the difference between them and rats.

It seems every year, one of a few of us writes something about leaving muskrats alone, not running over them for sport, leaving their broken bodies on the pavement, a sorry indictment of the driver. They can be nasty when afraid, but leave them alone, keep your dogs at a distance, let them remain harmless critters, just trying to make their way in the world. 

It is Primary Day, and I remember I spied the muskrat when I got up to answer what proved to be a robo-call on my land line, my old phone without caller identification, with a number occasionally used by people I knew back when we all shared the 466 exchange, the updated version of the “Howard 6” that came with direct dial phones in the late 1950’s. I presume it will be most likely a phone solicitation; today I listened and for my patience and curiosity got the gift of an ambling muskrat.

We need the rain. The land will explode, the next time I go to the beach I will not be able to look down and see beneath the rose stalks the drop that now can be measured in feet, the path to the beach has been so elevated by sand pouring in from the shore.

This year it seems especially the case, from the great mound at the first bend in Corn Neck Road, where there used to be a path to Sanchez’ then Hutchinsons’ Beach. There was a path and so much less sand roadside parking was not a danger. It is the same along the stretch of dunes north of the Town Beach, where the wind has moved so much of the beach up and over the hills of sand, and at Mansion there is a still a growing dunelet across the entrance.

There were tire tracks Sunday, and remains of a beach fire, but even that traffic had not worn down the elevation. It is the ocean that rages and cuts; the wind is a builder, working gradually, every year giving the roses and beach grass a chance to grow higher and maintain an illusion of nothing having changed.

It is a nice day, sunny and warm but with a cool wind blowing, a breeze that makes me glad for a coat when I walk into it, a coat I shed when I turn and it is at my back. The beach is wider than in winter but stony down near the water; all this sand had to come from somewhere.

The water is blue and green, summer colors, and everywhere summer feels in the wings, in the lilacs struggling toward bloom, in the shad pinkly budded, even in the trash left behind (no, putting the empties you leave on the beach in paper instead of plastic is not “green”).

Last week the night was filled with the sounds of peepers and spring surf, and the moon shone so brightly only the brightest stars could make themselves visible. There is something to be said for sleepless nights, on rare occasion.

Last week the moon shone on the water, and the pool of concentrated silver told me its path across the sky: first I saw it between the old barn and farmhouse next door; then in that deep bay between the Old Harbor and the north end of Crescent Beach, the same that shows as only a gentle curve on maps; finally, as it moved west the angle of its beam was such that it left the water dark.

Last week I could blame the moon for my sleeplessness. Perhaps this week, I hope this week, all that will end, spring is no time to be tired.