Listen To Article
I am writing this on Valentine’s Day, so I’ll just come right out and say (type) it. Muskrats don’t get enough love (and now if you are of a certain …erm… vintage, you might be afflicted with a very unfortunate Captain and Tennille ear worm).
It was a cornfield when we moved here 18 years ago. Dane County acquired it, disrupted its drainage tiles, and left it to filter the little creek at the head of the watershed. With hydrology somewhat restored, the corn field is returning to prairie, bluestem and bergamot on the drier parts, marsh hay and cattails in the wetter parts along the creek and such.
They’re not rats, despite being burdened with an English name that invites dismissal, even contempt. They’re part of a rodent family that includes voles and lemmings, the little mammals that feed boreal carnivores like foxes and owls through long winter and tease biologists with funny population cycles.
Here in the 80 acre piece, my stride shortens and then becomes irregular. Vole tunnels collapse in the old snow creating meandering little traces. The marsh is frozen and the creek flows through thick terraces of opaque ice on each side. I am following tracks on the terraces, pausing to look at the muddy rimmed access points and closely cropped plant leavings where the sun and wind have exposed the frozen mud.
In indigenous stories, muskrat (Ho Chunk: Wicawak) is a hero. In Kimmerer’s retelling1, the world was a formless watery void when Skywoman fell to earth in a shaft of light. The geese caught her and eased her on to the back of a turtle. The animals then gathered to care for Skywoman. Having heard of mud beneath the floods, various species tried to dive to retrieve some so Skywoman would have soil to make a home. All of them failed until it fell to meek Wicawak. Muskrat dove and stayed down for a long time – long enough to worry the other animals, long enough that the bubbles stopped. When at last Muskrats’ lifeless body surfaced, they found mud clenched in her paws. Skywoman spread the mud on the back of the turtle and danced in gratitude, thereby forming turtle island (earth).
Here on a besieged 80 acres in bright February sun I wander that world created by Wicawak. In what used to be corn, there are at least three large ponds. You can’t see them from the road or from the gravel trail. You have crawl inside, hidden as they are by cattails. You can see them from space (Google earth) but you need to follow muskrat trails to avoid crashing blindly through cattail thickets like a noob.
Muskrats are ecosystem engineers, they burrow and root for tubers, creating microhabitats for a diversity of wetland plants and invertebrates. They open ponds in the marsh when they cut and collect the cattail stems and bring mud up to create domed houses. They create areas for ducks to dabble and wader birds to hunt. Frogs will sing for mates here when the ice melts in a few weeks, and they will leave their eggs. Migratory songbirds too, nesting in the marsh or prairie, feeding on abundant seeds and insects. Ice invites me to explore. And I can stand near enough to the muskrat houses to hear them moving inside.
“Earth-diver” stories emerge in many ancient cosmologies, even overlapping into Genesis 2. In mid-continent North America, the earth-diver hero is uniformly the gentle muskrat, teaching us virtues that emerge from the mud, include those of humility, sacrifice, love for the helpless and homeless, and gratitude.
At full height, I can see, looming on three sides, recent housing developments. We hide so much violence in that word. Everywhere I’ve lived, I’ve watched development consume Midwestern farmland, putting up too-big houses on too-big lots. The environmental debt of that farmland is still unpaid, coming recently from forest or prairie. Much was black soil wetland.
Where I grew up in west Michigan, much of the celebrated muck of the old Grand River channel is now fancy housing. The singularly productive soils were formed during millennia of wetland nurturing, exposed and farmed for a short time, and now entombed under driveways and bluegrass.
When I lived in central Illinois, I read that it was once possible to pole a canoe from Rantoul to Champaign (about 18 miles) through the wet tallgrass prairie. Imagine it. Now imagine it stretching nearly to Nebraska, interrupted only by the stately big rivers. Such things leak from memory until we forget our own impoverishment. The vast tall grass wet prairie is now steep-sided drainage ditches and hybrid corn and soybeans and we measure it at highway speeds on gray Interstates. How does this make any sense? Having sold the carbon-sequestering and habitat richness of the wet prairies at a loss, wouldn’t we at least want to protect the soils for growing our food?
More than a third of the Midwestern corn belt has lost its carbon-rich A-horizon soils to erosion caused aggressive agricultural tillage 3. That’s a 1-3 billion dollar loss of agricultural productivity. That’s a priceless loss of biological function, spectacle, and delicious mystery. Those heavy Midwestern soils are a gift. Flyover country though. The impatience in the back seat wants to know. Are we there yet?
But 80 acres isn’t nothing. It’s 400 paces along one side, 800 on the other. Big enough to poke around in
after church. Big enough to get lost in the landscape’s old stories. Big enough to experience hope as resilience. I know a couple of places where farmland is returning to prairie, and I go there from time to time to ask, “what of humility, sacrifice, and love?” What of caring for homeless and helpless kin? What of gratitude? These are the virtues that heal the earth. Take the measure of your home. Start at a human scale and then dream. Find intimacies where you live. Nearly every waterway, wet spot, and marsh in North America (even the urban ones) have muskrats. They’re there looking out for you. God bless the precious mud.
1Kimmerer, R. W. 2013. Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants. Milkweed Press.
2Mather, D. 2015. Grand Mound and the Muskrat: A model of ancient cosmology on the Rainy River. Minnesota History. Minnesota Historical Society.
3Thaler, E. A., I. J. Larsen, and Q. Yu. 2021. The extent of soil loss across the US corn belt. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
Thank you for this encomium to muskrats. I’m glad to know they are flourishing. I miss them on our lake, or our part of our lake. I used to see them every day, and they lunched on shellfish and rested in the big rocks next to the cove, but not for the last few years, and I was afraid that they too were dying off. So this is good news.
Beautifully written and informative. May we expect a book from you someday, collected writings on nature? It would be on my bookshelf next to Barry Lopez’s works.
Next subject: the Opossum–!
Not up to Van Deelen standards, but shameless self-promotion. https://blog.reformedjournal.com/2016/04/05/opossums-and-the-image-of-god/
Thanks! I wasn’t acquainted with the RJ blog that far back, so I would have missed it. Re the image of God: was it Mark Twain who said “man was made at the end of the work week, when God was tired” ? something like that. Nature’s book is marvelous indeed. Hence the muskrat and the possum.
I am always pleased when you are the writer of the day, Tim. Your work transports me back to my youth when I wanted nothing other than to be outside surrounded by the wild.
Human beings (we) love making lifeless places. We pave over soil so nothing can live. We blacktop our driveways then spray poison lest any little plant get a foothold. Our buildings – homes, offices, factories and churches are all deserts. Nothing is allowed to live in them, not a single germ. There is no limit to the number of highways and roads we create which are also deserts. Nothing can live. Two years ago I watched the giant dredges re-dig the channel for shipping in Raritan Bay. What of the creatures that lived in the muck and sand under the water? Dead. For much of our expansion, we simply exterminated whatever lived there. How much farther can we go like this? And this doesn’t even consider war where dropping bombs and missiles kill everything living on the land. I live in central Jersey which is beautiful. There is no end to the building and expansion, killing everything living on the land and building and paving and maintaining in a way that it becomes a desert for all but human life. Somewhere in the future there is a limit to our creation of deserts with no life. Hurray for your eighty acres. Here’s hoping for many, many more reclaimed “deserts.”
And thanks for the muskrat story. I often see them here on the Millstone River and Delaware and Raritan Canal (reformed church country!) and will appreciate them all the more because of what I learned from you his morning.
The ear worm is walking happily, nostalgically with me and our dog who is trying to befriend a muskrat nearby. Oh my yes, let’s have a collection of your wonderful weavings of ecology and lyricism, earned good cheer and unpretentious lament next to Robin, Barry, and Scott Russell. What a quartet! Thank ye.
Thank you all for the kind and encouraging comments. Much appreciated.
And I bemoan all that gorgeous soil those sprawling developments are built on, the glorious muck but also the high ground south of the muck with its tough hard clay loam. The muck up in Grant is blown away, dried out by chemical insecticides, herbicides, and fertilizer.
Tim, as per usual, this is thick and delightful reading. Here’s the quote I’m going to be pondering for a while: “Such things leak from memory until we forget our own impoverishment.”
Tim Van Deelen’s muskrat piece has stayed so well and good in mind since it appeared, material world information and inspiration, welcome relief from reports about inevitable church fights. Grace by the paragraph. I find warnings of soil loss and general heavy habitat mortgages are less likely to leak from my memory coming from a scientist who schlumps around in muskrat country in midwestern winter and listens for them, for heavens sake. Thank you very much, sir.
In early grade school I tagged along with my older Christians cousins, struggling through deep snow, getting wet, walking their muskrat trap lines along the Rock and Chanarambie river banks that bracket Edgerton, Minnesota east and west like parentheses. Trapped at holes between ice and bank and frozen stiff in a box behind the garage, muskrats got fifty cents each from the “mink man” and the once- a- season mink, maybe three bucks. Muskrat fur is beautiful, equal to mink I thought. I did not think at all about the cruelty of our traps, but was impressed early on by the discipline of checking a trap line every day. I was sprawled on the floor with my cousins reading the Sunday comics at my grandparents’ home when Grandpa Geerdes asked, “Boys, how did your traps look today?” Four heads came up; no answer. My dad tilted his head toward the door; we boys grabbed our parkas and mittens and headed out for a cold visit to muskrat territory. Three winters of that and I don’t think we put a dent in the local muskrat population. Even so, now I would leave them the heck alone. And support any who respect their habitat before we wish we had. John A Rozeboom