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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.