Sunday, October 11, 2009

The Battle Of Bob's Red Mill

I wrote this in February, 2009, and it's my most popular post with my family. It's rambling, yes, but filled with the nature of my town, and struggle. A silly post, yes, but a lovely expression of a silly man.

It's not even March and some of my perennials are beginning to sprout.  I'm sure that gardens have always sprouted in February, but they say nature's for the eyes that see it and my gaze has been elsewhere.  Most of my property is covered with wood chips from a tree surgeon who gave me his entire trailer load of chipped branches.  At the time I thought most of the chips were oak, you could see the grain (looking at the oak chips in my hand I kept thinking, "unfinished furniture outlet, after tornado.").  And I knew some of the chips were from our tulip poplar---- that was the reason I met the tree surgeon in the first place.  So, I was astonished that the gentleman just gave me all that wood (I offered him a hundred dollars).  He acted like I was doing him a favor, which honestly couldn't be true; all wood products are valuable.  The situation began to seem a little more sensible after I coaxed my tomato plants to flower and grow gigantic, only to watch their fruit just sit on the plant, glistening, and green.  My housemate, David, pulled a couple of big green tomato's off the plant one afternoon to "ripen" them, and I literally laughed at this ignorance, I couldn't believe he thought a completely green tomato would just magically ripen.  Well, lucky for me he isn't a complete jerk, for, that is exactly what the tomato did.  Turned bright yellow.  I thought it would simply rot in our kitchen, but it turned bright, bright yellow.  Hmm....  so the truth was that the wood chips contained at least a portion of  walnut chips.  Apparently, Wikipedia claims that walnut contains an oil, jujune (needs citation) that screws up any plant in the nightshade family, so you are wise to keep your jimson weed away from your walnuts.  Jeez.
 I got this great idea this winter.  I'm going to move my garden where the sun shines in my yard the longest.  I'm going to keep the quote, unquote, mulch where it does a fantastic job killing the grass (so what used to take me fifteen minutes to mow, now takes six), and I'm going to task David with procurement of vegetables once I grow them.  Suffice it to say, he made a fool outta me.
Another amusingly strange thing in the garden was when my corn ripened, and I ate about a third of it, and then what I thought were raccoons got into it.  Just chewed the kernals right off the cobs.  Something I didn't think about at the time was the rats that lived behind my house (and really everywhere in my neighborhood, I live in a student ghetto with tons of restaurants down the street.  One of my buddies who works really early in the morning says he sees the rats crossing the street, in a kind of shift change nocuturne, each morning.  Nice.)  I blamed the raccoons, which along with deer, the gardening books implied were corn enemy numero uno.
Then, a few nights ago I was watching the only television available in my room, PBS, and one of the episodes of NOVA came on.  NOVA used to do shows that stuck to straight up science.  But, around ten years ago NOVA discovered that story telling was far more popular with couch potatoes then instructional video.  So now most episodes of NOVA aren't about a specific topic of science, but rather rely on hilarious hooks such as "Newton's Dark Secrets", and other such nonsense.  Not that I have a problem with the show.  For some reason I just find it kind of annoying to constantly have something sing songing me to death, "here's a story, bout a lovely ecosystem, that was composing a very lovely world."  Yuck.
In any case, last weeks story was, "Attack of The Rats!!!", or some such title.  So I held my nose and watched.  I have loved reading about rats since I read Rats, Lice and History in grade school, or perhaps middle school.  By the time I was in high school, I basically read everything I could find about rats.  Needless to say, even fairly pedestrian tomes written about rats tend to disgust and provoke people. I was so into rats (not that I ever wanted a pet rat or anything, I just love learning about, ahem, real rats) that I think my fascination played a part in me working for Orkin Pest Control when I was nineteen.  Working for Orkin, you'd arrive at someone's house and ask, "Where do you have a problem Ms.," and Ms. would tell you in the pantry.  So you naturally would ask, "Where in the pantry?" and Ms. would say, "I don't know, I haven't been in the pantry for a month."  Needless to say, people don't much like the rodents in the world.
As is usually the case, the "Attack of the Rats!!!" show turned out to be extremely interesting.  Get this, every 48 years or so Asian bamboo forests flower, pollinate, and fruit.  Every 48 years.  Well, this is more interesting than it sounds because of two fascinating concurrent phenomena.  A) Every time the Bamboo fruits the local people know that they are going to starve that year.  They know this from the stories the previous generation have told them (or for the occasional very long lived person, the hunger they have experienced).  B)  Every time the Bamboo flowers and fruits, a plague of Rats seemingly jumps out of the ground, and devours literally all of the grain/ rice growing on the peoples farms.  Hence, hunger.
Now, Science can entertain lively debate, but must at the end of the day retire to a house of equivocation, lest it become english composition or something.  Where are Thoreau's "mansions of the universe" in the minds of the scientist?  Nowhere, that's where, until through the proper channels the "mansion hypothesis" is put forward in publication and replicated at some distance from the lucky sap that thought it up.
So, nobody in 48 years had experienced this rat problem in Asia.  But making assumptions is regarded by scientists as precisely the sort of thing only a fool would do.  So one brave scientist (who knows all about rats) listened to the anecdotes of past generations in Asia, and listened to Asian historians who certainly were well aware of a cycle every fifty years of famine.  This brave scientist decided to find the next place where a bamboo forest would fruit. He was hoping to make a case, with evidence, for the rat/ bamboo/ famine folklore.  He went there, and hung out with some farmers.  You wouldn't believe what a handsome family he stayed with.  The rat scientist hung out in the bamboo forest, or at its edge in any case, on a farm for an entire summer.  At the beginning of the summer, the local woods (and farm's) rat population numbered perhaps twenty or thirty.  There wasn't much to eat for the rats, so they just did what all mothers no doubt would do, had lots of sex and ate their babies.  Then, the bamboo began to drop fruit, and, bam(boo!), it's bamboo fruit for dinner instead of baby rat.  This has a very strong impact on the rat population.  How big?  Fair to say the Bible told you so.
So the rat scientist shows us, on NOVA, a novel way of discovering how many babies a mother rat has had develop within her.  It's something to see him grab a rat off the ground like he's fielding a baseball or something, then stick it in a bag, then suddenly he's back at the bamboo hut, sitting on the porch, and he takes out his knife to dissect one of the pile of rats he dumps onto the bamboo porch boards.  Speaking of porch boards, seeing the locals do carpentry with bamboo, and seeing how they split eight inch wide bamboo (what? trunks, blades(!?!) bamboo is grass, like cucumbers and almonds are fruit) and weave the split and flattened bamboo into house walls, it's like seeing the world "handmade".  I'm thinking of a novel by the guy who wrote The Long Emergency, because it has the concept "culture as handmade" at it's core. If only I could remember the title.  For some reason, as a carpenter (on my good days I'm comfortable calling myself that) I found it just hypnotic seeing that bamboo house woven together. But lets get back to the scientist, holding a dead rat which NOVA refuses to show being killed, now poised with a knife just above the rat; now the knife plunges into the rat and just like that, the rat is drawn and quartered.  So the scientist has the insides (strangely lacking in blood) stretched open like an organ donor, and he points to what look like a peas attached to a split open pod, or beans, along the abdomen of the rat.  He points out that there are eight of these peas, and he shows that each has a placenta.  It is curiously fascinating, due to the fact that a person realizes that every mammal surely has this sort of arrangement within a female who is, as the British might say, preggers.  The interior of the female rat in this scientists hands seems bejeweled, and illuminated somehow.  Then again, this scientist is really something, and I suppose having handled a few dead rats myself, I should admit that I have never achieved his special way with rodents.  Not in the least.  So... then the scientist points out something kind of helpful given my personal history (in my yard) with rats.  He points to these little buds coming off the reproductive apparatus of the rat.  What are they coming off? An ovary? A uterus?  The buds must be within, or attached to a uterus, but I couldn't really recognize much, save the little pea like rats to be, inside big rat has been.  The buds, our scientist points out, are scars from the previous rats mom has given birth to.  For every baby rat, their is a scar!  Which made me wonder, do rats menstruate?  Having scars on their reproductive apparatus would lead me to believe otherwise, but truly, I can hardly wait to find the proper person to answer that question.  I think I'll ask the reference librarian at our county library just to see the look on his face.  Just the facts, dude.  So our scientist friend, with a big grin on his face, his exacto knife waving about, and a rat sitting open like baked potato in his hand explains that the little buds in this rat amount to something like twenty-six previous births this season.  Thats about thirty four baby rats in one summer.  So a rat with plenty to eat other than baby for breakfast will pop forty little versions of itself out (or more) in a season.  This explains why twenty or thirty rats in the bamboo forest might get a little out of hand when their food supply goes from subsistence to the land of milk and honey.  Geez.
And, this explained, what happened to my corn.  It wasn't raccoons that ate my corn.  I knew I had rats in my yard, I saw them every day.  They usually would sort of dart about the trash cans, licking some runny substance off the sidewalk or whatever.  You kind of get used to them when you live in a town that basically subsidizes rodents, catching them in live traps and dumping them out in the country like that A.I. movie.  My neighbors, who are wonderful middle aged sculptors, begged me not to poison the rats for fear their dog would eat a poisoned rat.  I tried to explain to them that the poison kills rodents more easily than "higher" mammals due to the fact that rodents can't vomit terribly well.  Hardly a bad idea, given what they eat, don't you think?  My neighbor brought rats up to me (believe it or not, I rarely volunteer this peculiar enthusiasm) because he said, with a look of amazement and scorn, "You know, I saw rats frolicking beneath the mulberry tree and eating mulberries the other day.  I think they are living in the Chevy Biscane."  The Chevy is an old broken down car that my landlord accidently let one of his oldest "clients", a nutcase, park in our yard.  The sculptors, next door, eat breakfast every morning, and have to see this ugly Chevy just past their gorgeous, gorgeous, gorgeous garden.  Why they don't simply sue my landlord is probably explained on the same page of the book of mysteries as why people in Bloomington, Indiana catch rodents and set them "free" out in the woods, to starve to death. (There was a man I knew years ago here, in Bloomington, named Sunny.  I mention Sunny because I think about him now and again due to something he told me late one night in the Kroger parking lot.  And I miss him unreservedly.  He's a great guy.  Sunny looked kind of like Nick Nolte after a bad night, except without the drugs, except, then again, maybe with a lot more drugs.  Hard to say.  So, late one night I had my hands full of bags of veggies and soda pop, or something, and on my way out to my car I see Sunny.  So, realizing the warm mellow honey of liberalism might just pool at the small of my back should I truly enjoy this man in an authentic manner, I call out, "Hey Sunny!"  Now Sunny doesn't know me from Adam, but having survived the streets for forty years, he was most definitely able to see a fresh mark like myself from a mile or farther.  "Hey," he said like a socialite upon opening her Salon door.  We chatted about the honeysuckle sweetness in the Spring evening air, and the comfort of the long days in the out of doors we both looked forward to that year.  Then Sunny began to tell me how he had been sleeping behind Kroger of late, and he was glad it was nice outside so he could enjoy the fresh air and his little friends.  "Your little friends," I said in a tone meaning , "Who the heck are they?"  Sunny said "Yeah," with that wheezy trailing Studs Terkel like tone he always had, just a beautiful voice, like you never hear anymore in movies or television, our obsession with realism being the monster it has become.  "Yeah, my little rats are so beautiful. The come right up to my fingers while I lay there at night, and I feed them whatever I've got."  This seemed, somehow, though it may well have been apocryphal, true.  In a world, even in Bloomington, where the gaze of people is filled with the flint that protects them from an involvement beyond sharing a sidewalk, I could well imagine the squeaking glee in the black, shiny orb, of a rats eye, catching the yellow orange midnight sun of a back-lot sodium lamp, as it nibbles the Frito's you share, it's whisker maybe touching your hand.  One things for sure, after a long day of people throwing Big Gulps at Sunny from there rusty Silverado's, I could well imagine a rat, with a Frito in it's mouth, may give the gift of gratitude.  Though, he didn't make  a convert of me that night.  I could only offer Sunny produce and Diet Coke, which I knew rats weren't fond of, from studies of rats in different communities.  Rats like what the people around them like.  So, in the obese Southern Indiana population, I'm thinking Broccoli ain't on the menu.  So I said goodnight to Sunny.  My good liberal endorphins peaking so much, I couldn't even feel the plastic grocery bags cutting cruelly into my hands.) So anyhow, while my neighbor was talking to me about the amazing sighting of rodents, I was conjuring in my head the veritable family of rats living in holes in the ground on my property.  It occurred to me that my neighbor, for all his qualities as a human being, was simply unaware of the natural proclivities of the Norway Rat.  Like, for example, warm dry habitat beneath the ground.  It would certainly be nice, from a public health standpoint, were Norway Rats to require a Chevy Biscane, like a Spotted Owl requires redwoods or what have you.  But, unfortunately for my neighbor, for all my flaws, he had picked a subject that morning upon which I had some rare insight, and it truly took all my strength to not go on and on, as I have in this blog entry, about rats.  Instead, I told him, "Christ, it hardly surprises me that that crappy car is breeding rats."  It would seem, that unlike the occasional crackpot you meet on the street, I have the ability to make eye contact and connect, even with folks utterly ignorant of the, how should I put it--- natural history of rats.   We spoke a bit more, him mostly going on about how bad an idea poisoning them would be.  I mean, after all, they were merely chewing on mulberries when not serving tea in the Biscane.  So I nodded.  Then guiltily went back home, feeling like I'd patronized him for not saying, "Look Mister, rats live in holes like that one." Pointing about ten feet away, to a eightball sized hole, with a little pile of rat rototill next to it.   The final straw came one morning as I arose, especially early for some reason, and could hardly wait to get over to the coffee shop.  So I threw some breakfast together on the stove and ate my plateful of food, then went back to the kitchen to clean my dish and pan and what do I hear but the furtive crinkling of polyetheline, a kind of sound made only by bags of candy in a quiet theatre or rats in my kitchen.  Sure enough, next to my coffee maker, there, up on my countertop, I was alarmed to see a medium sized rat, sauntering along, brushing past polyetheline bags of Bob's Red Mill something or other (trash now!).  Hmm.... I thought.  Clearly I have fallen a great deal since my days with Orkin.  Now, I'm the one who has been acting as if all those rats in my yard for some reason just had too much respect for my family to expand their circle of competence to include our larder.  Bloomington does this to you.  Almost without realizing it you become a kind of soft, smiling, vaguely African clothes wearing, kneejerk animal liberation bandying, head nodding person always saying, "exactly" (emphasis, not your own).  Before you know it the rodents are asking you to pass the salt.
I went straight to the hardware store and bought thirty some pounds of the stuff that comes from the company thats motto is, "yeah, we kill that."  It wasn't hard to apply the stuff.  It was bright blue and waxy.  The scientist on NOVA mentioned that rats love to chew on wax. I didn't realize this when I was throwing twelve once cubes of blue poison wax down every hole I could find in my yard and, expecially, my trash can.  I didn't put any in my garden, but it hardly mattered.  Thirty pounds.  Then I put it all over my house in those little black bait dishes, that look like pet food dishes (we have no pets).  I never saw another rat in the house, but man, they finished off all the bait traps in the basement in three days, and they finished off all the poison under the trash can (about one and one half pounds) in one evening.  They were extremely hungry.  Good.
After about a week I quit seeing them foxtrotting around my garbage cans.  And after about two weeks, the rat poison in the kitchen stopped moving toward the bottom of the bait dish.  It just settled to a quarter of an inch of blue poison.  And thats where it is today.


About two weeks after I decided my neighbors dog could eat my shorts, and I sort of lost it on the subject of rats in my yard, I noticed a big fat dead rat in my driveway.  This one was gigantic.  Not as big as World War veterans talk about in the trenches, feasting on casualties, but big, as in bigger than the one I saw in my kitchen.  About the size of a Quaker oats cylinder.  The normal oatmeal size.  I didn't want to leave it in my driveway, but I didn't want to give it a funeral for crying out loud, so I went and got some gloves and a plastic grocery sack and protecting my gloves (and thinking of plague) I wrapped up the rat and threw it in my garbage can.  I didn't want anything eating a poisoned rat.
A few days later I saw a rat nose sticking out of one of the burrow holes in the yard.  But it was a far corner of the yard, by the Chevy Biscane, and for some reason I savored their proximity to one another, and also didn't want to grab a dead rat by the nose, even with pliers or what have you.
I mention all of this, not to claim victory, but because the rats had a few tricks up their sleeve.  It is the signal quality of man to make things normal, so as to convince himself that his illusions are in fact mere appendixes of higher more absolute truths.  In our easy chairs, as long as creatures are not stirring, especially not rats and mice, we can tell ourselves that this is what it's all about, American Idol, or if you'd rather, NOVA.  Life is good.
So, when we look in the mirror do we see a human?  Or do we see a community itself, that happens to make us what we are, whatever that is.  The answer is obvious.  We see human.  Monster is other.  Bad guys are disease vectors.  To be rubbed away with Purell sanitizer, hypnotized with the sleepy aesthetic of geometric houses on geometric principles, just for the style, by design.  But the truth is we carry between seven and fourteen pounds of bacteria in our enteric gut.  You know, poopy has to get dirty somehow.  It ain't rotten food.  It's food, after you.  There's something kinda strange in that statement, don't you think?  Between shit, and food, is you.  Not exactly the sort of thing you'd expect to see on TV after the commercial with the woman doing yoga while she eats her probiotics.
The truth about us, is always a bit stranger than we expect, because the knowledge we're fed it meant to be tasteful, first, and enlightening second.  Probably most of our day we swim in the roar of the modern media apparatus, always being shown uplifting stuff that would have you believe we were living in heaven but for those damned terrorists.  But the truth is that human beings are filled to the brim with other animals, bacteria, yeasts, and other stuff we aren't so much infected by as defined by as persons.  It's been estimated that just over half the genetic information on that community of organisms that make up a healthy adult human, are other organisms DNA.  Over half.  This should give you some idea why genetic medicine is going to be so complicated.  For a long long time, humans have tried not to pay too close attention to the frothy swarms that keep us ticking.  Which makes sense.  We're sort of gross.
I mention this because I am completely taken with the shocking realization that the wilderness in this world is as much within us as without.  Our fears constantly maintain a hyper vigilance about the seeming boundary of our skin, hands, feet and senses.  It isn't there if you can't see it.  We constantly look for revelations and feel out our world.  But the exterior of our body is only that.  The outer part of an endlessly detailed realm and arena.  And it is a convenient construction that we have decided on outsides and insides.  I mean, disease starts out there, but inevitably flowers within.  The only difference between the disease smallpox and having the disease smallpox, is your nose.  And taking a breath.  
Something truly nasty happened when I killed the rats.  You might say nature had a lesson to teach me about control.  Something had to be done about the ever growing circle of domain of the rats in my yard.  They had broken their promise and invaded my larder and kitchen.  Now I had betrayed my lovely neighbors and set out thirty pounds of Warfarin, which sounds like a martial musical, but in fact is the same as the commonly prescribed geriatric blood thinner, Coumadin.  That's the stuff that causes most of the big bruises on the hands and arms of the elderly. So the rats drank our Kool Aid, and seemed to go away.  They did die.  In fact, I saw two dead ones, as mentioned above.  But there were many rats.  I don't know how many.  But "Attack of the Rats!!!!" convinced me that I may, by the end of the summer, and the slaughter of my corn, the the Battle of Bob's Red Mill, have had as many as a hundred or so.  Maybe more.  About a third of an acre.  Then again, maybe I only had fifty rats.  In my yard.  The lesson here isn't how many rats I had, it's how many rats I remember removing.  Well, you will recall that I disposed of one rat.  And that is my recollection as well.  At the edge of my yard, there is a headstone for the other rat that looks very much like a Chevy Biscane.  Those are the two rats I remember, out of a possible total of dozens to one hundred.  Why does that matter.  Well....  some of the rats went outside.  At Orkin we were trained to explain to people that Orkin's proprietary blend of poison was new and improved to make the rats go outside your house and die.  But that was total b.s.  The truth was that our poison was no different than the stuff you could buy at the store with the slogan printed on the side, "Kill Them, They Won't Come."  Trust me.  The only proprietary poison Orkin had was a type of fungus that helped with German cockroaches.  Someone found it in the Pacific Northwest or something.  In fact, Professor Paul Stammets with Fungi Perfecti (his company name, he is a renowned expert on Mycology) has multiple patents out on fungal pest control, some of which causes mushrooms to fruit right out the head of an insect.  But I digress. Most of the poison used in professional pest control is the same stuff normal folks use.  It's just like a lot of professions.  Someone to cry to.  Someone to hold your hand. Someone to blame.  Kind of like marriage.  My point about the rats I didn't see dead is that they went somewhere.  And the preference of most people when they kill things is that the dead things just disappear, poof!, into thin air.  As fluffy and insubstantial as a cloud, almost like they never existed in the first place.  Well, X factor, leftover rats in my yard (and house) actually did sort of disappear.  They died, you see, then some flies (I saw a few  Bottle Flies, the kind with green metallic exoskeletons, buzzing around the rat I threw in the trash) landed on them and laid eggs.  Then the eggs hatched into maggots, which enjoyed the frothing corpse of the former rat immensely, and finally, for those corpses protected by, say, a crawlspace, or attic, or in one of a hundred holes within a square block of my house, the maggots turned into beautiful green and black flies.  Or the regular variety.  So guess what began to beat against the inside of our windows three weeks after I ended our "pest" problem in the Battle of Bob's Red Mill?  A lot of flies.  Pretty disgusting.  My housemates are not the most learned people in the world when it comes to rats and flies.  Kind of similar to my neighbor.  The going theory on the flies was that it had to be something to do with the Chevy Biscane.  The rest of story, please, is just between us.

Andy Coffey


Jenny said...


Rats... They will probably outlive us all. Along with silverfishes, who can spend months of starving without dying. Strange and impressive how they manage to survive on anything.

I have this "phobia" for rats and snakes, which is a bit of cliché for a woman, I know. It is the way they move quickly, gives me the creeps.

Interesting post this. Thanks.

Andy Coffey said...


Everyone in the West is more or less scared (or disgusted) by rats. My customers sometimes complain about a mousetrap with a dead mouse or rat in it, and they are completely shocked to learn that dead rodents don't bother me much, and mice not at all.


Wine and Words said...

You're creepin' me out with the rats here. Although I am kinda crushin' on Ratatouille :) I mean anyone who can cook is alright with me....specially if you include those fresh ingredients from the garden...mmmmm. Fresh organic veggies are a magic potion.

Andy Coffey said...

Wine and Words,

Yes, the rat in my kitchen was the turning point for me. They "creep" me out when they touch on my realm. But, they are more or less magnificently shy, and what astounds is their level of ubiquity, unnoticed by me for most of my life, not their aggression or mythic carriage parading our darkest fears.
Then again, should your fears need a place to abide... why not a rat? Beats the hell out of a [ insert epithet.]