Missing the American Chestnut

By Price Hutchins

I used to be so St. Francis about mice and chipmunks and squirrels, but 20-plus years of residing in western Maine and dealing with ruined gardens, tornscreens, chewed up wiring, sharing the contents of our pantry, and midnight scrabbling over our bed, I have morphed into a real mouse Nazi.

For a remedy, I prefer the basic snap trap. I check my trap line nightly along the dark and cobwebby mouse thoroughfares of our home. I revel at the thrill of the hunt, disgusting Ann with my trophies and tallying the catch on the fridge. Our dog Roxie has a nose for mice and has tried to convince me that the mother load of mice is right under our noses in the bedroom, but she can’t be trusted. Once on a raid of a mouse condo in our kitchen, she was excited and game when we first cornered the furry denizens. I forced them out in the open and came around the corner to find a crop-tailed, three-legged, wizened mouse leisurely limping his way across our kitchen floor. Not three feet away Roxie, on her haunches, was wagging and cheering the little fellow on. I don’t understand “dog” well but apparently she did not find this particular geezer appropriately sporting.

I have tried all the final solutions. DeCon leaves the little critters so bereft of water that they die by the scores behind the walls of your bathroom. Kind of like a mass grave in Eastern Europe. Yeech! The Sticky Boards are great. I like to imagine the rascals struggling and contorting. But, a good trap should be re-usable and they’re not. The new modern traps are uninteresting. Too “hands off.” Too prissy. As for cats, apparently a good mouser is worth an occasional fur ball, but that whole litter box thing puts me off.

Some of you might comment on my blood lust and so, in my defense, I should note I do use a “catch ’em alive” trap for all sorts of critters. But not mice. My neighbor, Pete, deserves a medal for his catch and release program of eliminating our local skunk population. The risks Pete takes with each capture and release is impressive for a bully like me who just goes after mice. I’m just not into sharing my space and food with an un-invited whiskered guest and then offering him a ride to a better neighborhood. Snap traps are the better mousetrap with only a few reservations. They’re not always immediately fatal — see “disgusting Ann” in a previous paragraph. Also, they can be dangerous. I have yet to get caught in my own trap, but Roxie tells me it’s no fun at all. Never. Never lick the peanut butter off the trap with your tongue.

This year has seen an abundance of the rodents. My son, the arborist, tells me this is because of the lost American chestnut. An oak tree’s acorns — now the mouse’s main entrée — come in batches. One year can be huge, but it is followed by years of moderate or even no nuts. Mother Nature adjusts for this by regulating the population of foxes, hawks, and owls who can then have their own bounty year with the little gray yummies scampering underfoot. But, this control is delayed by one breeding season. Hence, my current dilemma, lots of acorns and no hungry owl in sight. The American chestnut, on the other hand, had a predictable and regular crop of chestnuts every year and kept the Maine woods well foddered and well balanced. We lost the chestnut to an introduced fungus beginning in the early 1900s. The hardwood species was gone almost before anyone realized what had happened. Before 1900, the chestnut represented 25% of Maine’s hardwoods. The two species, oak and chestnut, provided abundant and regular crops and hence balanced the critter populations. Now, there are no chestnuts in New England. Farmhouse life must have been less mousey before the invasion of the fungus. Who knew!

I never missed the American chestnut because it was well gone when I was in the woods as a child. Now with the army of field mice in our kitchen, I have a practical lesson on the how the loss of one species can have un-foreseen and annoying effect on our lives well after that species has left the building. I lie awake at night pondering the end of the polar bear because of global warming and hoping someone is, right now, inventing a snap trap in anticipation of the invasion of Ringed Seals in Bridgton. Let’s see Roxie ignore one of them.

Price Hutchins is at the peak of a mediocre career. This career includes restaurant owner, carpenter, toilet paper salesperson, stay at home Dad, chemical salesperson, entrepreneur, and now Home Depot Associate. Price and his wife Ann have returned to Bridgton while they continue the renovation of their Lovell house.

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