Of Tiny Mice, A Velvety Moose, and the Gracious Mr. Moser
Posted by Richard Conniff on January 2, 2014
Don Moser, the longtime editor of Smithsonian Magazine, died recently at the age of 81. The Washington Post published his obituary the other day. It quotes one of the many people he helped over the years, who aptly called him “a profoundly decent man.” This essay, which he wrote in 2010, suggests that this was also true outside the workplace:
We cannot eat at our nice bamboo and glass dining table at the moment because it is covered in tanks full of mice.
As I enjoy my 78th year of life, I would perhaps be more comfortable walking into the kitchen for, say, a quick potato chip or cookie without being ordered to “Watch out for the mouse formula on the counter.” You know how men are always dropping bits of crumbs into the mouse formula. I doubt the mice would mind, but the crumbs would clog the world’s tiniest nipple that my wife is using to feed them.
You see, these mice only weigh three grams. That is about a tenth of an ounce. If you look at the last joint of your little finger, you’re looking at something much bigger than these mice. They are white-footed mice, and most are orphans from nests cleaned from engines.
My wife volunteers for the Wildlife Rescue Center of the Hamptons. In a way I have myself to blame for mice on the table, because 37 years ago in New York City, I met a girl from Iowa in town on business. I grew up slogging through swamps and ponds investigating natural history in Ohio. She grew up doing the same in Illinois. It’s hard to find a nice girl who can
talk at length about snakes, frogs and turtles.
We became constant companions. Being a farm girl, she could make a killer pot roast, meatloaf and breaded baked pork chops to die for. Then, in the summer of 1975 she impressed me by being quite good at pulling ticks out of her bra while bird watching at Jamaica Bay. I married her.
So tonight I face a frozen Stouffer’s Entree because spring means there is no time to cook and no table to eat on. But here’s the trade off: I have learned a great deal about white-footed mice. Peromyscus leucopus go from birth to adulthood in about 25 days, and can begin making mice of their own before they are two months old. A big old mouse at 28 grams would still not weigh an ounce. And a big old mouse would be one year old. Each year, there is a nearly complete turnover in this wild mouse population. (They can live up to four years on the kitchen table, however.) When we return these guys to the wild, they will eat up to half their body weight every day, gobbling up nuts and seeds, insects, insect larvae and millipedes – pretty much anything that doesn’t eat them first. They are a major predator of gypsy moth larvae.
They do carry small ticks, but, a lot of the time during warm weather, so do I. These little guys can jump impossibly high and climb trees as far up as they feel the need to go. They can walk upside down on a rough surface. They are scary fast. Weighing in at a third of an ounce, teenage mice can spin their exercise wheels to just short of smoking hot. When my wife relays their Keystone Cops antics, we both laugh.
In my heart, I know why we are doing this. I’ve been there, although in a very different way.
In the winter of 1958, while working as a National Park Ranger in the Grand Tetons, a group of us volunteered to help a cow moose who had fallen through the ice of an oxbow along the Snake River. Her calf was watching the struggle from the bank. It was a long, hard day of chopping a 25- foot channel with Pulaskis, roping her head, and moving her slowly out. Being the junior ranger, I was the one ordered to slide out on the ice, grab the 1,200 pound cow’s left ear, and slide slowly along side of her back to the riverbank. She was as soft as velvet and had enormous brown eyes that, in her exhaustion, just cleared the water behind her nostrils. At that moment, I forgave her that one of her kind had recently trapped me in the freezing, drafty, ranger station outhouse for twenty minutes while it stood outside the door, just pondering the universe. When we got the moose out, we spent three hours keeping her moving to stave off hypothermia. That night she was back with her calf to fight another day.
You see, we do these things, I think, not because there is a shortage of mice or moose, but because we can. We are the only species that knowingly helps another. We do this for a special kinship and joy we feel when a pinkie mouse the size of a kidney bean – no eyes or ears yet open – reaches his hind foot up to scratch the spot that will be his whiskers. Or to be eyeball to eyeball with a massive moose, guiding it by its left ear back to the possibility of life.
It occurs to me some days that we could always give it up and just sit down to a nice pot roast on the bamboo and glass table. But we probably never will.
I should add a personal note. Don Moser made my career. He let me write about whatever interested me, in the belief that it would also interest his readers, and he sent me wherever I needed to go to get the story. I once proposed a story about moths, during a period when I was writing a lot about insects. Don asked my editor, Jim Doherty, “Can’t he write about something bigger than a breadbox.” He also confessed to being afflicted with a moth phobia. But he assigned the story, anyway. That piece turned out to be part of a trio of insect stories I wrote that year for which Smithsonian won the National Magazine Award.
Any other editor would have taken the award–a copper elephant after a design by Alexander Calder–back to show off at the office. Ellies, as they are known, are a big deal in the business. But Don sent it home with me. Those stories also became part of my book Spineless Wonders.
Another time, in the early 1990s, I was on assignment to write about Chicago for a competing magazine. While there, I discovered an event called a “poetry slam” in a local gin mill. I made it the lead for that story. But the editor at the other magazine said, “The asshole in the street doesn’t give a goddam about a fucking poetry slam.”
So I took that part of the story to Don. He sent me back to Chicago for a little more reporting. That story became the first big report on poetry slams, which went to become an international phenomenon. My manuscript included a quote from Marc Smith, the founder of the event, who commented that the poetry on display at a slam wasn’t about “Zeus shtupping swans.”
A prudish copy editor wanted to bowdlerize the quote. Don just laughed and let the “shtupping” stand.
Don, I will miss you.
UPDATE April 19, 2014:
Jim Langford, who took part in the 1958 moose rescue with Don, has sent me this series of pictures: