by Anthony G. Siegrist
A little over a decade ago, the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada published a short booklet that outlined a biblical case for environmental stewardship or “earth-keeping.” At the heart of the document was this observation: “We stand . . . at a watershed in human history: we are no longer at the mercy of the seasons, yet our continued drive for mastery may lead to disastrous environmental consequences.” This assessment is hard to refute, yet even years later the way forward is fraught.
A few weeks ago, just beyond the edge of our neighborhood, an excavator crawled off a low bed trailer and went to work. The big machine was equipped with a brush-clearing attachment. Over the span of a couple of days, the operator worked his way around the retention pond, munching through small deciduous trees and mowing down the cattails. The excavator’s twin steel tracks left deep ruts in the wet ground. The work blocked off the path we use for our daily walks. Nevertheless, my family and I watched anxiously to see what would be left.
The pond must have been created a couple of decades ago when the new houses went in. It looked to have been placed within an existing depression through which water seeped into the little creek on its way to the Castor River, which itself runs into the Ottawa River, then the seaway and eventually, the Gulf of Saint Lawrence. Now there is a drain in the back corner of our yard, right where our property meets the neighbors’. It takes excess rainwater and channels it into the pond. The drain keeps our basement dry, which in turn means my boys have space to build box forts and I can stack my books directly on the concrete floor.
Sharing daily routines
The fellow operating the excavator was probably doing us a favor. The pond had begun to fill in. The vegetation, bulked up on lawn fertilizer, must have been slowing the outflow. We watched anxiously though, because we had seen muskrats there. A muskrat is something like an oversized field mouse that likes the water. We’d seen muskrats in other places, but for some reason, the ones in this pond had caught our attention. I think it was because we encountered them within our daily routine. If we went for a walk after breakfast, we would see them breakfasting as well. When we walked by on a Saturday, we would see them doing something much like lawn maintenance.
The first time I really took notice of a muskrat was on a winter day at the Gaetz Lakes Bird Sanctuary within the city limits of Red Deer, Alberta. A good friend and I were perched on a viewing platform overlooking one of the small iced-over lakes. It was bitterly cold, but there was hardly any snow. We could see straight through the clear ice to the lake bottom. It wasn’t long after we stopped moving that we noticed a diligent little creature zipping around under the ice. The animal’s speed and precise, underwater navigation looked like something from a video game.
Muskrats forage all winter long. They can find their way through dark, frigid water even under a meter of ice. Muskrats have cutting teeth that protrude beyond their lips and cheeks, which enable them to bite through thick, underwater vegetation without flooding their mouths and nasal cavities. In the winter, muskrats will sometimes construct a sort of cold-weather gazebo called a “pushup” where they can rest and eat when their feeding takes them far from their bank burrows.
Muskrats are widely dispersed across North America, their native continent. They’ve even spilled beyond. At the beginning of the last century, some enterprising person introduced them to the waterways of Europe. They’ve become a pest there, as their bank burrows sometimes threaten dikes. Here in North America, however, there is now some concern about muskrat populations. Researchers from Penn State University have concluded that their numbers have been falling in recent decades.* Muskrat populations do go through cycles, but the observed trends are more serious. What’s to blame? Maybe new pathogens. Maybe a loss of habitat. Maybe environmental toxins.
A sign of hope
The presence of the muskrats in our neighborhood pond had been a hopeful sign to me. It seemed to mean that the water draining from our streets into the creek wasn’t so overburdened with pesticides and pharmaceuticals that these little creatures couldn’t live in it. More fundamentally, the presence of the muskrats illustrated a point made by the natural philosopher, Erazim Kohák. In his 1984 book, The Embers and the Stars, he makes the following observation: “When humans first begin to rediscover the world of nature, they [generally] do so, in a mode of self-negation, as if they sense a basic disjunction between their humanity and the order of nature around them.”
That is a depressing truth. What Kohák comes to see, as he observes the creatures surrounding his own home, is that we belong in this world, not as much when we reject our humanity as when we embrace it. And that is what the presence of the muskrats said to me. It was only a small illustration, but it seemed to say that when we are fully human, aware of and gracious toward other forms of life, there is a way around disaster.
Several days after the excavator crawled back up on its trailer and was towed away, we saw the muskrats again. They swam through the water-filled ruts. Under the power of their little 1 kilogram bodies, they reworked their burrow entrance. During a recent stretch of warm weather the cattails put out new green shoots. The muskrats will have food for the winter and my basement will remain dry. It doesn’t always work out this way, but this time, in this one relatively inconsequential place, it did.
The landscapes to which we belong are filled with resilient and hardy creatures. However, the state of things, as the EFC booklet noted, is such that the practical brilliance of these beings is now insufficient for their own flourishing. The overwhelming force of the seasons is no longer enough to keep our consumptive desires in check. We cannot step back from this mastery. We cannot pretend we do not possess the power to reshape watercourses and the earth’s great systems. What we can do, knowing that we belong to the natural world, is step forward, our way guided by a new technology, a personal and political technology called restraint.** It’s restraint that will allow our lives and those of muskrats to flourish alongside each other. Restraint is what God’s non-human creatures require of us. Or more fundamentally, their creaturehood calls from us a humanity indelibly marked by this virtue.
*See Many factors may contribute to steep, decades-long muskrat population drop, Jeff Mulhollem, Penn State News, June 8, 2020.
**For guidance in thinking further about the practice of restraint consider Sallie McFague’s book, Blessed are the Consumers: Climate Change and the Practice of Restraint (Fortress, 2013).
Muskrat photo by Scott Younkin at Pexels.