Chuck the Biologist had placed fifteen aluminum Sherman traps all over the old Glendale cotton mill site, Wofford College's outdoor classroom, a post-industrial landscape of granite rubble, twisted rebar, scorched bricks, and rusted bolts.
There are two standing mill towers that survived the great Glendale fire of 2004, so when I come out to the field station I always think the site looks downright Gothic, like something out of Lord of the Rings.
Chuck divided his Biology 480 students into four teams and dispatched them to roam the property like natural history pilgrims. One group stayed with us checking the Sherman traps. On other sections of the property the small pods of students netted fish in the creek, listened for spring peepers, and conducted a survey sweep of the trails looking for tracks and listing species of song birds.
As a biologist Chuck’s specialty is copperheads. Copperheads are poisonous snakes most of the students would only study from a distance. Chuck is different. He likes snakes. He seemed disappointed when he told the students that he expected lots of mice, but that it was too cool for snakes.
Chuck had hurt his back digging a hole day before, so he sent me—the poet director of the field station—up the hill to retrieve a trap from one of his carefully chosen hideouts. Chuck had marked each trap’s location with a sliver of red flagging tape.
I returned down the slope with a trap that had been sprung. Chuck shook it and guessed there was a mouse was inside. “Soon as the weather hits 70 we’ll find snakes in these jumbled blocks of granite of the old foundation walls,” he said. “Mice mean snakes.”
He popped open the spring door, shook the Sherman trap baited with a single pecan. The students watched as a little roan-colored mouse tumbled into the 5-gallon bucket.
Chuck looked in and worked his face into a wide smile as if the mouse stood in for something that either pleased him down deep, or offered an omen of snakes when the days warmed.
One student squatted in the dirt and thumbed a field guide, looking for a match. “Dr. Smith, it’s either a white-footed mouse or a deer mouse.
“Not a meadow mouse?” I said, looking down in the barrel at the little scrap of roan fur with a long tail and little pepper corn eyes. Of course I was referring to Theodore Roethke’s famous poem and his meadow mouse in a shoebox, but none of the biologists got it.
I looked in the bucket. The mouse rested in the bottom, a little like Roethke’s mouse, but this captive piedmont mouse didn’t exactly look “innocent, hapless, forsaken” as Roethke had claimed for his poetic species.
I wondered why the poet didn’t mention those black mouse eyes, too big for its body? It was the first thing I’d noticed. It looked as if the whole twitching mouse body was wired to those black BBs. What did the world look like from the bottom of that bucket?
I took a few notes as Chuck released our little prisoner from the bucket. It disappeared under some rubble. The students decided it was a deer mouse, not its white-footed cousin. It was definitely not a meadow mouse, which Roethke probably knew is actually a vole.
In spite of those eyes from another world I’ll stick with natural history this time. Roethke still hovers, hawk-like, over such a literary landscape.