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Voles

by
H. Paul Lillebo

A tale of graduate studies. . .

My watch ran for a long time.  But now, after so many rains, it has stopped.  I read the shadows, though, and know where the sun is, even through the clouds.  And I notch each sundown on the trunk of my tree.  I'm sure I still have the right date after all this time.  I have lived a full life, and I don't complain.  I have friends no one else can claim.  They come and they go, but I stay.  I have outlived them all, and have given them names.  Rodney the squirrel my first friend up here.  He saved my life, by training me to catch more.  I learned on him, and it took days, and I was weak before I outwitted him.  He gave me strength again, and I caught others.  Other squirrels, and crows, magpies and jays, and above all the voles.  The red tree voles, Phenacomys longicaudus.  They're only good for a snack, but they give me a special pleasure.  A pleasure born of hate.  I can't harvest too many of them, though.  I don't want them to die out.  It's always an occasion; just twice a month.  I'm a selective pressure on the voles, as we ecologists say, and I keep track of them.  I know exactly how many there are.  I should; I've studied them for let me check eighteen years.

Damn rodents!  It was they who drove me up this tree in the first place.  How many times have I cursed them and my major professor who suggested the study.  "Be the first to study them in the wild," he said.  And "Extend their known range."  Ah, yes.  I've done both, but who knows it?  But really, it wasn't his fault.  He meant, study them from the ground.  With field glasses and telephoto film.  The climbing gear was my idea.  I've always been a perfectionist.  If the voles were two hundred feet high in Douglas firs, that's where I would be.  "Keep your damn degree, Professor Karbaugh!  Just get me down!"  I shout it loud, as so often before, and I feel better for it.

The day stands as clear in my memory now as when it happened, eighteen summers and winters ago.  A cool September day in the Trinity forest, and it had been a good day.  Up and down five Douglas firs, finding voles' nests.  It was no study for the timid.  Homemade climbing belt looped around the fifteen-foot circumference giants, shoe spikes seeking firm wood through four-inch bark, clambering up these incredible living towers; eternities of climbing where a missed step could mean immediate eternity.  Other trees disappeared below before I reached the lowest branches of my trees.  And then the real hazard began, as the gear came off and I climbed freehand through the branches, searching for my beloved voles.

I'll be honest.  I should have seen the danger in all this taking off and putting on of my climbing gear, straddling a branch a hundred or more feet above the ground.  Well, I saw the danger of me falling, of course, and took utmost care.  But and this makes me scream again as I think about it (excuse me, I scream a lot) the dreadful consequence of my gear tumbling to the ground had hardly occupied my thoughts.

The mind, when it is shocked, perceives in slow motion.  I nearly lost my grip, I clawed the air after my gear and bloodied my face as I collapsed against the branch.  My belt and spikes began their seeming hour-long journey to the forest floor.  The two spikes rotated at different rates.  "Why?" I wondered.  I remember each turn.  I had a thousand different views of my three possessions before they floated to rest.  They didn't really take an hour.  I know exactly how long they took.  Just 3.1 seconds, from that low branch.  I'm glad I had my watch so long.  I've measured height from everywhere in the tree.  I've dropped twigs and cones, and I've defecated from every branch.  Timing it all the way.  At least some parts of me have gotten down.  I figure I've dropped about a thousand pounds.  After a few years, quite a dung heap grew up at the base of the tree.  With tiny fur balls in it, no doubt.  An anthill has grown over it.  I'm a sensitive person, and I usually try to miss the anthill.  But there are days, especially when I've been bitten by one of those free little bastards, crawling up and down the trunk as they please, when I let'em have it.  Ker-plunk!  You should see what a turd from a hundred and fifty feet will do to an anthill.  Very few have seen that.

I never owned much.  Now I own less, but what I have is of good quality.  My pride is my well-fitting squirrel fur suit, that grew around me gradually, as my friends obliged.  But my testament to posterity I keep carefully in my nylon knapsack that you who read this are now holding in your hands:  My treasured 200-sheet spiral notebook, containing the most intimate and remarkable details of the life of the red tree vole.  They are the most human-like of all animals, but I fear my report may not be trusted.  Well, it's all in my journal.  After five years I was able to begin to decode what I call their their "squeech".  They "squeak" a tongue remarkable for its syntactical subtlety, but I'm sorry to report that they mostly waste it on silly rhymes and puns.  But I haven't been able to communicate meaningfully with them.  My voice overpowers them and frightens them away.  And they don't like that I eat them.  For a while I thought I could set up as a sort of god, and get them to sacrifice to me, but they're not that primitive.  They do drink, though.  A mildly alcoholic extract of sap that makes them easy to catch when they've been partying.

Some things I hesitate to write down, because they won't be believed and I don't have hard data or evidence, so they have no place in a science project.  But I can't resist a few words about their nests I should really call them "houses".  They're made of small twigs and fir needles.  The carpenters (yes, they have occupational specialties: musicians, nurse-maids, apparently spiritual counsellors, etc) select straight twigs about a quarter inch in diameter, and chew them to predetermined lengths.  On a platform higher in the tree I've seen piles of over a hundred each of 5-inch, 3-inch and 1-inch lengths prepared for nest building.  They chew a point on one end and a matching groove in the other, to give a kind of mortise-and-tenon construction.  I've seen vole houses in a distant tree with up to seven storeys, though in my tree they don't seem to build them past four storeys.  Damn, that the film I took has no doubt been ruined by the weather.  But I've sketched the houses in great detail, and I hope zoologists will find them fascinating, whenever...

I have lived a full life, and I don't complain.  I don't know that anyone else has ever had my experiences, exactly.  I have to doubt it.  But I'm getting on; one ages fast up here, and I'm not as strong as I was.  One day someone will come through these woods.  They may find me; more likely they'll find my knapsack.  (In fact, it's you, isn't it?  Yes, you, the reader.)  Each night now I hang it on a twig where I know it will blow off in a storm.  I'm not well, and I don't know which will go first, my knapsack or I.

No one has devoured more friends than I, but they will have their revenge.  One morning I will no longer move on my branch.  Some mornings later my bones, picked clean by voles, ants, crows, and magpies, will fall, like the spikes years ago, to become part of a greatly improved anthill.  Most people don't know what the future holds.  I do.  I shall become a thousand voles, birds and ants.   I'll be free to climb up and down as I please, and I'll tipple on the sap.  My life, which has been full, promises to become a banquet!  But I have earthly satisfactions, too.  If my knapsack is found, I have succeeded.  I have been the first to study the voles in the wild, and I have extended their known range.

You will find enclosed three scientific articles, prepared for publication.  Please forward them to my advisor, Dr.Karbaugh, or his successor at the State U. Graduate Department of Biology (address on back).  Please find also, carefully copied from memory, and filled out correctly in the least detail, for I am a perfectionist, my application for my degree.

(signed)
Shirley Louise Wilcox, M.S. (pending)

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© H.Paul Lillebo 1990