Note on Typography
My spiritual brother and poet, Swami Govindanand, once wrote,
One Guru One God One Path And
Prasadis all you really need. [Footnote 1]
One Guru One God One Path And 108
The bulk of the food I eat here comes from the outside. In the summer I consume about a pound per day of what I bring with me and supplement this with wild plants. In the winter, except for the few pounds of leaves that I manage to dry during the summer, everything I eat is from below. I've been allotting 1-1/2 pounds per day but my daily consumption has worked out to be closer to 1-1/3 pounds. Having food in reserve is comforting; what I don't eat in winter gets finished off the following summer.
The food I gather here is mostly leaves. My favorite leaf,
The first few years I wandered about picking as much of it as I could. Then I noticed that my favorite edible was being pushed out by other plants, so I started compensatory weeding of the others. My plants began to do well again and soon compensatory weeding gave way to outright weeding, especially at places I visit regularly. The chief competitor is a yellow flower whose leaves have a horrid bitter taste; I have to spit if a bit of its leaf gets mixed in with my food. I discovered that if I pulled up this competitor, I might find a tiny one of my favorites struggling to survive and if I kept the competitor down for a season or two, my favorite plant would prosper.
People have asked me why I don't try planting some seeds. The problem is that the only garden vegetables which would grow in the short cool summers up here are the leafy vegetables that at best duplicate what grows wild. I think I do better gardening the plants natural to this environment and live more harmoniously this way. Tending the wild plants gives insight into how, many millennia ago, neolithic man changed from a gatherer to a cultivator, and what enormous power he gained. If I were to go down to the meadows a thousand feet below, I could grow a variety of crops, but I would need a substantial fence to keep out the large grazers. By the time I got that built, the rangers would probably be able to spot it from their aircraft; I subsist on what I gather.
Given the propensity of my favorite plant to spread itself all over in places of difficult access, I'm able to gather only a pound, or at most two, per hour. When I need a quantity of leaves to dry for the winter, I descend to tree line where a blue-flowered plant,
Leaves are the bulk of my gathering but puffball mushrooms [Footnote 3] are the delicacy. Puffballs are the only mushrooms that grow in quantity on the meadows up here. They're sometimes called beginners' mushrooms because once they're split to reveal a homogeneous white interior, instead of the structured interior of the deadly young
Most of a mushroom's life takes place underground; the mushroom itself is only the fruit. Understanding these mushrooms would require staking out rectangles in the meadows, digging up samples of soil and examining them under a microscope, but I have no intention of writing the definitive treatise on puffball mushrooms at 12,000 feet. The first time I came here in winter, I learned that the mushrooms don't grow in places where the snow gets blown off, but beyond that I've learned nothing. When puffballs first come up they're white inside but after a few days they sporulate, their inside turns brown and their delicious taste is gone. Then their inside gradually dries, their shells crack and they emit their spores. The ground around them receives a heavy dosing of spore and the rest are transported by the wind. Once a gust lifts them, they're up and away and as likely to come down in Sevastapol as St. Louis. This long-range, random seeding must be necessary for the survival and propagation of a species which inhabits such a scattered environment, but sowing spore into the stratosphere seems unlikely to help the crop on the meadows here. Therefore, I try to spread the spores myself. Whenever I see a dry puffball, I pick it, make sure to leave some spore on the spot, then carry it about the meadow and drop some spore at every suitable place.
I have no evidence that this practice increases the crop. It may be that the meadow is saturated with these organisms living underground, just waiting for the right conditions so they can get up enough oomph to send up some mushrooms, in which case seeding is irrelevant. It may be that too heavy seeding results in many weak organisms competing in an area, none of which gather sufficient oomph to send me up a delicate morsel. If so, my seeding may be counterproductive. The more I live here, the more I've come to believe that the spore supply isn't the limiting factor on the crop, and that climate and nutrient supply control the harvest. 1985 was a particularly bad summer for mushrooms. The preceding winter, high winds cleared the snow from much of the meadows. The summer was cold and a half-day blizzard in early August browned the meadows for the rest of the season. My mushroom harvest was only a pound; the fact that I hardly saw a mosquito was poor compensation. Since the mushrooms are good for only a few days, I miss as many as I eat, but I later found few dried puffballs. 1986 was also a cool dry summer with a small mushroom crop. Both years, seeding was minimal. Still, in 1987, although the summer was dry, a hot July produced a better crop. All my intellectualization about them is likely a waste. I should be thankful for those pure white symbols of
Gathering only supplements my diet. In the summer it might be possible to survive here on wild plants but it would be a dawn to dusk task. The root of the blue-flowered plant I gather below is edible and has a potato-like texture, but each root weighs only a few grams. One plant, alpine bistort,
Bringing food up gives sustenance with minimum effort. Over the years, my staple has been a mixture of grains and legumes, first roasted, then ground. Such food is called
In the summer, I bring little else but
In the winter, when I must withstand the cold and when fresh greens are unavailable, I bring a wider assortment of food. First of all, I grind rose hips in with my
Water is also a necessary component of my diet. In the summer I need think nothing of it for it's readily available, gushing from fresh springs in the mountainsides. In the winter it comes by melting snow and every drop is precious. I consume between one and two quarts per day, almost all in the food I cook. To clean my pot, I scrape it as best I can, then pour in a little water, slosh it around and drink the water. I do this, not so much for the extra few particles of food I save, but to conserve the precious water.
In 1985, I changed my diet. In April, after spending six months here without a piece of fresh fruit, I decided that as long as I stayed below, I would live on a fruit, nut and dairy diet. The social consequences were marvelous. As long as I was only a "vegetarian", people would try to cook me vegetarian food and often do terribly. Too many times they would, by habit, throw a bouillon cube in the rice without thinking of what a bouillon cube is. Once I limited myself to fresh fruit, nuts and dairy, they no longer felt obligated to prepare something special for me which, more often than not, wasn't the sort of food I eat. The yogi's diet doesn't only avoid meat but requires a certain balance and even restricts certain vegetable products not conducive to his practice. While I was at it, I eliminated added salt and sugar from my food. I did accept most vegetables freshly picked from someone's own garden or gathered from the wild. With these restrictions, I would usually receive appropriate food for a yogi wherever I went.
When I returned to
In India, the
In the spring of 1986 I went to India and continued my
This diet was a convenience and an experiment to be maintained as long as I found it beneficial. The most significant restriction in this diet was the elimination of added salt. I do have one non-food source of sodium, the baking soda [Footnote 4] I use to brush my teeth, but I estimate my daily intake of sodium from this as less than 50 mg.. Although in the mountains of Nepal I noticed no adverse effect from my limited sodium intake, in the plains of India I found that I couldn't perspire heavily and then drink water without dizziness. In the high heat, I had to limit my activity and replenish lost liquid by eating fruit. After maintaining this diet for two years, I concluded that it makes little difference physiologically but a great difference socially. In 1987, I resumed eating grains and
Diet may be evaluated in many terms. The prevalent method today relies on the external analysis of food, and talks in terms of calories, vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, proteins and fats. In the summer I consume about 2000 calories per day and in the winter, 2700. Despite all the advertising touting high protein foods, your body can utilize no more than two ounces of protein per day for building itself; the rest is either oxidized or converted to body fat. Grains, legumes and nuts provide more than enough protein for me. Protein molecules are built from the 25 amino acids; the protein in each food has a fixed proportion of each amino acid. The proportions of the amino acids in the proteins you consume should roughly match the proportions of the amino acids in the human body. Both grains and legumes are deficient in certain amino acids, but the deficiencies in the grains are offset by sufficiencies in the legumes and visa versa; as long as you eat a mixture of grains and legumes, you consume amino acids in balance. Of course, if you consume refined flours instead of whole grains, you can find yourself in trouble.
I get B vitamins from the grains, legumes and nuts. In the summer my A and C vitamins come from fresh leaves; in the winter they come from the dry fruit, dry leaves and rose hips. Vitamin D is synthesized in my skin by the sun. I haven't bothered to add up my consumption of all the minerals, but my diet seems adequate. The vitamin most used to scare vegetarians is vitamin B-12. B-12 is a funny vitamin. It's synthesized in the human colon but it may not be adequately absorbed by the body. Except for a trace in miso, it isn't found in vegetable foods. I doubt it's needed by a well-functioning body for if it were, many of the yogis I've met would be dead. I suspect that yoga exercises which exert pressure on the abdomen improve its absorption. On the other hand, certain anemics are found to have deficiencies of vitamin B-12, and their anemia is cured by doses of it. The Japanese monks, who have the best defined tradition of a purely vegetable diet, eat miso; for most of my life, I've either followed their lead or else have included some dairy in my diet.
I'm of the persuasion that nutrients should be obtained from food and not vitamin pills or other supplements. Still, I let my friends talk me into taking along a bottle of vitamin pills before spending the first winter here. It didn't weigh much and I figured that it might be useful either if my calculations for my diet proved wrong or if some accident destroyed an essential component of my food. Since my diet has proven adequate the little bottle sits here with its seal unbroken.
External analysis of food isn't the only way to evaluate diet. It fails to take the digestability of foods into account, and overlooks the differences in efficiency among individuals in the utilization of food. It ignores the tendency of certain foods to produce gas or otherwise upset the body. There are other systems of dietary evaluation, such as the classifications according to
Food should be simple and sustaining. Beyond that, it shouldn't occupy the mind. Either too little or too much of it disturbs the equilibrium. Eating most or all of the daily intake at one sitting reduces the time, energy and thought directed to food as does eating more or less the same food every day. At best, a meal frees you to practice yoga; at worst, it inhibits practice; in no case does it advance the practice. It would be nice if there were a diet through which you could eat your way to enlightenment but, since none exists, the best you can aim for is sustenance with minimal effort and attention.
Most of what I carry up is food; the labor involved encourages me to minimize my diet. I'm fortunate to have an excellent health-food co-op in my home town. It has low shelf prices and offers additional discounts for bulk purchases and for helping out in the store, but more important than its advantageous prices is receiving my food from friendly people who make a sincere effort to get me the best they can.
Soon I became aware that more than one mouse was running about. One would be inside my tent and another would be making music atop my metal canisters. The weather was bad; more and more often I was shitting inside. The mice fed upon my shit. That year, before I had a bucket, I would shit in plastic bags; the mice would climb in, have a feed and jump out again. Since my food was well protected, I had no worries about it. Then I noticed some nibbling on my tent and had to start rounding up rodents. Once inside the tent, a mouse is easy to catch. I would chase it into a corner, cap it with a funnel and slide it into an old aluminum pot where I would keep it until I got a good enough day to take it down a distance from the cave.
The previous winter, when I had come here in February and stayed six weeks, not a scurry was heard. The mice were surviving by means of me and my excrement. They wander up in the summer; those that don't drift back down perish in the winter. Marmots and pika, mammals whose principal habitat is above tree line, are dormant in winter. The best I could do for the mice was to transport them down to the woods where some survive. Nature isn't kind to small creatures in winter. Mice are the sustenance of birds and other predators; few of the mice which start the winter live to see the spring.
While a mouse was in captivity he was
The funniest mouse I caught that year was the fourth mouse, my Christmas mouse. He was the biggest of the lot. Each time I captured a mouse, I would put some bark in the pot to give him something other than metal to sit upon. I caught the Christmas mouse five days before Christmas. The other mice would just lie on the bark, but he chewed it into fine shreds and arranged himself a nice little nest. His appetite seemed insatiable;
The weather was stormy; I had no opportunity to bring him down. His pot began to stink so on Christmas day, a day so stormy that I didn't venture outside, I set him loose in the cave. I had hoped that five days in captivity would have taught him a lesson and that he would try to escape, but instead, he went scurrying around in the vicinity of the tent. I tried a variety of screams to chase him; he would disappear for a few minutes and return. I cleaned the pot and waited. Soon he was sitting on a boot and peering through the tent door. Then he began his pattern of exploration. He would peek in a little distance and scamper back out, probe a bit further and again run out. This kept up for a few minutes until one time, on his way out, he ran into a closed door; soon he was back in the pot and was shredding a fresh pile of bark to make a nest.
The stormy weather continued. Four days later came an eerie calm. The temperature rose to thirty and the mountain was enveloped in fog. The mouse was still in captivity; I decided to attempt to bring him down. Since the visibility was about fifteen feet, I followed a dividing line between rock and snow that led down from the cave. Suddenly a breeze blew up and the visibility dropped. It was no longer safe to venture further. I was sure that the mouse would have no difficulty finding his way back to the cave from where I had reached, but I decided to turn him loose anyway. If nothing else, he needed the exercise and his pot needed to be cleaned once more. I dropped him in the snow but instead of burrowing down into it, he started clambering up the bare rock straight toward the cave. After scouring the pot with snow, I plodded back feeling certain that I would find him waiting for me. When I arrived there was silence. Into the night there was silence. I began to feel worried about the mouse. If he had travelled in a straight line, he would have encountered little but bare rock between the spot where I had deposited him and the cave. Perhaps he had tired and with no place to burrow, had frozen to death. The following afternoon my anxieties were over. I heard a loud crumpling of plastic from the direction of my shit bag. The mouse was back and with ravenous hunger, instead of gently climbing into the bag he had ripped it open. If the shit hadn't been well-frozen, it would have been a mess. I shouted at him and he disappeared for a while but at dark, I spotted him sitting on the toe of my boot. Again the ritual began. He probed a few inches into the tent, then a little further until the door of the tent was drawn upon him; after a brief chase, he was sitting once more inside his pot with a fresh supply of bark. The second of January, it finally cleared. I snowshoed far down, turned him loose and that was the last I saw of him.
During the reign of the Christmas mouse within the pot, the shrew was scurrying about outside. Shrew patter sometimes seemed to be coming from two directions at once. Then I noticed two different patterns of shrew behavior and finally saw two shrews at once, namely
January was a peaceful month. I didn't hear a single mouse. The shrews were improvising on the canisters, but otherwise seemed to be minding their own business. Towards the end of the month, I began finding shrew shit in my tent. Apparently they were entering the tent while I was outside. One day, I caught them by surprise. As I entered the tent, I heard them scamper out. They didn't seem to have left by the door. I looked around the edge of the tent. Towards the rear, I saw a minuscule hole through which they had escaped. The following night I heard them in my tent. When I turned on my light, the two of them dashed for their hole. They seemed to have come from my dirty clothes bag. I examined it and saw nibblings on my soiled loincloths. This was enough damage to warrant deportation of the shrews. One morning I saw them both running around outside the tent door. I capped one with the funnel and slid him into the pot.
Shrews are amazing little creatures. They weigh only a few grams, but are anatomically akin to the largest of mammals. They have an extremely high rate of metabolism and must eat every few hours. I once caught a shrew in the Adirondacks. Before dawn, I heard a scampering up and down and all around my tent. At dawn I realized that some creature was running about inside the tent. I opened the door, chased him out and saw he was a shrew. Two minutes later he was back inside. Some smell from the tent seemed to be driving him crazy. I caught him with the intention of taking him a distance away, but I wasn't ready to leave. My food was hung between two trees; the first thing I thought to do was to get out of my tent and feed him something. I prepared myself to go out but then heard loud banging from the container in which I had put him. After a moment it stopped but when I looked in the container, I saw that he had battered himself to death.
This time, I resolved to be careful with the shrew. I keep my food in canisters; one canister, which contains food for immediate consumption, sits right by the door of my tent. I put some
I had learned that shrews just can't take captivity. Hence I refrained from pursuing the other shrew. Still the signs of nibbling increased. On a perfect February day, after I had finished my meal, the shrew came in, right through the door of the tent. I trapped him, immediately pulled on my boots and headed down with him. I released him on the snow; he scampered over to a boulder and disappeared down the gap between the snow and the rock. I saw no more shrews that winter.
In late January, I began to notice mouse tracks around my outdoor shitting spot. I would be grateful to any creature that devours the stuff, just as long as he doesn't come and chew on things in the cave, but soon I started hearing mice scurrying about the cave once more. I began seeing young mice in the cave but they stayed outside of the tent. One day I noticed that the sleeves for my tent poles were being eaten and had to take action. Since the mice wouldn't come inside the tent I had to catch them on the outside. They would run right in front of the door; I sat in wait with the funnel in hand and capped one. I took him away and the next day tried for another. Unfortunately, I came down wrong with the funnel and had myself a mouse with a broken spine.
I knew that my aim wasn't accurate enough to prevent this from repeating; I needed a different way to catch the mice. One gallon fuel tin was empty. I made a trap from it by cutting an opening in the top, tying a string to the handle and looping it about my tent line so pulling the string would jerk up the tin. Then, with the perverted sense of poetic justice which sometimes attacks a person too long in isolation, I baited the trap with a piece of the frozen brown solid that was around in surplus and which the mice seemed to love.
The contraption was ready. I sat with the string in hand. Soon I heard some scampering on metal. I pulled the string and heard banging inside the tin. I looked inside and saw a mouse but the mouse wasn't the only thing inside the tin. I wanted to get the mouse into the pot where he could be kept warm, but I didn't want to start unfreezing a lump of shit inside my pot. First I held the tin with its opening leading into the pot, with the hope that the mouse would run out and land in the pot, but the mouse wouldn't budge. Then I tried banging on the tin to scare him out, but this too was of no avail. I decided to let the mouse finish his meal and to give another try later; I set the tin upright and went back to my own business. After a while, I heard banging from the tin, but it didn't last long. Later, when I was ready to have another try at maneuvering the mouse into the pot, to my surprise, the mouse was no longer within. I had underestimated his jumping ability and didn't suspect that a mouse could jump for an opening in the top of the tin, grab on and clamber out.
The next day, I dumped out the lump of shit. I figured that the residual smell of both it and the mouse that had spent an hour within would be enough to draw mice into the tin. I was right. That evening, within an hour I caught a mouse. Without the shit to worry about, I easily dumped the mouse into the pot. I took it away and caught another. The weather kept me close to the cave; I was hearing new mice before having a chance to take a captive away. Sometimes, if after a long wait with string in hand I finally caught a mouse, my first reaction was "gotcha, you little shit-eating rodent", but once he was sitting securely within the pot he became
It's not so hard for a mouse to find its way back if I release it directly down from the cave; I suspected the mice were returning. Thus I picked a new place to bring them, a gully at about the same altitude as the cave reached by traversing a system of ledges around a buttress. >From there it's an easy run down to the trees, but unless a mouse discovers the ledges I use for the traverse, it's difficult to come directly back. The mouse would have to go down to the forest, circle the base of the buttress and then come up. I made three more catches that winter, but because the weather in March was bad, I couldn't deport them mice promptly. When I left that April, a mouse was still at large in the cave. The rodents had made me put patches on my tent, but hadn't caused any irreparable damage. I myself left a greater hole in the tent when once, I almost burned it down with the stove.
In 1984, I came prepared with a live-catching mouse trap so I would no longer have to sit in wait with string in hand, a second tent so a little nibbling at it needn't concern me, and a bucket with lid in which to shit. Yet while I was still in the tent outside of the cave, there was a calamity. One night, I heard a mouse scurrying inside the tent. My boots were at the entrance with the drawstring pulled around their tops, but unless I pull it especially tight, enough of a gap remains so a mouse can squeeze through. The mouse must have entered through this gap but was unable to find his way back out. Anyway, I opened the door and chased him out. Once I was up, I stretched my upper body out through the door to check the weather. It was snowing moderately so I pulled myself back in. The next morning, when I picked up my boots, I saw a flattened mouse under one of them. When I lean out of the tent, I rest an elbow on my boots and place enough weight upon them to do in any mouse unfortunate enough to take shelter beneath them.
Mice were in the cave from the night I moved in. Since it was only October, I waited a while to see if the mouse population would thin out by itself. The bucket with lid kept them from their supply of shit inside the cave, but they still could commute to the pile outside. The decibel level of scurrying went on the rise and a gaping hole appeared on the side of my tent; it was time to take action. I baited the trap with a piece of dried apricot and in no time heard it spring. Inside the trap I saw a mouse but the piece of apricot was gone. I hadn't even made the pot ready for a mouse; I slipped a whole dried apricot into the trap to keep him busy while I prepared his quarters. The mouse start nibbling at the apricot; I grabbed a stick of wood, withdrew inside the tent and shaved a pile of bark into the pot. When I reached for the mouse, I saw him lying on his side. I put him in the pot and warmed him but he didn't recover.
I had always gone by the precept that wild animals instinctively know what to eat and how much to ingest. Thus I attributed the demise of the mouse to his having been too long in the trap without any insulation, having tired himself out and having gotten a chill. The next night I put another apricot in the trap. As soon as it sprang, I dumped the mouse into the pot and put the remainder of his apricot in with him. The next day I went to take him around the buttress to the mouse gully. I checked him before leaving. Since the apricot was finished I dropped him another and set off with him. The preceding year I could reach the mouse dropoff point without using crampons. Thus I started with them off but, because the season was windier, on a wind-swept stretch I had to put them on. I reached some bare rock and took them off but, near the end, I needed them on once more. When I opened the pot, the mouse was quivering. I put him on the snow; he could hardly move. I shoved him to the gap between the snow and the rock. He slid down and I left, hoping he would recover. With all the crampon changes, I had taken an unusually long time to reach the dropoff point; I thought that the journey had chilled him or had disoriented him in some other way. The wind had blown a number of grassy spots clear of snow; for bedding for the mice, I gathered as much dry grass as I could before numbing my fingers excessively.
Next, I caught a mouse in daylight. When I lifted the trap I noticed an abnormal number of droppings. I put him in the pot with a fresh piece of dried apricot. When I next looked, the apricot was gone and the mouse was lying dead in a pile of his own shit. Finally, I became suspicious of the apricots. I had chosen them for bait because they were convenient chunks of food to handle, because they had an aroma which would attract mice and because I simply considered them good. I liked them; the mice relished them; I couldn't conceive of such a wholesome food as harmful. But the mice seemed to gorge themselves upon the apricots and get diarrhea which did them in. This destroyed my confidence in the ability of animals to choose their diet. Thus I changed my bait to
By the eighteenth of November, I had caught eighteen mice. Once, I caught two in the trap at once. Mice are cannibalistic so they cannot be kept together in the same container. Since I only had the one pot ready to house mice, I dumped one into the pot and freed the other. The next day, after deporting him, to make a second container, I cut an empty fuel tin in half, bent over the edges and crimped it so that one part slid over the other. That night, I caught one mouse, put him in the pot, reset the trap, caught another and put him in the tin. The mouse jumped around, pushed at the upper piece and escaped. I set the trap and caught him again, but this time I strapped the tin closed. The next morning I took both to the mouse gully; this seemed to be a more efficient way of doing things. I caught two again the next night. In the morning, I heard scurrying and set the trap once more. It sprang, and since I was nearly ready to go, I stuffed some dried grass into the trap to keep the mouse warm, and went off carrying three of them. The next night I also caught two; then things quieted down. November was windy but clear; I never had to keep a mouse for more than one night. In the rush of events, I never got to know the mice well enough to name them. I simply referred to them as
After a week of quiet I caught one and had to keep him several days before the weather allowed me to deport him. A few days after I dropped him off, I caught a mouse once more. This pattern continued until the end of February. Since January and February were cold and windy, I went as much as two weeks without being able to carry the mouse away. I was confident that from
Nevertheless, I was sure that I was catching the same mouse over and over again. I was surprised that he didn't get wise to the trap. The immediate consequence of being trapped, confinement to the pot which soon develops a terrible stench, would seem to be a powerful negative stimulus, but not all creatures have the same abhorrence of their excrement as man. I've seen ill-equipped campers seek refuge from a storm in a stinking outhouse; I've seen desperate travellers on the trains of India ride for hours right next to the latrines. I myself have moved into the cave before my passageways were completed and have tolerated fecal odor while waiting for my shit to freeze. The warmth of the pot and the almonds falling into it might have made the pot a favorable alternative to living outside. Towards the end, the mouse seemed ill. A patch of his fur was missing. The last time he came, I saw him hobbling about the cave. I set the trap without bait; he went right in. I put him in the pot but he just lay on the bottom and hardly ate. After two nights, I had a chance to take him away. He looked terrible when I started out with him; when I reached the dropoff point, he was dead.
Until March, I would see the shrew every other week but he never breeched the tent. Then he started coming inside through a space that the zippers of the cheap second tent failed to seal. He was funny. He would patter around on the pads and sneak up on my sleeping bag, but as soon as I made the slightest move, he would dash for his exit. He would visit me in the mid-morning and disappear for the day. I rather liked the amusing little fellow. Sometimes I would make a grab for him, but only in jest, just to see what he would do. Through March he did no damage and left few droppings. In early April he started taking naps between the pads and that could easily result in crushed shrew. I made a serious attempt to catch him but he escaped through a minuscule hole in the rear of the tent which had escaped my notice. From then on the weather was bad. Since I only had a few more days before leaving, I settled for screaming
During the summer of 1985, I made two improvements in my mouse keeping arrangements. First, I neatly cut two fuel tins for homes for mice. In the summer, when the fingers are warm, handicrafts turn out much better than in the winter. Secondly, I gathered a bag full of grass and dried it for bedding. With ease, I had many times the supply that I had managed to scrounge from wind swept places during the preceding winter.
In October, several nights after moving inside the cave, I heard a thumping on the canisters. The next day, I baited the trap. During the night it sprang but one door failed to close. I noticed that the sheet metal had been bent. The following day, I straightened it out and set the trap once more. It sprang at night, but no animal was within. I set it again; again it sprang without a catch. After repeating the act a third time, I decided to call it quits. Either a mouse had figured out the trap and was stealing the bait or a larger animal, big enough to reach the bait without entering the trap, had come. The next day, I noticed droppings on the canisters too big for a mouse and behind the cave tracks of a larger animal.
Since no damage had been done, I decided to forego the trap for a while to see if it would leave on its own. Every few nights, I would hear thumping on the tins. One midnight, shortly after October full moon, I heard noise in front of the tent. I looked out and the dark body that fled down the entrance tunnel was too big for a mouse. On the last of October, I heard noise in front once more. I sent out a beam of light. The noble creature I beheld was no common mouse. In front of his tail was a body, five inches long in his rodent hunch and longer when stretched. He was the former
My light didn't perturb him. Since I keep my immediate supply of food in canisters outside the tent door and scoop food from them to my pot, particles of food do fall in front of the tent. The Duke was nosing about, within two feet of my tent, and nibbling at them. I lit a candle and got my camera. Since I hadn't used the flash that year, I had to get it from a different bag and put batteries in it. All this time, the Duke was patiently gathering crumbs from the snow, but as I was adjusting the aperture, he took off and disappeared.
I wasn't sure what to make of the Duke. He had been around for a while without causing any damage and even seemed to patrol the area and to keep mice away. He didn't desire to eat my excrement for the lid on the shit bucket isn't tight and he was mighty enough to easily push it off. Nevertheless, if he ever decided that he liked nylon, he was big enough to chew my tent, my sleeping bag and everything else to shreds in short order. While he was nibbling in front of the tent, it would have been easy to catch him, but I would have had to empty a food canister to keep him. Furthermore, he could be difficult to handle and could give a nasty bite. Thus, as long as he was behaving so admirably, I decided to let him be.
November was an exceptionally stormy month. In anticipation of his arrival, I dutifully kept the flash mounted at night, but the Duke didn't come even once. A few times that month I did sight a shrew. One morning, at the end of the month, as I was going towards the toilet alcove, I heard a funny noise. On the way back I stopped to listen. It seemed to be coming from my spare bucket. I do have an extra plastic bucket which I use in the summer for washing clothes and which in winter, could be converted, if necessary, to an additional shit bucket. I looked inside and saw a shrew.
The shrew seemed on the verge of exhaustion. He was jumping against the sides of the bucket but could barely jump an inch. Normally, shrews jump four inches. He must have been in the bucket for a while. Snow is an excellent absorber of sound. If I go to the toilet alcove while my stove is burning, as soon as I turn a corner, the roar of the stove is silenced. The first time this happened, I thought that the stove had gone out and started back to the tent to re-light it. I stepped back into the main passageway but when I heard its roar, I realized the situation. The spare bucket had been left around the corner to the toilet alcove so the shrew could have been banging away for some time without my hearing it.
My first thought was to give him some food. My powdered-milk-raisin-coconut mix was closest at hand; I sprinkled some in the bucket. He ceased his intermittent futile jumps and started nibbling at the powdered milk. I was glad of that and hoped he would revive. My next impulse was to take a picture. In anticipation of the Duke, my camera was ready with mounted flash. Yet, more for showing his size than for giving him food, I tossed an almond into the bucket. The shrew stopped sniffing for the powdered milk and fiercely attacked the almond. He broke off a chip, rested and then mounted a second assault. He rushed to the almond and shook it vigorously but a moment later he was lying on his side and quivering. I picked him up in my hand and tried to warm him but it was no use. A few minutes later, he was dead. I don't know whether he choked on the almond or simply used up his last energy in his attacks, but I did receive another lesson about the frailty of a shrew. I was amazed that he fell into the bucket in the first place. Shrews cannot jump as high as the bucket walls but they can climb vertical walls of snow. I've seen them at play scampering up walls until it gets too steep and then dropping to the floor. Presumably the shrew landed in the bucket in some such way. The bucket had recently been used for washing clothes, but I doubt that the residual detergent odor would have attracted him. I carved a nook with inward slanting walls to keep the bucket, and assumed this would prevent further accidents.
In the beginning of December the weather eased. First, I sighted a mouse. Then one night I heard the Duke thumping on the canisters. The trap had been set for the mouse; a minute later I heard it spring. By then I had lit a candle; when I peered outside, I saw the Duke nibbling at the dried peach used for bait, with his butt holding the trap's door open. I threw some bits of dried peach on the snow in front of the tent. After the Duke had finished the morsel inside the trap, he obligingly hunted for the dried peach bits while I took photo after photo. At first, I had assumed that the flash would send him running so I could get only one shot of him at a time. However, he didn't even blink at the flash. Before he took off, I finished half a roll of film.
For a week, the Duke was not to be seen, but in the interim, I caught two mice. It was a pleasure to have the nicely cut tins and ample bedding ready for them. Instead of keeping them in the pot inside my sleeping bag, and having space for only one, I maneuvered them into their tins and kept them outside the tent door. Then the Duke came by for a few nights in a row. I photographed him both in color and in black and white. By carefully placing the bits of peach, I could pose him with his head in the trap, sitting atop the trap, or even sitting on the toe of my boots. The only problem that I had with posing him was the mice. Whenever he came by, they would start banging within their containers. Although he was oblivious to the flash, this noise would upset him. I had to put the mice to one side. Scurrying, and the other loud noises that small mammals make, seem to be aggressive and territorial. They make little animals sound like big animals. I've seen mice scare each other away with such noises. The racket the mice made inside their tins did unnerve the Duke, but once they were a distance away, he would pose as a perfect model should. After taking enough shots of him on the objects that normally stay outside the tent door, I considered training him to climb my ice axe by putting a trail of peach bits along its shaft, but he stopped coming before I could attempt this. Then on a calm day, I carted the mice to the gully and watched them burrow into the snow.
I heard no further rodent noises that December, but at the end of the month, on my way to the toilet alcove, a dark speck in the spare bucket caught my eye. On the way back, I looked inside and saw a frozen shrew. Although I couldn't figure out how he had managed to get into the bucket, I realized it was no time for further theorizing and followed the simple expedient of inverting the bucket. In early January, I saw another shrew. It relieved me to know that I hadn't annihilated the local shrewdom. Yet on the way to the toilet alcove, I took a careful look at the bucket, just to make sure that some peculiar quirk of fate hadn't turned it right-side up again.
In January there was quiet inside the cave. Although I saw the shrew about once a week, he never breached the tent. At the end of the month came a week of unseasonably warm weather. Around the shit pile, I started seeing mouse tracks. In February, cold stormy weather resumed. On the tenth, I caught two mice. The storms continued without a break. At first they came at zero but they finished with an ice storm at thirty which left glorious feathers of ice covering every surface of rock. On the twenty-sixth, it cleared and I finally got a chance to carry away the mice. The sun warmed the way to the dropoff point but the mouse gully itself faces north and is in the shade. I tossed the mice into the gully and, as I usually do in decent weather, stayed to watch them burrow into the snow. Mice seem to know that the easiest place to dig into is the gap between a rock and the surrounding snow, but the ice storm had sealed these gaps. The mice were running to the edges of a rock, failing to burrow and running to the edges of another rock. They would often lose their grip and go skidding a few feet down the gully. I must have watched them at this for half an hour while sending them, as best I could, telepathic messages to head for below. Finally they slipped and skidded to the last point where I could see them. Without success, they tried burrowing there and finally went down out of sight. I was fearful for their safety. On the ice in midday, they're easy prey for birds and unless they could burrow, they would have no food. However, they were on their own; I returned to my cave. Two days later, I climbed to the high point of the cirque. I ascended a rock route, which was coated with frost and was slow. For my descent, I chose one of the snow gullies. Because of the ice storm, I selected the gully which usually has the softest snow, but instead of being able to slide safely down on my butt, most of the way I had to face into the slope and kick hard to grip with my crampons. It was both treacherous and time-consuming. All the way down, I thought about the mice and hoped that they had had an easier time than I.
That evening, I caught a mouse. Late the following afternoon, I took him to the mouse dropoff point. The way had become treacherous. Hard ice requiring crampons alternated with rock, or thin ice over rock, that murdered the points. Yet, while wondering whether I was truly risking my life for the sake of the mouse or for the gratification of my own ego, I continued along the traverse. When I tossed him into the gully he skidded thirty feet, gained his grip and scampered out of sight.
The beginning of March was unseasonably sunny and warm. Two nights later, I caught two mice. Since I strongly suspected that they were returnees and since in such fine weather, I would rather climb to the rim than traverse to the mouse gully, I took them to a point on the rim opposite the mouse gully. After descending a few feet down the far side, I turned the mice loose. The first one ran to a rock and burrowed down but the second started running straight for the rim. I ran after him and diverted him to a sideways course until he disappeared among the rocks.
A night later, I caught one, and the following night, another. This time I ascended the main snowfield to the rim and sent them down the opposite side. A wind was blowing all the time. I descended facing inward, half for a more secure grip and half to protect my face from the swirling snow. That night, I caught still another mouse and the next day I deposited him on the rim. In the Spring of 1986, I went to India so I left
Over the summer of 1986, improvements in mouse-keeping arrangements were only of quantity, namely, two more neatly cut tins for housing and for bedding, an even larger bag of dry grass. The following winter's mouse catch was twenty-three, twenty-two in November and one the first week of December. I did bring some colored markers for revising this manuscript and tried marking some of the mice with them. Yet, to adequately color a mouse, I had to hold him down and repeatedly jab at his white underside with the marker; since this was unpleasant to the struggling mouse, I marked only a few. Toward the end of November, I caught a blue-bottomed mouse and finally proved they did return from the gully. The last seven mice of that month, I carried to the rim in lots of two, three and two. Since the weather was bad, I released the final, December mouse in the gully. He, at least, never returned. The mouse operation had become smooth and mechanical, yet it wasn't without tragedy. One night in early November, I trapped three. They went into identical containers with identical bedding and identical almonds as far as I could tell, but in the morning one of them was dead.
Several times in November, I sighted the shrew; in December he started entering my tent. At first, he stayed along the edges but then his caution vanished. He would run over and under my pads, in and out my sleeping bag and even across the computer as I was writing; if I lay motionless he would run onto my nose and start picking at the hairs inside my nostrils until I gave a hard sniff to send him away. After he nipped my finger while I was writing, I decided to keep him off the more delicate facial regions. Indeed, December was a crescendo of shrew patter. Did this miniature mammal, not even a ten-thousandth of my weight, really think his racket could scare me away? He had a truly
December 30 was a windy, ten-degree day. My time outside was only twenty minutes, just enough to circumambulate the cave and to empty the bucket. As I returned, the wind gusted wildly; I had to work hard to close my entrance. Next on my agenda was yoga exercise, because of the weather, entirely within my tent. Since my body was worked up and my extremities, cold, I decided to sit for a while in lotus position to regain my equilibrium. I was just beginning to relax when the shrew jumped onto my folded hands and began gnawing at the tip of my index finger. He had taken nips at me before, but this time he chewed at the loose skin around my fingernail without stopping. After a minute I realized that if he kept this up soon he would draw blood; without unfolding my hands, I flicked him away with my thumb. A moment later, I felt him crawling under my calves; an insignificant shift of weight on my part would have done him in. I gave a wolf snarl followed by a snake hiss, but neither budged him from beneath my body. Finally, I unfolded my hands, reached under and brushed him away. After this, I firmly resolved to deport him on the next clear day, but unfortunately, I didn't have a chance to carry out my resolution. A half hour later, after commencing yoga exercise, during a shift in posture I felt something soft under my thigh. I quickly withdrew but in the gloom, I saw a dark speck on my pad. I turned on my light and beheld a dead shrew.
I put the corpse outside the tent and resumed my exercise; the weather kept me from going out to dispose of it that day. During the night I heard shrew patter on my canisters. Had the shrew miraculously revived? The next morning, when I looked outside my tent, the corpse was missing. Later, after dressing to go out and donning my specs, I looked down the entrance tunnel and saw the corpse dragged far down the tunnel and a live shrew running about it. The day was better; I opened the tunnel and tossed the corpse outside. Had the whole raucous act of the first shrew been for asserting his territory against the second? The second shrew stayed with me until spring. After a week he began entering the tent but mostly, he stayed along the edges; he really was funny.
In 1987, the cold, dry season was as hard on the animals as on me. In October, I spotted both mouse and shrew, but if I could see them on the snowless ground, so could the birds. The mouse catch for the winter was four, all trapped in the first week of December, released on the rim, and that was that. The shrew started visiting at the end of December, but didn't enter my tent until February; even then he stuck to his runs along the side.
The star percussionist of the winter was Pythagoras the Pika. This high-altitude relative of the rabbit doesn't hibernate but collect a store of grass during the summer for consumption during the winter. Since I hadn't see pikas out in mid-winter, I had assumed that they were inactive, nibbling at their stores and sleeping to conserve energy. But, Pythagoras visited my cave regularly from December through February and was quite active. Pikas must build an extensive sub-surface tunnel network; finally one connected his to mine. In early February I happened to leave two empty, hence resonant canisters standing beside each other. The shrew would somehow wedge himself between the two and trill a rapid "trrr-ti-ta-ta, trrr-ti-ta-ta". Pythagoras would jump atop them both and with his lupine feet, beat a strong, rhythmic "boom-dah-di-BOOM-bah".
I do feel a certain kinship with the mice. We're creatures from below, attempting to survive in an environment foreign to our species. I doubt this feeling is reciprocated. The first winter, I cut my finger on the tin trap I had made; the next morning I saw the mice licking the snow where blood had dripped. During the course of a winter of feet confined to boots, every so often pieces of calloused skin peel off. I've tossed these pieces outside of my tent and have watched the mice gleefully devour them. The mice would have their finest time if I were to give up my ghost and leave them a corpse. Nevertheless, I doubt there's any conscious wish for my death on their part. They don't go about thinking, "If we nibble away at this human's tent, he'll freeze to death and then, oh boy, we'll have a feast." When presented with a fabric tent, they chew at it because of their gnawing instinct; if they were presented with my corpse, they would bite into it out of the same instinct, without perceiving any connection between the two. I, on the other hand, do sometimes reflect on my mouse-killing days in Nepal, when I might even find two in my spine-crushing trap, and think of how quickly I could have a scurry-free cave if my ethics hadn't changed.
During the summer, I get along perfectly with the marmots and pikas. They live under the rocks right by my cave and dash all around, but leave my equipment alone. I keep my food protected. The only loss I ever had from them in the summer was a set of prayer beads. The beads, from Nepal, are seeds of the
In the spring, marmots have broken into gear I store. They've knocked over canisters, gnawed through the cord securing the lids and pried them open. They've chewed boots to bits and have dragged my spare ice axe fifty feet away from the cave. They must emerge from hibernation in a famished state at a time when food still is scarce. I've become more careful about storing my gear and use wire to tighten down lids. By summer they have enough food of their own so they no longer disturb my equipment.
The worst thing I could do to this environment would be to foster a colony of mice. They would compete with the local mammals in summer and might disturb their hibernation in winter. The mice would be dependent upon me and would die out the first winter I failed to come and supply them with excrement. I must cart the mice away as best I can. Experience is teaching me how to do this and lose as few as possible in the process.
1. Swami Govindanand Saraswati,
2. Millie Miller,
3. Millie Miller and Cyndi Nelson,
4. Sodium bicarbonate, NaHCO3. [Return]
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