Voles are the cause of two things that Americans abhor: trespassing and costly destruction of property. What’s a writer to do?
When I learned my husband was battling voles, I asked, “What’s that?” “Google it,” was the reply, his go-to for anything from fluke recipes to methods of tearing up deck planks. Rather than learning about the creature’s lifestyle, I found sites promoting its destruction, a vole holocaust, companies waxing lyrical about a looming apocalypse for voles and stoking proprietary fervor to save one’s land. I scrolled through “How to Exterminate Voles,” “Guaranteed Vole Control,” “Moles and Voles—Exodus Exterminating,” “Say Goodbye to Moles and Voles Forever!” And then I found pictures.
The miscreant is not quite a mole, whose eyes and ears are hidden to keep out dirt as it tunnels underground, and not quite a field mouse, whose body is slimmer, tail a bit longer. Still, voles look like Beatrix Potter’s Mrs. Tittlemouse or Hunca Munca, gentle inhabitants of downy British meadows that occupied my imagination as a child. Rather than invading and destroying, Mrs. Tittlemouse guards against intrusive spiders and beetles and struggles to tidy her home. I can still picture Hunca Munca, modeled on a mouse Potter rescued from her cousin’s cage trap in Gloucestershire, holding her adorable baby beside a purloined cradle. Despite some destructive behavior on the part of the protagonists, the tale is not an indictment of mice—or voles.
But now—like coyotes in suburban California, rats in Paris, deer ticks in Cape Cod, cockroaches in New York—voles have invaded and their social media profile, plummeted. They are the cause of two things that Americans abhor: trespassing and costly destruction of property. New rosebushes in my yard have turned skeletal, brown, and barbed, toppling at the touch of my hand. There are many children underground to feed. The meadow vole has a high-speed, high-voltage reproductive system. By a month old, a female vole is ready and may have ten litters of ten babies in a single year. If we dropped powder repellents down the vole holes that pock our yard, a few individuals might move, but hordes are ready to move in as vacancies occur. Any yard is a virtual farmers’ market of grass and tree roots, bulbs and tubers. Two recent bumper crops of acorns here on Long Island have contributed to the voles’ success.
As I walk around the yard, the ground gives way unexpectedly here and there, like a sigh, a sinking of spirits, a hint that the land suddenly isn’t what I expect, and then I picture the voles like little miners whose ceiling collapses, causing avalanches and landslides. Seems both futile (on my part) and unfair (on theirs).
My husband is at war with this unseen enemy—whole colonies avidly nesting, procreating, nibbling leaf stems, and gnawing on tubers.
On the opposite coast in the redwood forests of Northern California and Oregon, the white-footed vole is desirable, little known, elusive, and rare. Conservationists traipse through the woods with detection dogs, hoping to find these little creatures since survival of the environment, they say, depends on knowledge of its inhabitants. Once the rescue dogs have sniffed out a vole residence, conservationists set a trap to capture the animal gently and safely, but a dog might spend weeks without a whiff. Apparently, it’s highly unusual for scientists not to know much about a mammal. In this case, they know only that the vole eats alder, is endemic to the coastal coniferous forests of Northern California and Oregon, and may or may not be arboreal. Mystery and scarcity make this rodent everything its counterpart on the East Coast is not.
My husband paces around the yard, cursing the voles and blaming them for every brown patch of grass.
“Maybe it’s because you fired the lawn guy?”
“Nope. It’s voles.”
“Maybe it’s our son’s dog.”
He is at war with this unseen enemy—whole colonies avidly nesting, procreating, nibbling leaf stems, and gnawing on tubers. One morning I found him stuffing something down a hole in the backyard. When I went to investigate, I found, lying on the spring lawn, a pack of smoke bombs with a label that promoted dense, suffocating smoke. “It’s for the voles,” he informed me (as if stating the obvious). “Larry tried it, though with limited success.” At the look on my face, he reconsidered the idea and set off for the hardware store, returning with a box full of alarming metal spikes with square tops that he drove into the ground. “Ultrasonic repellent,” he said. “They send out high beeps that the voles don’t like.” That sounded reasonable. So we waited the requisite four weeks for them to depart. But our voles enjoyed the chorus. More holes appeared alongside the hydrangea and beside the newly planted garden of phlox and marigolds and zinnias. Tunnels swelled and ran for yards at a time. “Okay, we’ll stick a hose down the holes and flood them out,” he vowed. We counted 85 holes and stopped counting. The whole yard would flood, he decided. Or turn to quicksand.
Horticulturalists suggest hanging screech owl nest boxes near your garden to save your crop, but my husband has not yet taken that approach.
“You saved the vole?” “What would you have done?” I asked my husband as he turned his back.
Before I knew what a vole was, I spotted a mouse on the back of a lawn chair at about the same time that my son’s dog did. There perched a pudgy ball with a short tail and ears like flower petals, balancing on the top rung, and there stood the dog, nose aquiver, eyes beaming, darting at the chair and positioning himself to do something—tease it, devour it, maul it, or toss it about like a play mouse—I didn’t know and didn’t want to witness. But I couldn’t catch the dog, the mouse seemed paralyzed on its high-rise, and the dog is really fast, probably faster than a mouse, so what to do… I picked up the entire chair and flicked the mouse behind a pine tree, thinking I might deter the dog for a split second, which would be long enough for the mouse to scurry and hide. Later, in a tumble from innocence due to my research online, I realized this cute, brown-and-white, brown-eyed thing I could cup in my palm was a vole, maybe the very vole that ate the rosebush.
“You saved the vole?”
“What would you have done?” I asked my husband as he turned his back.
“I’d see if it could’ve outwitted Lorenzo.”
“Really?” I called. “A gladiator fight—great.”
Some weeks later, I found a bag of VoleX in the garage. Its cheerful yellow bag sported a claim to be eco-friendly. Indeed, it is “non-toxic” and “kills voles right where they live.” The bag was unopened but ready.
Prairie voles, unlike the promiscuous meadow ones, choose a mate for life and show powers of empathy usually attributed to great apes, crows, wolves, elephants, and some humans. At Emory University, scientists separated pairs of prairie voles and subjected some of those they removed to loud noise and minor electric shock. When they were reunited, the voles spent a much longer time grooming the stressed voles than those that weren’t stressed even though the group that stayed behind never witnessed the stress. A vole consoled only its mate and did so after the first test, so the response was not learned. Somehow the vole just knew.
Is it a leap to call prolonged licking empathetic? Is biological data more convincing than subjective inferences of emotions in a vole? Stressed and unstressed voles had the same levels of stress hormone, meaning the one that remained free actually felt anxious to the same level as the one that had been caged and tortured. Biologically proven empathy. The observing vole even froze when it heard a tone associated with shock and groomed itself to the same degree it groomed its mate. Does this measured physiological response legitimize our calling it a feeling? A feeling of empathy more real, I think, than that of a human shaking his head for the person in a car wreck as he sits in traffic cursing the crash for making him late to lunch.
As reported in The Atlantic, Emory scientist Larry Young says there is “cognitive empathy,” which leads one to imagine, What if that were me?—a projection of self that the person in the car is attempting. This is Atticus’s lesson to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird: true maturity occurs when you can put yourself in someone else’s shoes. Clearly, the vole isn’t reasoning and contemplating being some other vole. But then there is “emotional empathy,” which, according to Young, is “more of a gut, instinctual feeling.” That seems to underlie the vole’s impulse to console, and I think it has a certain validity. When books on child rearing counseled me never to allow my baby in bed with me, I held out for months but finally succumbed when I felt (instinctively and beyond all reason) that my baby needed something. Whatever it was, she did, but not for long. The problem resolved.
On that afternoon with the dog, my gut feeling was to save the mouse. Would I, had I known it was a vole that had cost me hundreds and eaten up my time? That very morning I had walked around with a bucket of topsoil filling holes, losing track after counting to 90, and stomping down on the swollen soil. If the holes open up again, say the exterminators, you know they are still doorways to active residences, not shells former tenements left vacant, and you know to pour poison down those holes. You can feed the voles chemicals that cause internal hemorrhaging. Or introduce snakes to your yard. Or do nothing.
While we could never bring ourselves to poison the voles with vicious powders, my husband maintains the roses have a right to live too.
As I picture voles and their arterial tunnels and graves, I imagine the world turned inside out, the invisible made visible—worms, bats, termites, moles, burrowing toads, locust larvae, grubs, ants, bustling and squirming and wriggling in the sunshine the way a centipede does when you overturn a rock, destroy its refuge, electrify it to take cover. I see a sci-fi world of this earth we walk on, a world after Armageddon. All that we call brown, unthinking brown, assumes nuanced shadows and hues of walnut, amber, ecru, dun, hazel, chocolate, russet, umber, puce, khaki, fawn, and oak in milky morning light or the glare of midday or the streaks and pitches of sunset—just as all that scrambles through our dreams or meanders through our semi-conscious thoughts at night dresses differently by day.
Were the invisible made visible, the unseen seen, we would look for the sacred in new places—a hefty taproot storing food and supporting a leafy life above, the seed or the radicle or the searching, absorbing networks of fibrous systems strung like the lacework tendons of a suspension bridge or the mirror image of tree branches and twigs that crisscross the sky. Maybe the divine is not a worm itself but the worm’s control of each segment of muscle and setae as it elongates and shrinks, sets up anchor, and knows when to let go. There must be more permanence in a windless arena, more certain survival than occurs in seasons where we witness visible birth and death, unfurling buds and crinkly fingertips of ferns—mortality—which is not in the usual definition of the divine.
Because of the voles and their destruction, I wonder what to kill and what not to kill. While we could never bring ourselves to poison the voles with vicious powders, my husband maintains the roses have a right to live too. When I’ve been away for a few weeks, I crank open a window to find a mass of ants and an anthill on the ledge. The ants scurry helter-skelter, I grab the Fantastik, let loose a cloudburst of chemicals, and whoosh, wipe away a homestead with a paper towel. Afternoon sunrays suddenly light a spider web strung between the lip of the window and a strand of ivy growing up the wall and a flowering hydrangea. It’s twice the span of my hand, concentric, pleasingly symmetrical but not, and a small, furled spider sits at the heart of it. The silk is pure protein—spiders need to eat part of their web to compensate for the loss of energy in making it—the silk is five times stronger than piano wire. Will such facts stay my hand, already raised to wipe it out? Or will the aesthetics, enhanced by the whimsical position of the sun that happened to light each deceptively ephemeral strand and its position in the entirety of the design? I’m dazzled by the web’s size and complexity and the unknown quantity of time the spider was at work in my absence with every right to build here, where I was not. The paper towel is dappled with dead ants. A mosquito quivers in the web, and I leave it there. I leave the spider its kingdom, knowing how shamefully arbitrary are my choices.
Whimsical. Capricious. Arbitrary. A lot of decisions feel that way these days. Do we put together a decapitation squad to off a contentious leader or wipe out a country just nanoseconds before being wiped out ourselves, maybe? I could read a rationale for either impulse. It has become easy to imagine a country in which all internet sites relating to an antagonist contain nothing but methods of annihilation. To kill or let live, don’t overthink it. Feel free and safe, not just this summer, but for summers to come.
Recently my husband remarked, “I think the voles have moved. They’re over at Larry’s now.” He says it’s because he put nasty smelling powder in the holes by the roses, but I don’t think so. There had been hundreds of holes. He didn’t use that much powder. But I don’t reveal my doubts about his conquering prowess. Instead, I picture new babies agog in a new land, little eyes opening to hearty hydrangea roots and mothers growing plump on Larry’s newly planted pines along his driveway and freshly installed Andromeda populating all the earth not covered by lawn and all those roots luxuriating in fresh earth turned over and loosened for easy vole access by a guy that Larry hired to beautify his property and fatten his profits. Old stands of oaks shield the vole holes from osprey that wing overhead, and Larry keeps his corgis on a leash for reasons that have nothing to do with burgeoning populations underground.
Caroline Sutton’s essay collection, Don’t Mind Me, I Just Died, was published by Montemayor Press in 2017, followed by a memoir, Mainlining, in 2020. Her essays have appeared in Kenyon Review, Gulf Coast,The Literary Review,North American Review, The Pinch, Cimarron Review, Southwest Review, and Ascent, among others. She is at work on a new collection of essays focused on the natural world.