The Ermine

by Susan Eirich, Ph.D.

I was driving to town the other day to run errands. I was almost there when I suddenly felt a strange movement and weight on the top of my right thigh. I looked down and thought, “That is a large mouse.” Then I realized it wasn’t a mouse at all. It was an ermine.*

We have had a family on the property for years. They have never caused any trouble with our chickens or eggs, and we peaceably coexisted, though once one ill-advisedly attached itself to the back of the foot of one of our ducks. We take great delight in seeing their lithe forms darting across the property. We don’t keep domestic cats because of their preying on birds and other small animals which the wild ones need for survival, but the ermine serve the purpose admirably. We do not have a mouse problem.

In an instant it was gone, somewhere into the depths of the car. Why was it there? What to do? I was a minute or so from the post office where I needed to post a bill. I parked, left the motor running, dashed in and dashed out, meaning to cut the errands short and return it to our mutual home. To my dismay as I came back out I saw the tiny from dashing under the next car in the lot. It hid in the shadow of its front wheel, the only shelter available in all that asphalt. It was breathing hard, obviously panicked. I turned off the engine, opened all the doors, and waited by the other car until the owner came out, to make sure they didn’t accidentally run it over. The lady was lovely and concerned. But try as we might we couldn’t get it back into my car. It is next to impossible to catch wild ermine in the best of circumstances. In the end all I could do was hope that as we live in a small town, if it made it safely across the one main road on one side, or the paving of several parking lots on the other, then trees, grass and ultimately wilderness lay on either side. I looked across the expanse of asphalt, vast from an ermine’s perspective, and realized how much even in this small town we had paved over the living Earth. The asphalt was broken only by a few planted trees surrounded by decorative gravel. Looking at it from this perspective, it made me question if we really needed it all. We should think, when we pave over the living earth, and then choose to do so only sparingly.

I drove home worried and saddened, yet not without hope. They are so fast. So small. Such survival artists that perhaps it will be OK. But how we do harm by our unnatural existence as we interface with the natural world! My car wasn’t used for a few days while I was away and apparently it seemed to be a safe place to make a nest. Safe at one moment in a green and peaceful land; then in a split second transformed into a noisy vibrating container. Trying to escape, it entered a bizarre world of hot lifeless asphalt, fumes and noise, as displaced as if one of us was suddenly plucked out of our comfortable existence and dropped on a strange, unforgiving planet.

Try as we might, we cause unintentional harm by our non-natural existence interfacing with the natural world (in this case cars next to a wilderness area). And that is only what we see. The huge onslaught of civilization causes unimaginable catastrophe for the wild ones that we don’t see.

Though it is my belief that their pain and ours goes into the atmosphere as a kind of energy and affects us all. As, however, so do the good deeds and efforts. We just have to change the balance. We have to live with less impact. More simply. I believe we would be happier too.

I deeply regret my single-mindedness. And next time mailing the bill and “urgent” errand can wait.

* Small weasel who turns white in winter

Dr. Susan Eirich is the Founder and Executive Director of Earthfire Institute Wildlife Sanctuary and Retreat Center. A licensed psychologist, biologist and educator, her goal is to widen the circle of conversation about conservation to include the voices of all living beings.

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