The Political Theory of Small Rodents


There are trees on my street, you might remember, and earlier this year (I think it was February) the Man came along and carved up the sidewalk to plant a few more. I remember this being something of a surprise, because if you had asked me ahead of time I would have said, There is no room for more trees. But the Man and his big dumptruck proved me wrong.

(The funny part is, a few days later an envelope came that gave instructions on how to care for the tree. This, too, was something of a surprise. I did not imagine I would be on the hook for a tree I did not ask for and did not pick out. Residents, the instructions said, are advised to water the tree… only 20 gallons of water per week!)

…Where was I? Oh, yes. There is a new tree right in front of my stoop, and they go to the [deleted] about every 20 feet or so. Just up the street, a burrow appeared in the newly exposed rectangle of dirt under one of the trees.

I am not a zoologist; I don’t know what critter lives there. A rat, probably. But what I do know is that a small-scale tug-of-war is playing out in that bare space. Someone on the block has been struggling in vain to fill in the hole. Almost every day, an unseen hand will have covered it up (with dirt, sand, barbecue ash) or blocked it with a rock or tried some other just-as-ineffectual measure. Within hours, it seems, the unseen critter will have dug itself back out.

And the next day the hole will be filled in again. And it will open back up. This goes on and on.

At first, I presumed that the unseen hole-hater had lacked the nerve to employ the only useful solution: extermination. I figured the daily innovations of wadded-up shopping bags, tree bark and such like were the products of an unusually fertile, if futile, mind. There was something melancholy and beautiful about the hopefulness in someone’s believing that, this time the filled-in burrow would stay filled in.

After a while, though, I came to consider a different point of view. I realized that what I presumed was a campaign against underground vermin might in fact be an attempt at engagement. I mean, what better way to stimulate a burrowing animal than to give it new burrowing challenges every day? It seems reasonable to conclude that an animal that lives underground is pleasantly diverted by digging activities. This isn’t far-fetched; you can argue that the United States government operates on similar principles. (Broadly speaking, it may also explain why young people who unironically wear cutoff denim shorts live in Williamsburg.) And so for several days, I began to scrutinize my neighbors for clues, perhaps an unnaturally curious grin, as to who it was who wanted to make a cross-species connection.

The other day, I noticed that the hole had been enlarged. Obviously, this could be evidence of a whole new dynamic. Perhaps it was sign of a pregnancy. Or maybe it meant that a larger critter had moved in, creating an underground power struggle. The implication, of course, is that now the possibly well-meaning hole-filler’s pleasing distractions would become dangerous time-wasters for the burrow’s original resident.

Today, it’s raining. Up to 4 inches, they say. Which brought me back full circle, in a sense. Because flushing that burrow with water is what I would have done in the first place.