American Gods and Brother Muskrat

I’ve recently started listening to Neil Gaiman’s Tenth Anniversary Edition of American Gods on my Audible app and like his other books Norse Mythology and Unnatural Creatures, I was immediately entranced with the intensity, depth, and diversity of themes, characters, and emotions covered in these incredible novels. I’ve often told myself that I’m not a fan of fiction, but when it comes to myths and legends, I’m hooked every time.

Some of my favorite stories are the oral creation myths of the Native American nations that covered this land before their stories were put to paper in the 1800’s. I also enjoy the horrific historic tales Aaron Manke puts together in his podcast LORE, where he spins tales about witches, demons, malevolent forces, and the believing humans that are affected by them. Scary stuff.

I’ve thought a lot about why we tell stories about spirits in the trees, or fantastical creatures, or the legendary battles and events that took place near our homes. My relatives in Northern Ireland live near the Giant’s Causeway, where according to the teachings of science the huge interlocking columns of rock were caused by ancient volcanic activity producing hexagonal columns of basalt, a young igneous rock that cooled quickly after exiting the earth and hardening into the form we see today. In the legends of the Celts, the causeway was built by an Irish folk hero named Finn McCool who fought a Scottish giant named Benandonner who had crossed from Findal’s Cave on the isle of Staffa, whose similar columns were thought to be the end of a section of causeway that, after McCool had defeated him, Benandonner destroyed as he fled.

Despite scientific study and rational explanations, stories about how things came to be still abound because in many ways, emotions carry more weight for us than our manifestations of common sense, facts, or figures. As Jonathan Haidt pointed out in his books The Happiness Hypothesis and The Righteous Mind, intuitions come first and then reasoning second. Feelings wash over like water in a bubbling stream, our happiness like the trickling stream over flat river rocks, while our fear and angry roars and rushes like rapids over deep pools and waterfalls. It is with this mindset that I’ve done my own mythologizing about the natural world.

A few months after I had graduated from college I was feeling down about my place in life. While I was happy to tell people I knew that I had become a college graduate, my place in the world wasn’t fated it seemed to be as a wildlife biologist or as a park ranger in a vast state park so without a cookie-cutter path to follow, I knew I was responsible for my own journey. However, without a sign or a way forward, I didn’t know where to turn in life’s journey. So instead, I decided to visit one of my “sacred spaces”.

When I was listening to American Gods this week, Mr. Wednesday (Odin, the Allfather from Norse mythology) describes the House on the Rock, a roadside attraction out in the middle of the American Midwest, as a pilgrimage site with a uniquely American twist. He described how people through history have felt compelled for no discernible reason to build a temple, stone structure, or roadside attraction to draw people in and in the American tradition, to literally “pay” homage. Once they did that, a swampy patch in Florida got turned into castle that became “The Happiest Place on Earth” and in turn, a place of power.

What does this have to do with sacred spaces?

Joseph Campbell, author of the Hero’s Journey once said: “Your sacred space is where you find yourself again and again.” So whenever I got stuck, I would go to my sacred places which were the marshes and wetland walks of the Musketaquid.

The Sudbury River glides lazily past Heard’s Conservation Land in Wayland, MA.

Musketaquid is an Algonquin word for “grassy plain” and was eventually settled as the town of Concord, MA. While I grew up in nearby Sudbury, Concord is arguably more famous. It boasts historic residents like the authors Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Louisa May Alcott. It is the birthplace of the Concord grape and it is the place where “the shot heard round the world” was fired, sparking the American Revolutionary War and changing the world forever. Along the shores of the Concord River, the National Wildlife Refuge system maintained by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service protects, maintains, and observes the winding shores and wetlands of Great Meadows. There are two parcels of land owned by the refuge; one is in Sudbury on Weir Hill Road and other is in Concord off of Monsen Road. The one I visit more frequently and consider a “sacred space” is the one in Concord, a 250 acre parcel with 2.7 miles of walking trails. Originally, it was designed to provide habitat for waterfowl and other water birds like herons, coots, and grebes. Terrestrial and aquatic mammals thrive here as well with deer, raccoon, mink, fox, beaver, and my messenger, the muskrat.

Muskrats (Ondatra zibethicus) aren’t thought of too kindly by most people I’ve talked to. I think it’s the word “rat” in their name. People don’t like rats that much and the idea of considering one to be a familiar puts the idea of witches and black magic into people’s heads. Muskrats are related to land rats as they are rodents; mammals whose sharp incisors (buck teeth as they are sometimes called) constantly grow and whose need to chew is both a healthy necessity and a noticeable habit. Muskrats live in marshes, ponds, and lakes with weedy margins where they build lodges out of water plants like reeds and cattails. They eat many of these plants as well and can often be seen feeding on floating logs, shorelines, or directly on ice ledges, like the one I saw on Tuesday evening here on the lake.

Lotus pads and pods at Great Meadows in August 2012.

When I visited Great Meadows that day in mid July, I wandered along the Dike Trail, a raised ridge of earth that divides the upper and lower pools of marsh. The water is raised and lowered depending upon the whim of the refuge staff to promote more waterfowl to visit or to attempt to flush out and suffocate invasive fish like common carp (Cyprinus carpio). As I walked, the humid air hung around me as I watched families of Canada geese (Branta canadensis) paddle through the cattails and lotus pads. Dragonflies danced on the breeze and white, fluffy clouds hung lazily in a perfectly blue sky. I thought about my future, how uncertain everything was and how I knew I didn’t have an answer. As smart as I’d always been told I was or thought so, the answer wasn’t there. The other folks there seemed to have a purpose to their day. Joggers jaunted past, while photographers clicked away at a passing great blue heron (Ardea herodias). I sighed and noticed something shuffling in the reeds on the side of the trail. I approached the commotion and found a muskrat, picking up cattail leaves in their paws and chewing on the white pith at the base.

The muskrat didn’t move even when I got within an arms length of them. I knew not to touch them since they were a wild animal and likely was uninterested in being friends. However, they didn’t seem to see me as a danger either. I watched as Muskrat continued to pick a choice leaf, smell it, and then begin to chew the pith once more. Ten minutes slid by and still Muskrat ate without a care in the world. Then without warning, they puttered to the edge of the shore, plopped into the water, and swam off.

I stood there stunned. I felt so calm while sitting with Muskrat and felt secure about where I was going. I was in control of where I could go and this creature had reminded me of some lessons I’d learned along my life’s journey.

Those lessons I took were these:

  • Focus on what’s in front of you and take your time.
  • Go about your business with grace and dignity.
  • Enjoy your meals and savor the flavor.
  • If you want to move, move. If you want to stay, stay.

It’s been nearly seven years since that interaction I had with Brother Muskrat and to this day, I still pause to watch one when I see them. I don’t know if I’d give them a supernatural persona like I have done in the past, but I can recognize what Mr. Wednesday was talking about when he referred to a sacred place. People might have their chosen deities that they offer sacrifices or proposals to, but I choose to worship like a Transcendentalist. Walking the land, wading the water, and breathing the air of our collective nature and natural surroundings and looking for signs of it where ever it grows, crawls, flows, blows, flies, dies, or calls.

Even as the wind howls outside creating whitecaps on the water and the temperature barely rose above 40 degrees on Thursday, I still found myself drawn outside. The ducks I had spotted in the open hole last week had become more far flung, preferring to hug the shore near the public beach across the water. They included many of the same dabbling and diving ducks I’d seen last week, ring necks, mergansers, teal and more. When I’m no longer distracted by the things I need to do, I’ll go back to being distracted by the things I like to do. And today, like yesterday, it will be looking for ducks, listening to the wind howl, and heeding the lessons of Brother Muskrat.

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