Naturespeak A naturalist's view of the world

January 15, 2008

More Mushrat Musings

Filed under: Uncategorized — wykes @ 10:00 pm

  There are many native legends surrounding the muskrat.  I was introduced to a new one while attending that VFW muskrat dinner I wrote about the other day.  In the packet of ‘rat recipes given me by John Pastor, the cook, was a heavily Xeroxed cutout from an unknown source. A short paragraph under the title of “Muskrat (Marsh Rabbit)” related the story of how “the marsh-rabbit was to be rewarded by Nanabojou.”

  Nanabojou is, by the way, the trickster spirit of the Anishnabe Indians and you’ll recall from our earlier discussion that “marsh-rabbit” is a euphemism for muskrat.  Anyway, in this tale the great spirit was compelled to offer the muskrat “any part of the country to live in that he pleased.” The muskrat promptly picked the deep blue lake but changed his mind the next day and asked for the grassy banks so he could eat. The very next day, muskrat changed his mind and asked for the deep blue lake to swim in but changed his mind again the following day and asked to be returned to the grassy bank.  Nanabojou scolded the little beast and said “you change your mind daily. I will decide. You shall live in the between-land of the marsh- neither land nor water- where there is grass on land and water to swim in.” And so, it was.

  You might wonder why a notorious trickster would even bother with the concerns of an indecisive rodent. Mr. Pastor’s copy sheet didn’t go into this aspect, but I can shed some light here. The answer lies in the fact that the muskrat had just saved the world. You see Nana, as we shall call him, had earlier infuriated the great serpents and they retaliated by flooding the earth. Forced to climb to the highest branch of the highest tree to avoid drowning, he appealed to several animals to dive down and bring up a piece of mud from the bottom.  With that mud he could re-build the earth, but without it he was “up a creek without a paddle” – so to speak.

  Several beasts, including the loon, tried but failed. It was the brave little muskrat who managed to touch bottom and return to the surface with a few grains of soil.  Thus the world was re-created and Nana’s bozo was saved.  There is one small detail of this story that doesn’t segue easily into the earlier one: the original muskrat died in his attempt. His lifeless body bobbed to the surface with the precious mud wedged between his toes. I can only imagine that some type of divine intervention occurred or that some time-space continuum effect got involved in the process.

  Last week, I encountered the lifeless body of a modern day muskrat alongside the road. Trusting that divine intervention would not intercede in his case, I picked it up for “processing.” The unfortunate little beast had apparently exhibited his classic indecisiveness while crossing the road which skirted the Mouillee Marsh and a passing car made the decision for him. It was in great shape – aside from the fact that his head was somewhat uni-dimensional. I took some detail shots of the critter in order to share a few of its unique traits with you.

  For starters, let’s take a gander at those marvelous world-saving feet.  Take a look here at two views of the huge hind feet (here and here). These oversized paddles are equipped with a stiff fringe of hair lining the five toes and the sole. This hairline functions as a web. When the foot is pushed against the water it rigidly stands up to provide a wide surface area for propulsion then neatly folds back when the foot is brought forward.  Here is a water animal that doesn’t have fleshy webs between his toes. It is worth noting, by the way, that there was some mud clinging to these feet (he says with a knowing look in his eye).

  The tiny front feet (see here), like the back ones, are endowed with beautiful pink nails.  Unlike the hind feet, however, they are not fringed and only have four toes (the fifth nail is attached to a stub).  Ridiculously small, these front paws are effectively used to manipulate food and guide it to the food-processing mouth. They are not used for swimming or counting.

  To behold the tail of the ‘rat is to witness the very essence of this water creature (see here). There is another Indian story about how he got that tail, but I won’t go into that now.  In black scaled texture, it looks very much like a beaver’s tail but is long and narrow – like a belt. This appendage is waved back and forth in the water to aide in swimming. It is powerfully lined with heavy tendons that link to the animal’s muscular little frame. The tail on this particular ‘rat is somewhat blunted at the end by an old healed injury.

  I might have mentioned in the earlier essay that we are in the midst of muskrat trapping season.  Aside from the likes of Dave Pastor, Dave Venior and a half dozen other trappers are currently working the Mouillee marsh (as least they were before the ice went out). Although the meats are a delicacy (unless you are female) these gentlemen are capturing the ‘rats primarily for their fur.    

There is nothing quite so inviting to the touch as a muskrat pelt and my expired Mouillee fugitive provided us with a chance to do just that. 

  Here, take a look and you’ll see what I mean. Underneath the golden brown outer fur, called guard hair, is a dense silky layer of gray fur called underfur. I’ve parted the guard hairs in my picture to give you glimpse of the wooly inner layer. This inner coat is so dense that it traps a layer of air – a bubble – that surrounds the muskrat when he dives.  The critter never gets soaked and water never comes in contact with the bare body skin.

  This double layer of fur renders a plump profile onto a healthy mid-winter ‘rat and is the object of desire for their human harvesters. My examination complete, I decided to skin out my muskrat and stretch the pelt in honor of the fur trapper’s tradition. An accomplished trapper can do this operation in a minute or so, but it took me closer to ten minutes.  Once the skin was off, it was pulled inside out onto a wire frame, or stretcher, for drying.

  I did not take a picture of this inside-out ‘rat skin – figuring my earlier shot of a pile of cooked ‘rat was enough.  There were two more features that became evident on the skin and I’d like to point these out before we let this thing go. 

  First of all, my road kill marsh rabbit was a very large individual. The pelt stretched out to 14 ½ inches.  In the “trade” this would be considered an X-Large ‘rat and would command $4.50 in the current market – if it were prime (meaning perfect and big).  This pelt was not perfect.  There were a few holes in hide near the rump indicating that this old warrior had recently engaged in combat with another ‘rat or a hawk before the losing battle with the automobile.

  The second feature was the most fascinating.  The presence of nipple scars indicated that my subject was a female and, I’m not quite sure how to say this, but she was well endowed.  Muskrats normally have three or four pair of nipples.  On rare occasion they have five pairs and this female happened to be one of those super females! I have no idea what I – or you – can do with this information, but there it is.

 O.K., I realize that I’ve probably taken you a little too far into the realm of ‘rats at this point, so I’ll give you a break. Go ahead, take a few days off. When you return, I’d like to address the subject of muskrat bubbles.

1 Comment »

  1. […] that VFW muskrat dinner I wrote about the other day. ??In the packet of ???rat recipes given Knives Kershaw Kissing Crane Swiss Army Pocket KnifeSchrade Pocket beast Item No: 43OT […]

    Pingback by case beast trapper — August 2, 2008 @ 4:44 am

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