ROOMING WITH A WEASEL
I met my first weasel in a Cape Cod dune shack. That should be of little surprise to anyone familiar with weasel behavior. This small mustelid related to martins, otters, and skunks rarely builds its own house. It most frequently nests in abandoned rodent burrows. If the desired home is still owner-occupied, the weasel draws up a quick and tasty deed transfer.
Not having to acquire an undeveloped lot saves the weasel plenty of time and energy for the pursuit of its main mission, the daily consumption of up to 25 percent of its body weight in the form of small mammals, birds, snakes, and frogs.
To the weasel, the dune shack is just another burrow – a bit large, but with roof and walls, usually abandoned, and in good habitat. The shack in which the encounter occurred differs from other shacks I am familiar with by having a second room. This room is largely occupied by a double-bed, also uncommon among dune shacks. Solitude is not merely available. It is encouraged.
I had finagled a week’s stay in this shack, and arrived with a mule-sized load of goods without benefit of the mule. I set out my food and belongings – a scent in every corner – and inspected the shack’s own store of provisions in the outer room. Food, of course, is mighty important when shacking it, and one must always bring a complete set of edible weapons for the war against starvation (actually, against the long, difficult, and should-have-been-unnecessary walk back to the grocers).
Former tenants can be expected to leave something edible. Some things everyone leaves: marginal items like herb teas and tamari sauce, and staples like rice and powdered milk. And rancid items like the bacon I threw out and the greasy Oriental noodles I kept in, deeming the former dangerous, and the latter useful in a dangerous time.
During this sorting of ported and inherited possessions, the time came to put my sleeping bag and clothes in the interior bedroom. I opened the door and – wham! – the weasel encounter.
Already on the bed was an abandoned sleeping bag. Instantly, my eye caught the movement of something in the bag. Suddenly the weasel stood one-foot high on its hind legs, staring at me with an expression that seemed half surprise and half sizing up. In a moment it had flowed – that’s how a weasel moves – off the side of the bed and through a small hole in the floor. The encounter lasted less than three seconds.
After a suitable wait, I gingerly pried open the sleeping bag to see what – or who – might still be in it. There among the flannel folds was a thick, soft nest made of the hair of one of the dunes’ more popular rodents, the meadow vole.
On the outside chance the weasel would return, I decided to sleep in the outer room, which had a bed of its own. It paid off. The weasel, willing to share, continued to use the other room, and I saw it fleetingly two more times during my stay.
Following that first encounter, I returned to the ordering of possessions. I couldn’t believe it when I opened a kitchen cabinet and found a nestful of new-born, juvenile, and adult white-footed mice. It seemed unlikely that the weasel (whose backbone is so supple it can make a U-turn in a soup can) had not found this over-populated nest. Could this have been the weasel’s larder? Had it, like me, stashed its belongings here and there?
Of course not. This was a case of incredibly lucky mice. One peep too loud and they would be nest upholstery. Weasels do not husband livestock.
Weasels kill livestock. This is what has given them such a bad name. In spite of their small size (they average less than half a pound in weight) they are fierce fighters and can easily kill animals several times their size. Like any successful natural hunter, a weasel will kill more than it can eat at one meal. If it makes its way into a rabbit’s burrow or chicken coop, it will kill everything in sight, eat what it can, sleep it off, then eat again. More than one weasel has come to an end fast asleep inside a coop of dead chickens.
On Cape Cod, rodents are the primary diet. Weasels themselves are prey for foxes, larger birds, and even house cats. But the sinuous animal can be a very ungrateful dinner guest. The skull of a weasel was once found with jaws still clamped to the breast of a live eagle.
TRESPASSING FOR FUN AND PROFIT
Almost anyone who regularly engages in an outdoor activity beyond one’s own yard – nature walker, hunter, beachcomber – necessarily becomes a petty criminal. The crime is trespassing.
Outside of Cape Cod National Seashore, most of the open land on Cape Cod is privately owned, as is most of the beachfront down to low water. For obvious reasons trespassing is more of an issue these days. We all want our privacy, even if at the expense of someone else’s, whether trespasser or trespassee. Trespassing is nothing if not a tradition. Our ancestral recreationists were even guiltier than we are today, but in those days there were far fewer encounters with the owners of the land, and the crimes for the most part went undetected.
This raises an interesting point about the law. Generally, one is not apprehended for trespassing on private undeveloped land unless the owner complains. In effect, one trespasses not against the land but against the person. As the philosophical puzzle goes, if a trespasser falls down in the woods and there is no one there to see, is it a trespass?
I am a professional trespasser. My habitat research work for a state agency requires that I walk private land. When possible, permission of the owner is first obtained by letter, phone, or at the site. But sometimes this is not possible. A case in point is a survey I conducted of rare plant habitat at about a hundred Cape Cod pond shores during the summer of 1985. This peculiar habitat is only exposed during periods of below average water levels, and sufficient exposure only happens about once in every five years.
Since this exposure is directly related to annual and seasonal rainfall, it is almost impossible to predict when exposure will occur. There is no lead time within which to contact the thousands of landowners at the one hundred ponds, assuming one has the budget and personnel to pay for the contact effort.
So one (that would be me) ignores the “Keep Out” sign and prays for civility. Technically, the law covers this research by permitting egress on undeveloped private land for state natural resource surveys. But such niceties of the law tend to inflame rather than reassure many landowners. Illegal trespassing may be bad, but legal trespassing is worse.
Many – and rapidly becoming most – of our pond shores are ringed with houses, and all want a view of the pond. The pond shore surveyor thus is an easily noticed disturbance, and develops a sixth sense for looks from house occupants, looks that are charged with suspicion or apprehension. I learned quickly that the best way to approach these encounters was to immediately identify myself, explain the nature of the work, and request the occupant’s permission for continued but brief trespass.
With one exception, this has always worked, and sometimes worked wonders. Many pond shore residents are delighted to hear they own part of a naturally significant habitat. Some have registered their land with The Nature Conservancy in a legally non-binding moral commitment to help protect the pond shore. During one encounter, I was served cranberry juice and homemade chocolate chip cookies, then invited to speak at the local garden club. Send for my book on trespassing for fun and profit.
Then there’s that one exception, which is good, because it keeps me from growing complacent, and provides essay fodder. I was surveying a pond in the mid-Cape area that was rimmed with a formidable wall of highbush blueberry, except where house owners had cut a swath to the shore. After passing by one such swath, I could just barely make out a low, wet meadow behind the blueberry. These meadows are favored by some of our rarest plants, and to have passed it by would have been a dereliction of duty. I wrestled my way through the sinuous blueberry trunks into the small meadow. On the opposite side of the meadow was an open pathway leading down from what turned out to be a house hidden from sight.
Advancing rapidly down the pathway was the house owner, a man I judged to be in his mid-fifties. “Six months and a $1,000 fine,” said the look on his face. I didn’t even complete the first sentence of my pond shore sales pitch before he clutched me firmly by the upper arm and led me firmly toward the pathway.
“This is private property,” he said. Protesting with my legal rights only would have meant more trouble.
Then a strange thing happened. Somewhat embarrassed, I was looking down at the ground – at the meadow – during my forced eviction, and noticed that the root of my trouble, a rare plant, was growing there. A tiny, smug smile worked its way out, and I was then and there reminded of a scene from the movie, Rear Window.
Grace Kelly has just been arrested for sneaking into the apartment of suspected wife-disposer Raymond Burr (Grace is a trespasser, too). Her mission had been to find the wedding ring of the missing wife to prove that the latter was not away on a trip, but dead. The scene shifts to the cross-courtyard apartment of her cohort, James Stewart, who is watching the arrest through his binoculars.
He notices that Grace, her back to the window, is wildly wiggling the fingers of her handcuffed hands. She is trying to get Stewart’s attention to show him that she is wearing the tell-tale wedding ring.
My “wedding ring” was a threadleaved sundew. Raymond Burr had me by the arm for the moment, but I had the goods on him, and was headed straight for the plant police.
The plant police are nice people. They have to be, because Massachusetts has no law that requires private property owners to protect plants – rare or otherwise – on their land. I don’t know how Mr. Burr responded to the news of my discovery, but I am confident that no trespasser picks his rare flowers.
Richard LeBlond is a retired biologist living in North Carolina. His essays and photographs have appeared in numerous U.S. and international journals, and his work has been nominated for Best American Travel Writing and Best of the Net.