By Ed Staskus
“Remember what the dormouse said, feed your head, feed your head.” Grace Slick, Jefferson Airplane
There are no dormice on Prince Edward Island but there are plenty of mice. There are house mice, field mice, and meadow jumping mice. There are rats, too. There is the Norway rat, otherwise known as the brown rat. There are so many of them in the world that, next to human beings, they are the most successful mammal on the planet.
The trouble with the rat race is, win or lose, you are still in a rat race.
Mice are little bundles of energy and love to chow down. They eat fruits, seeds, and grains. They are omnivorous, which means they eat plants and meat. They eat just about anything they can find, always on the prowl.
Every day is a field day for mice on PEI. The state of the island is that its land mass is 1.4 million acres and almost half of it is cleared for agricultural use. Back in the day swarms of vermin would show up out of nowhere and eat everything in the fields. In the 19th century the years 1813 to 1815 were known as “The Years of the Mouse.”
“We had a mouse in our cottage a couple of years ago,” said Frank Glass.
“We heard something at night scratching around in the kitchen. The next morning, Vera found droppings.” His wife tucked all the food away and told Kelly Doyle, the proprietor of Coastline Cottages, which are five cottages up a high sloping lawn from the eponymous Doyle’s Cove in North Rustico. He found a tiny hole at the back of the cottage the mouse had chewed through to get in, plugged it up, and set a trap under the sink.
“That’s the end of that mouse,” said Frank.
“You know what they say,” said Vera.
“It’s the second mouse that gets the cheese.”
The second mouse never showed up, though, staying away in the barley field behind the cottages.
The first farmers at Souris suffered many infestations. Vermin can and will lay waste to croplands. The first of a dozen plagues of mice through the rest of the century happened in 1724. When the time came to give the town a name, the townsfolk called it Souris, which is French for mouse. Even though they are not welcome, the town’s mascot is a mouse.
Integrated pest management systems have gone a long way to controlling infestations in the 21st century. It doesn’t mean complete eradication of pests, but rather bringing their numbers down to where losses are below economic injury levels. It’s about not throwing the baby out with the bath water, but rather ensuring crop protection while reducing human health risks and environmental damage.
Mice have since gone that’s entertainment on Prince Edward Island. In 2010 small bronze mouse statues were hidden around Charlottetown. They were based on Eckhart the Mouse, who is a character from PEI author David Weale’s book “The True Meaning of Crumbfest.” The around town game was about downloading clues and trying to find all of the hidden in plain sight little urchins.
Mice in the wild live a year or two. The bronze rodents are still in Charlottetown. They’ve been living on their charm and good looks.
Wherever there are mice there are foxes, and since there are a lot of foxes in the National Park between Cavendish and North Rustico, there are consequently a lot of mice. Foxes are omnivores and eat seeds, berries, worms, eggs, birds, frogs, and fungi. They are a lot like the mice they stealth for and snatch up. They eat everything. In the winter they mostly eat rabbits and mice.
“We saw a fox and Orby Head at the same time the first time we drove up to the far side of the island,” said Frank.
Vera and Frank were on a car trip across Nova Scotia, their second in as many years, when somebody mentioned Prince Edward Island.
“What’s that?” asked Vera.
They took the Northumberland Ferry at Caribou to Prince Edward Island the next morning, rearranging their plans, and stayed at the Sunny King Motel in Cornwall. The next day they had lunch sitting at the bar at Churchill Arms in Charlottetown. Vera had a Havarti and vegetable sandwich and Frank had a Churchill’s clubhouse.
“How long are you here?” asked the bartender.
“Just a day or two,” Frank said. “We both have to get back to work by Monday.”
“Where are you from?”
“Northern Ohio, west of Cleveland, on Lake Erie.”
“Eerie as in scary and strange?”
“No, it was named after the Erie tribe of Indians.”
“You mean Native Americans?”
“Right, the native Indians. The Iroquois called them Erie, which means long tail, because they wore bobcat fur hats with the tail on the back.”
“Don’t bobcats have short stubby tails?” asked the bartender.
“That’s the funny part,” said Frank.
“We had never even heard of Prince Edward Island before,” said Vera.
“I’ve seen some Canadian maps where PEI isn’t even there,” said the bartender, refilling their coffee cups. “Just New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and the next thing is Newfoundland, which is barely Canadian.”
“I’m originally from Sudbury,” said Frank, “and I had an idea there was something here, but I couldn’t have told you what it was.”
The bartender gave them a Visitor’s Guide.
“You might try the central coastal side of the island, Rustico, Cavendish, the Brackley Beach, up around there.”
They took Route 7 to North Milton and Oyster Bed Bridge, took a left to North Rustico, and kept going to Cavendish. They saw a Visitor Center, turned right, and drove to the National Park. It was mid-September and the entrance stations were closed. There were no boom barriers. They drove onto the Gulf Shore Parkway. The road followed the curve of the ocean, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the landscape rolling.
They stopped at MacNeill’s Brook and took a walk on the beach. The freshwater outflow comes from MacNeill Brook, part of David and Margaret MacNeill’s farm and house a hundred years ago, when they were cousins and neighbors of Lucy Maud Montgomery, who wrote “Anne of Green Gables.”
They stopped at MacKenzie’s Brook and walked up to a grassy bluff. The brook passes underneath the parkway through two culverts. There was a long beach to the west and red sandstone cliffs to the east. One enormous rock in the cliff face had a large hole in it. Vera and Frank lay on their backs on the grass and looked up into the sky. The sun was warm on their faces and the breeze was cool.
Frank and Vera stopped at Orby Head, parked in the gravel loop lot, and walked to the edge of the cliff.
A colony of double-crested cormorants was nesting in the cliffs. Some of them were fishing off the shore, others were drifting, their heavy bodies low in the water, while others were chilling in the sunshine on a ledge. They are large water birds with small heads on long necks. Their thin strong hooked bills are about the length of their heads. The birds are dark, brownish black with a small patch of yellow-orange skin on the face.
The folks from Lake Erie watched the waves breaking.
“Oh, man, this is where we should come next year,” said Frank, getting back into their car.
“I am with you,” said Vera.
Before they could pull out, a red fox ran diagonally across the small lot and jumped into the brush, hellbent after something running for its life.
They passed Cape Turner and a minute later the road dipped down to Doyle’s Cove. On their left were two older frame houses, one green and the other white. The white house had a sign on it that said, “Andy’s Surfside Inn.” On their right, up a grassy slope, were some cottages. The sign at the front of the drive read “Coastline Cottages.” They drove up the drive to the office and parked in front of the small neon open sign in the window,
A Japanese woman carrying a blue plastic bucket came out of one of the cottages. She told them her name was Katsue and that the owner was away, but she could show them one of the cottages, the one she had just finished cleaning. By the time Frank and Vera left, their names were on the big paper schedule on an easel in the office for a cottage the next September right after Labor Day.
A year later, driving up and down Route 6 between North Rustico and Cavendish in the night, after twelve hours in the car, having lost all sense of where exactly the park road and the cottages were, they finally found the Visitor Center on Cawnpore Lane. It was closed, but they heard voices across the street at Shining Waters. One of the cottages was still lit up and four men were talking laughing drinking on the front porch.
None of them knew the Coastline Cottages, but all of them knew where the shore road was.
“That’s a step in the right direction,” Vera said, shooting Frank a vexed look. “Maybe we won’t have to sleep in the car after all.”
In the event, they almost fell asleep on the deck of their cottage after they found it, wrapped in blankets, looking at the wide expanse of stars in the inky sky, stars they never saw at home, where the lights of the city always obscured the heavens.
“Keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the stars,” said Frank.
“I know you just said that, but who said that?” asked Vera.
“Teddy Roosevelt, in that biography about him I’m reading.”
“We are all stars and we all deserve to twinkle.”
“Who said that?”
Frank read more books than watched movies and Vera watched more movies than read books. He was a by-the-book man and she had her head in the stars.
The next morning, the day clear brisk windy, they unpacked and went for breakfast at Lorne’s Snack Shop in North Rustico They both ordered sausage eggs hash fries and toast at the kitchen hole at the back of the front room. There were hordes of potato chips on wire racks attached to a wall where they stood.
“We’ve got a couple gutfounded,” Vera heard the woman at the counter say to the other woman at the stove. “Fire up a scoff.”
They sat down on worn chairs at a green table. Everything was in apple-pie order but worn. There were scattered card tables in a back room and shelves on two walls full of VCR tapes for rent. The other walls were covered with movie posters. A rough and ready man eating threw them a glance.
When the front counter woman brought Franks’ plate, he asked, “Is that for both of us?
“No, that’s your, we’re just doin’ the other toast.”
“It’s a good thing we haven’t eaten since yesterday afternoon.”
“Where y’ longs to?”
“What’s that?” asked Frank.
“Where yah from?”
“The States,” said Frank. “What country are you from?”
“G’wan, here in Canada, man, Newfoundland.”
Twenty summers-and-more later, Frank and Vera drive the one thousand twelve hundred thirty-five and a half miles from Lakewood, Ohio to North Rustico, staying for two or three weeks. Lorne’s Snack Shop is gone, their poutine a strike-it-rich memory. The Co Op is gone, and although the food market isn’t any bigger, it’s better. Amanda’s and their humongous pizza pies is gone, replaced by Pedro’s Island Eatery, their big plates of fish on a new deck. The hard scrabble park road has been replaced, flanked by an all-purpose walking running biking path. The old booths at the entrances to the National Park have been torn down and rebuilt.
“This is swank,” Frank said. “What do you call these things, anyway?” he asked a teenager in a green shirt in the toll booth.
“The guardhouse,” she said, leaning out the window of the air-conditioned guardhouse.
The town is bigger than it used to be. A trove of large houses has been raised in the triangle formed by Harbourview Drive, Church Hill Avenue, and the North Rustico beach. When winter comes most of the occupation leaves and the houses sit empty. A brick-faced line of condos has been built on Route 6 between Co Op Lane and Autumn Lane.
One clear sky summer evening Frank and Vera threw their beach chairs in the back of their SUV, popped open a bottle of wine, and drove to Orby Head to see the sun set. They unfolded their chairs at the point edge of the cliffs, poured themselves wine in plastic water cups, and settled in, the orange red orb of the sun sinking down over Cavendish. A sweet-tempered breeze drifted in the stunted trees.
A minute later they were rushing back to their car, their wine splashing, the cork God knows where, swatting at the mob of mosquitos after them, as though they were fodder. Frank zipped up the windows and slathered aloe he had in a backpack on his arms and neck.
“What the hell,” he said, as they settled into the Adirondack chairs on the grass in front of their cottage. “You try to enjoy some out of doors and see what it gets you, a swarm of biters.”
“The out of doors gets you a lot, and not just good legs and a suntan” Vera said.
“Some people say the mosquito is the official provincial bird of PEI,” said Kelly Doyle. “The sunset hour is when you’re most likely to feel them. If you were to stop at a certain place, like Orby Head, and get surprised by the little buggers, just move on. As long as it’s not the sunset hour, they won’t follow.”
It’s the price you pay to feed your head.
A Stanford University study found that students who walked in a green park for an hour-and-a-half exhibited quieter brains than those who walked next to a rip-roaring highway. They manifested less activity in the prefrontal cortex, a part of the brain associated with depression. Walking in nature was shown to improve frame of mind. It also avoided clouds of carbon monoxide soaking into the lining of your lungs.
A study at the University of Exeter Medical School in England found that people who moved from concrete spaces to green spaces experienced clear-cut improvement in their mental health. The boost was long-lasting, mental distress over all lessened even three years post-move
An analysis in 2018 of more than a hundred studies on green spaces found that the benefits included upgraded heart rate and blood pressure, lowering in cholesterol levels, and better sleep duration and neurological outcomes. There were also discernable reductions in type II diabetes, cardiovascular mortality, as well as overall mortality.
You don’t need to be a little mouse at the bottom of the beach staring up at Orby Head, or wash down the ‘Drink Me’ potion Alice did to get the perspective, or slip away on Grace Slick’s Orange Sunshine, to have the zero cool red cliffs make your head spin. Just go there and see for yourself. Go, just don’t go at sunset. Don’t stand too near the edge, either.
“Maybe about fifty feet of our land has fallen away since I was a boy,” said Kelly. “It might be climate change, but the storms are definitely more intense. The island is made of sandstone. We’re like a BIC lighter, not meant to last. There’s no stopping that, it’s just our geology.”
There is no granite or hard rock to keep away the breaking waves. “Everybody knows it,” said Adam Fenech, director of UPEI’s Climate Lab, echoing Kelly. He meant everybody on the island, like the Doyle’s, who have been there going on two hundred years. But nothing lasts forever, not mice, not red sandstone, not even hard rock. In the meantime, put on your walking running biking shoes, get out into outer space, never minding what’s in the cards.
Feed your head is where it’s at.
Ed Staskus posts a feature story monthly on Red Island http://www.redislandpei.com, Paperback Yoga http://www.paperbackyoga.com, Lithuanian Journal http://www.lithuanianjournal.com, and State Route Two http://www.stateroutetwo.com.