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 the wide world over, next to human beings, they are the most successful mammal on the planet.
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. The trouble with the rat race is, win or lose, you are still in the rat race.
Every day is a field day for them on Prince Edward Island. 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. We heard something at night scratching around in the kitchen. The next morning, my wife Vanessa found droppings.” She tucked all the food away and told Kelly Doyle, the proprietor of Coastline Cottages, which are five cottages up a 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 to get in, plugged it up, and set a trap under the sink.
“That’s the end of that mouse,” I said.
“You know what they say,” Vanessa said.
“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, near the northeastern tip of the island, suffered many infestations. Vermin can and will lay waste to croplands. The first of a dozen plagues of mice in the 18th 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 controlling infestations in the 21st century. It doesn’t mean complete eradication of them, 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 statues of them 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 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 chase and snatch up. They eat everything. In the winter they eat lots of rabbits.
We saw red foxes the first time we drove up to the north side of the island. They sat on the side of the road eyeing us. We were on a car trip across Nova Scotia, our second in as many years, when somebody mentioned Prince Edward Island. “What’s that?” Vanessa asked. I was born in Sudbury, Ontario, and was still a Canadian citizen, but couldn’t answer her question. I had never heard of the place.
We took the Northumberland Ferry at Caribou to the island the next morning. The best dressed person on board in the brisk wind was a Chow Chow. We stayed at the Sunny King Motel in Cornwall. The next day we had lunch sitting at the bar inside Churchill Arms in Charlottetown. Vanessa had a Havarti and vegetable sandwich, and I had a clubhouse.
“How long are you here?” asked the bartender.
“Just a day or two. We need to be back to work on 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 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 part that stumps everybody.”
“We had never even heard of Prince Edward Island before,” Vanessa said.
“I’ve seen some Canadian maps where we aren’t even there,” said the bartender, refilling our coffee cups. “There’s New Brunswick and Nova Scotia and the next thing is Newfoundland, which is not even really Canadian.”
“I’m originally from Sudbury and I had an idea there was something here, but I couldn’t have told you what it was.”
The bartender gave us a Visitor’s Guide.
“You might try the north coastal side of the island, Rustico, Cavendish, Brackley Beach, up around there.”
We took Route 7 to North Milton and Oyster Bed Bridge, took a left to North Rustico, and kept going to Cavendish. We saw a Visitor Center, turned right, and drove to the National Park. It was mid-September, and the toll booths were closed. There were no boom barriers. We drove onto the Gulf Shore Parkway. The road followed the curve of the ocean, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, the landscape rolling.
We stopped at MacNeill’s Brook and took a walk on the beach. The freshwater outflow comes from the 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.”
We 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 an enormous hole in it. We lay on our backs on the grass and looked up into the sky. The sun was warm on our faces and the breeze was cool.
We stopped at Orby Head, parked in the gravel lot, and walked to the edge of the cliff. 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 hooked bills are about the length of their heads. The birds are dark, brownish black with a small patch of yellow-orange skin on their face. They look pre-historic up close.
“Oh, man, this is where we should come next year,” I said, getting back into our car.
“I am with you,” my wife said.
Before we could pull out, a red fox ran diagonally across the parking lot and jumped into the brush, hellbent after something running for its life.
We passed Cape Turner and a minute later the road dipped down to Doyle’s Cove. On our left were two older frame houses, one green and the other one white. The white house had a sign on it that said, “Andy’s Surfside Inn.” On our right, up a grassy slope, were some cottages. The sign at the front of the drive read “Coastline Cottages.” We drove up to the office and parked in front of a neon OPEN sign in the window.
A Japanese woman carrying a blue plastic bucket came out of one of the cottages. She told us her name was Katsue and that the owner was away, but she could show us one of the cottages, the one she had just finished cleaning. By the time we left, our names were on the paper schedule board 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 dark, after twelve hours in the car, having lost all sense of where exactly the park road and the cottages were, we finally found the Visitor Center on Cawnpore Lane. It was closed, but we heard voices across the street at Shining Waters. One of the cottages was still lit up and four men were talking laughing drinking beer on the deck.
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,” Vanessa said, shooting me a vexed relieved look. “Maybe we won’t have to sleep in the car after all.”
In the event, we almost fell asleep on the deck of our cottage after we found it, wrapped in blankets, looking up at the wide expanse of stars in the inky sky, stars we never saw at home, where the lights of the city obscured the heavens.
“Keep your feet on the ground and your eyes on the stars,” I said.
“I know you just said that, but who said that?” asked Vanessa.
“Teddy Roosevelt, in the biography about him I’m reading.”
“We are all stars, and we all deserve to twinkle.”
“Who said that?”
I read more books than watched movies and my wife watched more movies than read books. I was a by-the-book man, and she had her head in the stars.
The next morning, the day clear brisk breezy, we unpacked and went for breakfast at Lorne’s Snack Shop in town. We both ordered the special, sausage eggs hash fries and toast at the kitchen hole at the back of the front room. There was a mixed bag of potato chip bags on wire racks attached to a wall where we stood.
“We got a couple gut founded,” we heard the woman at the counter say to the other woman at the stove. “Fire up a scoff.”
We sat down on worn chairs at a worn 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. Three rough and ready men talking low threw us a glance.
When the front counter woman brought me my plate, I 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 yah longs to?”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Where yah from?”
“The States,” said Frank. “What country are you from?”
“Here in Canada, man, from Newfoundland.”
Twenty years Lorne’s Snack Shop is gone, their poutine a strike-it-rich memory. The Co Op is gone, and although the food market across the street isn’t any bigger, it’s better. Amanda’s and their wood-fired pizza pies is gone, taken over by Pedro’s Island Eatery, 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 toll booths at the entrances to the National Park have been torn down and rebuilt.
“This is swank,” I said. “What do you call these things, anyway?” I asked a teenager in a green shirt in the toll booth.
“The guardhouse,” the teenager said, leaning out the window of the air-conditioned guardhouse.
The town is bigger than it used to be. A trove of big ass 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 army 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 summer evening we threw our beach chairs in the back of our Hyundai, popped open a bottle of wine, and drove to Orby Head to see the sun set. We unfolded our chairs at the edge of the cliff, poured ourselves wine in plastic water cups, and settled down, the orange red orb of the sun sinking over Cavendish. A sweet-tempered breeze drifted through the stunted trees.
A minute later we were running back to our SUV, our wine splashing, the cork God knows where, swatting at the lynch mob of mosquitos coming after us. “What the hell,” I said as we stepped into the 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, but not just strong legs and a suntan,” Vanessa said. “Sometimes it’s best keeping the outdoors outdoors.”
“Some people say the mosquito is the official bird of PEI,” Kelly Doyle said. “The sunset 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. So long as it’s not sunset, 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 a natural setting was shown to improve frame of mind. It also avoids clouds of carbon monoxide soaking into the lining of your lungs.
A study at the University of Exeter in England found that people who moved from concrete spaces to green spaces experienced a 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 of cholesterol levels, and better sleep duration. There were discernable reductions in type II diabetes, cardiovascular mortality, as well as overall mortality.
Nobody needs to wash down the ‘Drink Me’ potion Alice did to get 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. Don’t stand too near the edge, though. Don’t go at sunset, 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 have gotten more intense, for sure. This 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 the breaking waves away. “Everybody knows it,” said Adam Fenech, director of UPEI’s Climate Lab, echoing Kelly Doyle. 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 the bugs or what’s in the cards.
Feed your head while you can is where it’s at.
Ed Staskus posts stories on 147 Stanley Street http://www.147stanleystreet.com and Cleveland Daybook http://www.clevelandohiodaybook.com. To get the site’s monthly feature in your in-box click on “Follow.”