Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer | The Farm in the Green Mountains | New York Review Books | May 2017 | 11 minutes (2,896 words)
Below is an excerpt from Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer’s memoir The Farm in the Green Mountains. Having fled Nazi Germany, the Zuckmayers ended up spending several years of their exile on a farm in Vermont, where they engaged in a war of extermination against an invading army of rats. A bestseller in Germany when it was published in 1949, it was reprinted this month by New York Review Books. This story is recommended by Longreads contributing editor Dana Snitzky.
* * *
I felt suddenly that I was not alone.
It was the third summer.
That was when I saw them for the first time.
It was evening, and I had gone into the shed to mix the feed before dark.
In this shed the buckets in which the feed was kept stood across from the entrance in a long row.
There was laying meal, feed grain, and the mash for fattening the chickens. There were buckets for duck and goose feed, which we mixed ourselves.
Zuck had carried the heavy sacks into the shed for me and left them in front of the empty buckets.
I began to untie the strings of the sacks and to use a measuring scoop to fill the buckets with the prescribed amounts of oats, bran, fattening mash, and corn meal.
The quiet of evening filled the shed. Ducks and geese peeped in their sleep. Lisettchen sat above me on her beam. I called her name, but this evening she only blinked at me and wouldn’t fly down.
The feed rattled into the buckets and smelled like fields at harvest time.
Suddenly I stopped in the middle of my work, because a violent, overwhelming terror seized me, like the fear of the unaccustomed and unknown. I felt suddenly that I was not alone with my animals, that I was being watched closely from some corner.
I stood motionless and waited.
Now I heard a noise—a disembodied, ghostly tripping across the wooden floor. Then I saw something standing on the stairs. It was a large, gray-brown rat.
I still didn’t move and stood face-to-face with the rat, who watched me with quiet menace.
Then I did something stupid. Instead of throwing a metal lid, a shovel, or a knife at it, I clapped my hands like a magician who wants to make something appear or disappear, and the rat escaped, whole and unhurt.
I ran into the house, where Zuck and the children sat around the supper table, waiting for me.
“What took you so long?” they asked me.
“Something terrible has happened,” I said. “We have rats.”
We ate supper about midnight.
We took the dogs out of the kennel and brought them to the shed. They howled and whined and finally found the entrances to the tunnels the rats had dug under the chicken houses and the shed.
Then we went into the shed and the chicken houses and switched on the lights. This woke the birds, who broke out in bright morning crowing, cackling, quacking, and gabbling.
We knelt down among the frightened birds who had jumped down from their sleeping perches to demand food, and we crept into every corner with flashlights to look for rat holes.
In the red chicken house we found one among the nests and nailed it up with strong, fine-meshed hardware cloth. In the shed itself we could do little. There the rats had gnawed away whole boards under the stairways and thresholds that led to the chicken houses.
We nailed up the boards and plugged and screened the holes, but there were too many places they had broken through already to keep them out of the middle shed. The ducks and geese were in no danger when awake, and the rats would not attack the larger chickens, but all of the smaller birds and the young poultry had to be protected from them.
So I climbed up the ladder and took Lisettchen, Josephine, and Napoleon from their sleeping perch and brought them into the safe gray chicken house.
The damage the rats did in the first summer they were at our farm was frightful. Their first attack was like a blitzkrieg. They took thirty-two ducklings, eight chicks, and three newborn geese.
* * *
We were dealing with an uncannily well-organized and functioning rat state.
Our enemies were not mere house rats, but an army of itinerant Norwegian rats. They march across the countryside in formation, and when a farm pleases them they call a halt, besiege and occupy it.
They build their dugouts quickly and secretly under the sheds and houses they intend to plunder. Almost before they have finished their living quarters, they begin to gnaw tunnels into the sheds at night to reach the feed, the eggs, and the young animals.
Some things are eaten on the spot, but most of the booty is taken away through the rat holes into their tunnels. The way they carry out their raids, the removal of the booty, their disappearance and reemergence in unexpected spots all left us no doubt that we were dealing with an uncannily well-organized and functioning rat state.
We were set under siege by them, and our actions during the first days were very much like the hasty digging of trenches.
Because we had to work quickly, and you cannot pour cement floors in haste, we built cages around the mothers and their endangered young, through whose grids not even the smallest and youngest rat could slip. The broodhouses which stood in the meadow were no longer safe from the rats, and we had to build cage after cage, so that our sheds and barns, all divided into cells, soon looked like Sing-Sing prison.
In this battle with the rats, Lisettchen, who had become a mother for the first time, was robbed of her four tiny Bantam chicks. Why the rats had spared the little Bantam hen herself can only be explained by the fact that Lisettchen broke out in such an enraged outcry and beat so wildly with her wings that even the rats must have been frightened off. We had put Lisettchen in a particularly strong wire cell, but the rats had eaten through the double wood floor.
Now, while Zuck and Winnetou plugged the rat hole and spread wire mesh over the entire floor of the cell, I tried to calm Lisettchen, who was lamenting so bitterly that we could hardly stand it. In my despair over her pain, I decided to try a daring experiment. There were still two Bantam mothers with five chicks each. I reached under their wings and took two young from each mother. Then I put the four Bantam chicks in Lisettchen’s nest.
I don’t believe that I could have deceived Lisettchen in this way under normal circumstances, but shock had blurred her ability to discriminate.
When I put her back on the nest, she looked for only a moment at the four new chicks, who were two weeks older than her own stolen chicks. Then she took the four strangers under her wings, still breathing heavily as though she had been roused from a frightening dream.
* * *
We decided to escalate our attack to a war of extermination.
In our farm paper appeared the following item:
“Rats cost American farmers sixty-three million dollars a year. Their population is approximately the same as the human population of the United States. Half of the rats live on farms. The cost of one rat is about two dollars a year. See your nearest USDA office or consult your local Farm Bureau agent about ways to control these pests.”
We estimated the rat population on our farm at fifty to sixty. The consumption allotted to them, at two dollars a year, had been eaten up in the first three months after their arrival.
Therefore we decided to escalate our attack to a war of extermination. Before I describe the phases of this war, I must first establish the fact that we were not afraid of rats.
When I saw the first one in the barn, it was not her appearance that filled me with paralyzing fear, but the realization that she was without doubt only an outpost of an army of rats lurking in the background. I merely experienced the shock of a tower guard who sees the first enemy appear on the horizon.
I could not be frightened or disgusted by the rats because their conscious intelligence and calculated menace made them an equally matched foe. They had neither the unknown, indefinable frightfulness of spiders, scorpions, and snakes, nor the dull repulsion of potato bugs and grubs, vermin that do not know why they do damage. I lived with the rats long enough to have the opportunity to look them in the eye often.
In those rat eyes I found a kind of consciousness, a knowledge of their undertakings and deeds that lifted them out of the level of vermin into that of a proper enemy.
It was once announced in a newspaper article that a scientist had finally found the bones of the orangutan from which we must all be descended. Tied to that discovery was the amazing theory that, after humankind, rats or ants would take over the dominion of the world. If I accepted the idea of this dark utopia for a moment, I’d bet on the rats.
We began the first phase of our war with an open attack which miscarried. For this failure neither the rats nor we were to blame, nor even the method we chose, but a thirteen-year-old boy we had hired to help, but who helped very little.
The method was simple.
You drove your car up to the building, took all the animals out, shut the windows and doors, and plugged the cracks carefully, as though you wanted to commit suicide with gas.
Then you fastened the garden hose to the exhaust of the car, brought it through a hole the size of the hose into the building and in front of a rat hole, turned on the motor, and sent the poisonous, death-bringing exhaust fumes into the rat tunnels and the building.
I was enthusiastic about this modern chemical method, and everything was prepared down to the smallest detail.
But in the last moment before I started the motor, my cautious, mistrustful Zuck made one more last round through the shed, climbed a ladder, and found our hired boy with my pet cat in his arms, buried in the hay, fast asleep with a cigarette butt in his mouth.
So we abandoned our life-threatening gassing method and turned to simple rat poison. Setting rat traps was dangerous to the young animals, and poisons containing arsenic were menacing to all, but a paste had been invented that was supposed to be harmful only to rats.
How and when this paste was to be used required psychological preparation. Now the second phase began, the part that we called the “phony war.”
* * *
Their love of attacking their attackers.
For ten days we put down clean bacon and cheese rinds in the sheds and chicken houses to make the rats feel secure.
It is noteworthy that the rats did not appear in the goat and pig barn. Also they almost never came into the cellar of our house. Because of that they were all the more firmly entrenched where the poultry lived.
I had reached a kind of agreement with the rats. When I entered the middle shed where the feed buckets stood, I clapped my hands. At this signal the rats disappeared into their holes. Once a rat in its haste jumped from the hayloft onto my shoulder, using it as a springboard to the floor.
That was not a pleasant sensation!
On each of the ten evenings when I distributed bacon and cheese, the rats came back out of their nooks and crannies and crouched behind the feed buckets. I acted as though I were preparing tidbits for the poultry, who are known to eat scraps, meat, and fat with relish.
The chicken coops on their stone foundations were relatively safe from the rats. Even there, though, the possibility existed that they would use the flap doors that were planned for the daily entrance and exit of the chickens and hide themselves inside in the evening.
Zuck found just such a stowaway rat in the gray chicken house one evening on his final tour of inspection.
He had a shovel in his hand and forced the rat into a corner with it.
It was a fully grown, large rat. When Zuck prepared to strike, it turned like lightning and jumped to the attack.
Now on the same day Zuck had cleaned out the pigpen, and luckily was still wearing high boots. These protected him from the rat’s sharp, dangerous bite. Zuck succeeded in killing the rat, but we all felt rather ill the entire evening and could not stop telling grisly stories we had heard and read. The talk came around again and again to the almost unconquerable cunning and devilishness of rats, and to their love of attacking their attackers.
We talked about fingers that had been bitten off and festering leg wounds that people battling rats had sustained. We often glanced furtively and with shuddering at the high boots that stood in the corner of the kitchen and showed the marks of the rat’s teeth at knee height.
* * *
One of the oldest rats, one that I thought I knew and considered a member of the highest rat council, was observing our actions closely and spitefully.
On the following day the battle began in earnest.
Zuck and I shut ourselves in the workshop, taking care that no animal could get in, and mixed our poison.
We put on rubber gloves which we had earlier rubbed on the coats of our goats so that no human smell would betray us or show that our fingers were involved in the game. We had brown pans with green paste in them, and we rubbed the paste carefully into the pieces of bacon and the cheese rinds.
The green paste contained a poison that had the effect of making the rats thirsty and driving them to water. After drinking the water in the open, far from their hiding places, they died.
That is, it was a type of poison that discouraged the rotting of the dead rats in their holes and so prevented the pollution of the air and the development of unhealthy germs.
On the evening of the eleventh day we brought the poisoned bacon and cheese bits over to the shed.
I clapped my hands as always, whereupon the scratching and tripping of claws began, as in a haunted house that has been abandoned by men and taken over by rats. Now Zuck checked that all the animals were locked in their Sing-Sing cells.
Then we pulled on our rubber gloves and distributed the poisoned morsels.
While doing this we spoke casually and loudly about ordinary things to give the impression that, in spite of the gloves, we were doing everyday, ordinary things. But I couldn’t get rid of the feeling that one of the oldest rats, one that I thought I knew and considered a member of the highest rat council, was observing our actions closely and spitefully.
The next morning we were in the shed very early.
We had decided not to let a single animal out of the sheds, nor a dog out of the kennel, nor a cat out of the house for the entire day, so that they would not be poisoned by the dead rats.
When we came to the watering troughs for the poultry, which stood filled with water in the meadows, we found twenty dead rats in and around the troughs.
After we recovered from this ugly sight and started to remove the corpses, we noticed something horrible.
We went to the shed, opened the door quietly, and stood there without moving.
In the shed were twenty or thirty large, fully grown rats, who stared at us from all the corners. Only three of them took the trouble to disappear once more behind the feed buckets.
Outside, however, lay the corpses of small, half-grown rats, and there was not a single large, old rat among them.
We now knew that the experienced elders had sent their children ahead of them to see if there was death hidden in the bacon and the cheese rinds.
They had sacrificed the unwary, inexperienced rats, and by doing that had preserved a select group of the most dangerous and experienced ones. We realized that it would take other weapons to beat them than the ones we had available.
But still we built fences, gratings, and cages until our fingers and hands bled from wire-pulling, hammering, and nailing.
The rats could get at our animals less and less, but they gnawed into every feed sack as it arrived, and we had to buy more and more metal bins to protect the feed from their greediness.
* * *
When one o’clock strikes from the church tower and the ghosts fly away and vanish.
Two years after their arrival they suddenly disappeared. Whether it was that we had really fooled them a few times, and a few of their elders had themselves gotten the poisoned corn, or whether it was that we had put up too many fences even an eel couldn’t wriggle through, or whether it was simply that they were seized with wanderlust and went in search of a better farm, we never knew.
They left in the fall.
Their departure happened as secretly and invisibly as their arrival. The holes and passages looked like an abandoned mining operation. We repaired the marks of their gnawing in the wood, and the sickly sweet stench which they had spread disappeared after the big fall cleaning.
The barns and chicken houses belonged once more to the domestic animals and to us, and at night it was as quiet in the shed as it is at the time when one o’clock strikes from the church tower and the ghosts fly away and vanish.
* * *
From The Farm in the Green Mountains by Alice Herdan-Zuckmayer.