Bucolic Terrors, Pastoral Threats

PETER A. JAY

August 22, 1993|By PETER A. JAY

HAVRE DE GRACE — Havre de Grace. -- Not everyone can live in the country, and not everyone wants to. Even aspects of rural life that some casual visitors find pleasant fill others with horror. Quite rightly, too.

Take those quiet country nights. For every visitor who finds them peaceful, there's another to whom they seem suspicious. I know people to whom the absence of noise is the equivalent of a burglar alarm. To them it's a clear indication that somebody is up to something. And in fact somebody might be.

Other urban people aren't frightened of the quiet but disapprove of it as a sign of social sterility. The city-raised teen-age daughter of friends of mine, when she was reluctantly transported a couple of dozen miles beyond the reassuring rumble of the Baltimore Beltway, listened with dismay to the stillness and then declared it "the silence of death." She may have had a point.

But there's a lot of life out here, much of it unnerving to casual visitors. Rural Maryland may seem to some like a desert, but it's really more of a jungle. In fact, what bothers a lot of city people most about the countryside is all the critters that live here.

Some, of course, are friendly enough, especially the domestic animals dotted about the agrarian landscape. Woolly lambs, baby pigs and contented cows are benign bucolic symbols, the familiar denizens of Old MacDonald's farm. Folks who have never in their lives made the acquaintance of an animal that wasn't stuffed usually enjoy gazing at these. They ask only that they stay downwind and keep their distance.

But the wild things, which don't respect fences or municipal ordinances, are more threatening. Partly, this is due to bad public relations. The critters only make news when they do something odd, often because they have rabies.

Thus, except on Feb. 2, we seldom hear about groundhogs. But when, as happened this summer in Pikesville, a rabid one appears in the suburbs and starts attacking children, we hear about them plenty. Then, urbanites venturing past the end of the pavement scan every clump of underbrush apprehensively, expecting to be confronted by a frothy-mouthed marmot.

Once when I was covering regional police news for the Washington Post, I heard a report that a fox in rural Virginia had entered a dairy barn and frightened a farmer. I called up and interviewed the farmer, and even though nothing much had happened, the story made Page One. It was news, and another little chapter in the continuing saga of Terror in the Countryside.

It's a fact that most of us won't ever encounter a rabid animal, and if we're going to select our phobias from the newspapers, we'd probably do better to worry about that ubiquitous pair of unidentified males who seem to hold up a convenience store every day or two.

But it's also a fact that rabies does exist. Maybe, rather than visiting rural Maryland or even moving there, you should consider staying home. If you insist on coming out this way, while you're watching out for suspicious groundhogs there are a few other inhabitants of our local hinterland which merit a mention.

Notable urban fauna include rats and mice. The rats are Norway rats and black rats, and the mice are house mice. All three species are European immigrants. (Even if you're not into biosystematics, you might like to know the black rat's Latin name, which is rattus rattus.) We have these guys in the country too, but we also have a lot more diversity.

The mice in our house -- and I speak with some authority because I catch them in considerable numbers, especially in the fall -- include both house mice and deer mice. The house mice are gray and have naked tails, the deer mice brown with hairy tails and white bellies. The deer mice are quite beguiling, and when I trapone I usually feel regretful about it.

(What I call deer mice may also include white-footed mice, I read recently. My field guide says patronizingly that "beginners" may find it hard to tell them apart. "Be satisfied to call it a Peromyscus," it advises helpfully. Right. Build a better trap for a Peromyscus, and the world will beat a path to your door.)

We also have snakes, although I don't believe there are any living in house at the moment, and coyotes. We have foxes, bats and raccoons, all of which can carry rabies. We have two types of ticks, the kind that carries Lyme disease and the kind that carries Rocky Mountain fever.

We have assorted spiders, at least three kinds of fleas and a real wealth of flies -- several thousand species of the 80,000 or so recorded around the world. Some bite, particularly the deer flies and greenheads. Others just spread disease. It's said that our mosquitoes aren't as bad as in marshier parts of the state, but we have our share.

I was going to explain about toadstools, poison ivy and deadly nightshade, too, but we'll leave the botanical booby traps for another day. The point is, those of you considering a move to rural Maryland, particularly to Harford County, should think it over carefully. It's pretty, and it's quiet, but is it really worth the risk?

Peter Jay's column appears here each week.

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