muskrat house

A muskrat house might be said to be the sign determinative of a wetland— a land feature, often recognizable from a distance by the sight of humped muskrat houses on the horizon. A muskrat house is shaped like a miniature beaver lodge, but the muskrat builds its house not of sticks and wood from nearby dry land, as the beaver does, but from the stems of reeds and other soft water plants, densely packed together with mud. It is against the law throughout the United States for a trapper to break into a muskrat house to lay a trap in winter without closing the house up again and sealing it shut, for it is so well constructed that even a small breakage in its wall would cause all the animals inside to freeze to death. Muskrat are widely regarded as the easiest animal to trap, and many trappers learned their trade as children by trapping them. Until the collapse of the fur industry in the 1980s, a million muskrat were trapped annually in the United States. A trapping manual from the 1920s reports that the perceived value of wetland preservation fluctuated with the monetary value of muskrat pelts. Abandoned muskrat houses are used as nesting sites by the great variety of animals that inhabit wetlands, from snapping turtles to wood ducks and trumpeter swans. When Mole first sees Ratty’s house in The Wind and the Willows, “dreamily he fell to considering what a nice snug dwelling-place it would make.”

Susan Brind Morrow