Notes from Candice Ransom

Muskrat Love


Me (in blue), Claudia with Tula, Elizabeth.  Photo by Ashley Wolff, Tula's mother.
Me (in blue), Claudia with Tula, Elizabeth. Photo by Ashley Wolff, Tula’s mother.

We were up at 6:00 nearly every morning and walking by 6:30. The Hollins Summer Walking Team–Claudia Mills, Elizabeth Dulemba, and me. We talked, logged in countless miles, and never failed to appreciate the scenery spread before us.

I’d come to Hollins this summer not only to teach and talk but to find the words again. Words had left me two and a half years ago, though I’d become adept at faking it.

Hollins is the perfect environment. For six weeks I’m free from the hunting and gathering of food and waste management (my definition of running a house). I’d get up, make my little bed, walk, wash my one bowl and glass and spoon and would have the rest of the day to teach and talk and read . . . and write.

Last summer I sat in my Hollins apartment and stared at my laptop screen. One afternoon I became completely frozen, literally unable to get up for hours. I called my husband in a panic. He told me to shut down my computer and keep it off except for business emails. That’s what I did the rest of the term. And came home with nothing.

This summer it seemed like more of the same. A journal entry from early in the term:

I work all day but don’t really write. My journals sit on tables and chests, pen on top, but I hardly ever open them. I need to write an essay for the photo website and I can’t think of how to write about home. My last blog post was someone else’s words.

Last night as I tried to sleep, I saw those kids in my head again. Small, dark, and distant. They run around playing on a bowl-shaped surface. Maybe a hill. I can’t hear them and they won’t come to me.

Mornings The Team would walk and talk. We saw yellow-crowned night herons standing like upended croquet mallets in Carvin Creek. Swallows capered across the sky, showing off, and muskrats foraged in the grass along the creek bank.


I also walked the campus loop alone to break loose blocked thoughts. Soon I stopped thinking and simply looked around me.


Deer were plentiful this year. Herds grazed in the middle of the day, watchful but unafraid. I followed the roller-coaster flights of bluebirds until I memorized their songs.


Then there were the skunks. Passels of them roamed the grounds at dusk. I was standing on the porch of the old parsonage early one evening when this posse stampeded straight for me. I jumped off the porch and snapped a quick, blurry photo. Did you know a group of skunks is called a surfeit? Even one skunk seems too many when you’re wearing flip-flops and running down a very long hill.

This was the summer I fell in love with muskrats. I saw them swimming in Carvin Creek. I saw them feeding by the drainage ditches. I stepped in their bolt holes dug a few feet from the creek’s edge.


Muskrats are hinky creatures, skittering off the instant they spy humans, diving down the bolt hole and emerging beneath the bank. Their vertically flattened tails act as rudders, enabling quick getaways. The muskrats were a constant, reassuring presence. They went about their business without any fuss.


In her book A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit says:  What is the message that wild animals bring, the message that seems to say everything and nothing? What is this message that is wordless, that is nothing more or less than the animals themselves–that the world is wild, that life is unpredictable in its goodness and its danger, that the world is larger than your imagination?

I turned off my laptop and carried a notebook. I didn’t open the notebook much, but carrying it made me feel better. I listened to the speakers our program sponsors every summer—writers, illustrators, scholars—and learned they went about their business without any fuss, too.

The best writing, Solnit says, appears like those animals, sudden, self-possessed, telling everything and nothing, words approaching wordlessness.


Two days before the end of the term, one of those dark, distant kids I kept seeing in my head turned to face me. She spoke. And I reached for my notebook.

20 thoughts on “Muskrat Love”

    • There’s enough Thoreau in me to still pay attention to the world around me, even when my inner world is in turmoil. I loved the muskrats–they’re so cute, for one thing.

      I hope the words keep coming too! Thanks for staying with me.

    • I remember the day we stood on the bridge over Carvin Creek and watched those two muskrat pups swimming below us. I told you about the kids I kept seeing in my head, dark like silhouettes, playing, and so far away from me. You said that morning was one of the best at Hollins that summer.

      I learned from you to take moments as they came and not worry so much about things I had no control over. I also loved your stories, always about people. You gave me hope and people. I hope I gave you animals.

  1. Nice to see you back online. Those skunks would have me moving to another continent! Have never seen muskrats in person. Love hearing about your outdoor adventures.

    • The muskrats were adorable! Like groundhogs, only smaller and with a hairless tail. Their fur was a rich brown and lush–no wonder people had coats made from it (it’s also water-resistant).

      The skunks were cute from a distance, but there were so many that we were afraid to go out at night! I scared one–and he scared me–by the library early one evening and he raised his tail at me! I’ve never run so fast.

  2. This made me literally laugh out loud: “Did you know a group of skunks is called a surfeit? Even one skunk seems too many when you’re wearing flip-flops and running down a very long hill.” Candice, I miss you so much! So good to read your thoughtful and often funny words. I hope they keep on coming!

    • You would have laughed even harder watching me that day. My husband still doesn’t believe the skunks were running toward me, but the proof is in the picture!

      I miss you like a hot buttered biscuit. There’s always a chair in my class with your name on it, whether you’re there or not. I hope you’re doing well. And that your thesis is still coming along. Can’t wait to read it!

    • I loved the skunks, too, from the safety of a window! I think those were young skunks–all young animals are kind of bumbling and unsure of themselves. Maybe they thought I was their mother! They run much faster than you think–and so did I.

      Those kids do have an air of mystery, the way they’ve come into my head like silhouettes. I could draw them on black paper and cut them out, almost. I’m letting them lead me, for once. The girl is named Cuss, short for Custis. She takes no prisoners. Email answer coming soon!

  3. I hope the girl that spoke to you was the one in the salvage yard. Can’t wait to hear her story. Thanks for the beautiful pictures; they really made me smile. And brought back happy memories. I’m missing your class, but I did get another Jessie book.

    PS I’ve found those Hollins skunks to be very friendly.

    • Oh, yeah, there’s a junkyard. You’re kind about the photos–animal pictures are hard to take with a point-and-shoot.

      I miss our class, too! And I’ve already bought two more books on illustrators. Next time I teach the class, I’ll subtitle it: “Open Your Wallets.”

      Maybe the skunks were *too* friendly? But the one that raised his tail at me definitely meant business.

      I hope your daughter had a beautiful wedding day!

  4. Wonderful to see that photo of y’all walking. I feel like I lived vicariously through you while I was on the mend. It’s also interesting to me that you could do that walk a half hour after getting up. My body is such a fuss budget that it needs a couple of hours in the morning before it “unloads itself,” as it were. It also needs a perfect latte, a shower, and then a mid-morning breakfast, heavy on the protein, before it can be coaxed into that kind of activity. By then, it’s too danged hot — which is ultimately why I’m an evening exerciser.

    • We often started walking even earlier. I got up, made my bed, and dressed. Claudia and Elizabeth both ate or drank something before the hike. At home I run/walk and can only do it on an empty stomach, so I’m used to going for two hours of walking with no more than a sip of water.

      I remember you were an evening walker . . . it was too hot in the evenings for me to walk (though this summer was very pleasant!). Hope you’re feeling much better!

  5. Beautiful post.

    I’m glad the girl came out of the shadows and spoke to you. Magical!

    After two and one half years in a battle zone, you needed all the things you received at Hollins. Walks, talks, nature, solitude and being engulfed in a group of you peers.

    Watch out for Skunks. I think they have your number.

    • I’m *sure* the skunks have my number! And I love animals! I miss being on campus already. But it’s good to be home, and working again. Full steam ahead!

      Thanks, as always, for dropping by!

    • I miss our walks, too. Even if we didn’t talk specifically about our work, we talked about other things that seeped around the edges of our work. That fresh air, those hills, the animals . . . hard to duplicate it at home where I walk alone. Already can’t wait for next summer!


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