holloway overhung with ancient trees n Cornwall

It was my birthday, and I had been given a live shrew in a box — not for a pet, but simply to admire and to photograph. I was a little disappointed at first that I didn’t get any real presents, but the shrew was an admirably fierce little creature who attacked anything thrust in its direction, and I soon appreciated the wisdom of the gesture: loaning me a fully wild creature, something that can never be owned or controlled. The idea that anyone can own anything — it’s such a delusion, isn’t it? But that’s what drives this mania of consumption imperiling the earth.

I’ll have to wait till morning so I can take pictures outside, I said. I’m sure it will be fine in the box overnight.

But it wasn’t fine. At first it circled the box energetically, but after a couple hours it barely moved, even when I nudged it with a pencil. I remembered reading that shrews have lightning-fast metabolisms, and eat three times their body weight every day. I started worrying that it might die if I didn’t feed it. Maybe I could go out and dig up some earthworms, I thought, but then I remembered that the ground was frozen and buried under several feet of snow.

I had meat in the freezer; maybe it would like some ground venison? But that would take at least an hour to thaw in warm water — I don’t own a microwave — and an hour for a shrew must be like a whole day to a human being. I looked down at my hands, and it occurred to me that my fingers were at least superficially similar to worms and millipedes.

I went back over to the box and wiggled my left pinky in front of the ailing shrew. It perked up almost immediately, rushing forward and sinking its teeth into the finger. I jerked my hand away and stared at the toothmarks brimming with blood. That really didn’t hurt at all, I muttered.

But I don’t like messes, so rather than end up with some ugly, mangled stump, I went out to the toolshed and made a clean cut with the radial arm saw right above the second knuckle, then quickly applied a bandage and tourniquet. I thought about cauterizing it with the oxyacetylene torch, but that seemed like overkill.

The shrew was delighted with the severed pinky. It dragged it all around the box a couple of times, then set to work eating the thing. Soon its sharp little snout was dark with blood, and as I watched I got that familiar rush of warmth I always feel when I know I’ve helped somebody. Happy birthday, I whispered. It certainly seemed spry for its age.