Back to Nature (Published on - Jan. 11, 2006)
The cotton mouse – a visit from Mickey?
Illustration by Karen Mitchell Tremmel
The cotton mouse
See Rock City! Visit Ruby Falls!

These were the signs that were familiar as I grew up at the foot of Lookout Mountain, on the border of Tennessee and Georgia. Our neighborhood sloped in a “V” formation, built down the lower side of Lookout Mountain to the Tennessee Valley, then spread upwards to the west side of Missionary Ridge.

Lighting the roof tops and church steeples, the sun rose over Missionary Ridge, spreading its warmth over the corn and cotton fields to the south. At end of the day, in spectacular brilliance, the sun climbed the eastern slopes of the mountain with the passion of an artist, splashing light, in reds, pinks, golds, greens and whites on the branches of dogwood, sycamore and maples.

Then with one last breath the forest was on fire, ablaze in burning oranges, to disappear behind a drape of velvet darkness. The valley became a womb that few ventured from. The outside world was just that, outside, over there, imaginary, an image on a TV screen, a photo in National Geographic or a heart-felt story in Reader’s Digest.

On cold mornings we kids huddled near the fire and television with eyes of wonder, as Bozo the Clown beeped secret messages, the Lone Ranger got his man and Mickey Mouse delighted us with songs and mouse adventures. We wore black mouse ears and chorused M-I-C, See you real soon, K-E-Y, Why, because we love you, M-O-U-S-E. And in this imaginary place a dream was born, a humble dream among pans of cornbread, ham-hocks, turnip greens, farmer’s fields and clear mountain water.

Someday, somehow we’d find a way to travel to Florida and shake hands with the real Mickey. As if I was a child again, this dream was realized for me when I was in my late 30s. A hug from Mickey, a visit through his softly curved house culminating with lunch in his garden was a dream fulfilled for a Tennessee Girl.

As I am peering out my window this morning, sipping a lukewarm cup of coffee, a little mouse nibbling on fallen blossoms came into my view. He scampers into a pool of sunlight. It then becomes apparent that this is no ordinary mouse. I become fascinated by his activities.

Its hind feet are much larger than that of an ordinary house mouse and its belly is pure, soft white. Its back is a darkish, doe brown. The little mouse has very big, round, black, shiny eyes and large flannel, gray ears. I muse, He looks like Mickey, my beloved TV hero. Referencing my guide books I discover this little mouse is indeed no ordinary house mouse, but a “cotton mouse”.

Ducking in and out of ginger foliage, mouse tastes the nasturtiums, nibbles on fire-bush blossoms and tender rye grass seedlings. “Mickey” plays in our garden for nearly 20 minutes.

The talented 7-to-8-inch cotton mouse – Peromyscus (from the Greek word pera, pouch, and myskos, little mouse, gossypinus (from the Latin word meaning “belonging to the cotton plant”) can climb trees and also swim. The Cotton Mouse prefers dry swamps, bottomland woods, hollow trees, beaches, stone walls and neglected human habitats nesting in or under logs or low palmettos. They eat insects, seeds, berries and nuts, spiders and slugs and apparently within our Florida gardens: flowers.

The Key Largo Cotton Mouse – Peromyscus gossypinus allapaticola is endangered. The Key Largo Cotton Mouse is restricted to approximately the northern one-third of the uplands of Key Largo, Monroe County, Florida.

“An estimated 18,000 cotton mice may still exist in the remaining 2,100 acres (851 hectares) of forested habitat on north Key Largo (Humprey 1988).”

A cotton mouse visits a Tennessee girl’s garden in Florida and an imaginary character takes on a “real” face in a world a long ways from the valley this girl used to call home, back to nature.

Karen can be reached at

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