Last weekend, we cleaned the barn. Nearly 200 years old, it is a ramshackle, dusty old edifice that is literally packed to the rafters with junk (ancient matresses, broken appliances) and treasures (ancient farm implements, office chairs from the 1920s that only lack a bit of love). Many small creatures, some more adorable than others, call it home.
Actually, it was more sorting and sifting than washing or scrubbing, and there were two men with strong backs, while I stood around suggesting where to stow things and agreeing about what to throw out. Nevertheless, I had fun and came away with a feeling of accomplishment for having delved into a job that had seemed too daunting.
Although none of us is the worse for it, as far as we know, on reflection I think that we may have taken a foolish risk. Does anyone remember hantavirus?
Hantavirus is a disease transmitted by deer mice that can be fatal in humans. A serious hue and cry went up on eastern Long Island in 1994, after a 22-year-old student whose family had a second home on Shelter Island died of the disease. Where he contracted it wasn’t known, but Shelter Island, like the rest of the East End, was then, and is now, full of deer and deer mice. (He also had worked in a factory in Queens before becoming ill.)
For years, aware of the deer mice and rats who frequent our barn, my daughter used to theatrically shout “Hantavirus! Hantavirus!” whenever tasked with retrieving something from its depths. (And, yes, for those of you who don’t know: Much of East Hampton Village has for a very long time been home to rats, too; I prefer to think of them as shipwreck rats, and consider them a mark of distinction.)
How soon we forget. In the ’90s, everyone on Long Island was made aware that dusty, cobwebbed corners could hide mouse droppings that could make us seriously ill. Caution should have reminded me and my crew last weekend to buy and wear face masks.
Certainly, I do think we often, these days, take health precautions too far. At what point, for example, do parents, aware that ticks may be lurking, decide not to let their children play on the grass? (I’m not sure if it’s rational, but I am probably a bit more scared of those little yellow signs that get stuck in the ground when lawns around town have been sprayed with pesticides than I am of lolling on the grass.) Similarly, are those anti-bacterial potions people carry in their purse really more helpful than harmful?
It isn’t in my nature to be overcautious. Some years ago, I even tried to convince my husband that we should name our boat Caution. At the time, I thought Caution would be a great name because, yes, I liked the idea of throwing caution to the winds.
Still, having reminded myself about hantavirus, I may feel a bit foolish but I will put on a mask this weekend when we attack another part of the barn.