Arts & Culture
4:00 pm
Fri August 31, 2012

Varmints! Hostility Grows In The Garden

Summer may be winding down, but for many gardeners in New Hampshire, the season’s not quite over.  There are still tomatoes and beans to be gathered.  And rich fall squashes are just emerging.  This summer’s gardening season has been a challenging one.  Mainly because of a few creatures that have enjoyed her plants.

Ralph Waldo Emerson wrote: “I have no hostility to nature, but a child’s love to it. I expand and live in the warm day like corn and melons.”

I suspect that deer were not eating Mr. Emerson’s corn, or melons.

I suspect that chipmunks were not waiting, with bated rodent breath, for his first strawberries to ripen. I suspect grey squirrels were not taunting him from the branches of a peach tree, taking bites out of not just some but ALL of his peaches, and then littering the ground with an unripe and half-digested mess.

I suspect no skunk was after his chickens.

I suspect he never tangled with the menacing jaws of a tomato hornworm.

Gardeners and farmers, at this time of year, all have hostility.

The garden is an act of faith, of course, faith in weather and manure and the miracle inside every knobbly little beet seed. Gardening is an act of beauty and belief in possibility, plus it is good home economics. But it is also an act of muscle and sweat and bug-swatting and damn hard work. 

You watch your tomato plants grow rich foliage and yellow flowers. You coddle them past the early blight, tie them up lovingly, weed attentively, watch the green tomatoes swell. And one day you discover that fat, jaw-snapping hornworms have defoliated the branches and started gobbling the fruit. You can hear the damned things chewing. 

This gives a person hostility. 

A friend went out to his seemingly-impenetrable chicken house the other morning to discover a chicken missing. Or most parts of a chicken. A varmint had chugged the bird but left...just the spleen, glistening darkly on the grass. You do not see pate of spleen in gourmet stores, do you? No. Spleen, apparently, is gross.

This year has been the worst. The deer ate my peas. My parsley. The spinach and the morning glories and the sweet potato vines. They ate the beans, right to the ground. 

I tricked out the garden with strips of tin foil twisted along the fence. The foil swayed and blinked menacingly by the barn light. I tucked bars of soap into mesh bags, hung them in strategic locations for maximum olfactory offense. I brushed the dogs, spread canine-scented fur around. The deer... kept... coming. I left a transistor radio on in the garden overnight, the rise and fall of the BBC announcer drifting from among the beets and lettuce. I imagined the deer hunkered in a terrified perimeter, trying to make sense of the economic crisis in the Eurozone.

Instead, they enjoyed the broadcast along with a late-night snack of my raspberry bushes. I should have left them a bottle of wine.

Hostility mounting, I went to the feed store. I selected a jug of dehydrated coyote urine. I do not want to think about how someone collects enough coyote urine to dehydrate and pelletize and sell. But someone does. I sprinkled a perimeter around my garden. The place smelled like the wolf enclosure at a zoo. But the deer were apparently convinced that the garden was surrounded by 900 weak-bladdered coyotes. They stayed away. For about three days.

Varmint-induced hostility leads wise and gentle people to do things they would not ordinarily do.

My friend Will, an otherwise modest and sane man, has twice leapt from his bed buck naked, grabbed a .22, and bolted out into the August night in pursuit of a chicken-murdering skunk. The skunk remains at large.

My friend Bob, a kind and intelligent fellow, dosed the aforementioned peach-thieving squirrels with chocolate-covered ex-lax. 

I know a vegetarian who beat a woodchuck to death with a shovel. 

Think about that for a minute. 

My hostility went electric. We strung a 6,000-volt fence around the garden. We would shock the varmints. 

The first night it was up, a deer must have attempted to push through -- and retreated. HAH. And then, for weeks, nothing. My bush beans rebounded, flowered, grew long and tender pods. My peas sent off new shoots and tendrils. The pole beans climbed their birch trellis. The parsley grew back.

I began to let myself imagine the tidy packets of blanched and frozen beans that would be stacked in my freezer for a winter’s worth of suppers. 

And then, one recent morning, I froze at the garden gate. The pole beans were stripped clean. Not a leaf on them. The electric fence was intact, still pulsing. The deer had figured out a way over, or under. They were in. And my pole beans were gone.

With all due respect, Mr. Emerson, you can stuff your expansiveness and love.