Where the Wild Things Are
by Peter Shelton
09.30.08 - 07:29 am
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The other day I was sitting at the computer and I heard this odd ticking sound. Like a mechanical clock, but there is no mechanical clock downstairs. I sat still and tried to focus on where the sound might be originating. I leaned in toward the old desk-top but couldn’t discern anything beyond the usual whirring.

Perhaps the sound, persistent but not quite metronomic, was coming from outside. I opened the door carefully, and there on top of a stone wall near the garbage cans a chipmunk was jerking his tail and calling in alarm: chip, chip, chip.

He was looking down at something so intently he didn’t see me coming until I was almost on top of him. And there at the base of the wall was the tableaux that was upsetting him so. A couple of fence lizards, one with a blue belly, the other corpse-gray, lay, dead, tangled in a bit of garden netting. And a very small snake, no wider than a black pencil, had his mouth over the blue-belly lizard’s snout.

The little snake wasn’t going to get any farther than that. He seemed to know it, too. So when I reached down to pick up the netting he let go and retreated with dignity back into the wall.

I wanted to save him the embarrassment of trying and failing to swallow something 10 times his size. And I felt guilty because we, Ellen and I, had caused the lizards’ deaths. Inadvertently, but caused them nonetheless.

A few weeks ago something started eating our trumpet vine, the one we planted in honor of Adam’s mother, Paula. Within days of the flowers opening, something got them. Then leaves and whole creeper branches started disappearing during the nights. I found what looked like one of the branches under the hood of the car, where chipmunks and golden mantle ground squirrels like to build nests when we’re not looking.

So, Ellen surrounded the trumpet vine, which had just begun to thrive, with the netting. Collateral casualties included the lizards. (It was impossible to extract them, so she had snipped away the offending netting and tossed it, with its limp carcasses, over by the garbage cans.)

Oh, the changes we wreak building a house in the wild! We tried to do it with the smallest possible impact. We set the house carefully into the hill so that we could get away with the least amount of dirt work. Before that, we sited the structure so that we’d have to remove the fewest junipers – five, which I chainsawed myself, with tears in my eyes. During excavation, I insisted the backhoe driver not pile his dirt on top of the sagebrush outside the foundation but instead take it down the driveway to a designated spot. This cost us extra and earned the dirt boys’ scorn. People paid them to get rid of sagebrush! Not only was I a tree hugger but a sagebrush hugger.

We wanted the landscaping around the house to be as natural as possible. We planted two miniscule lawns. A friend asked if we used nail clippers to trim them. Ellen transplanted native grasses to the patches of disturbed earth. We keep our cats indoors.

We’ve tried hard to blend in. But we also discovered that we need civilized borders: stone walls, paths, ornamental drought-resistant plants here and there. (We need them for the same reasons I needed to sand the edges of the rough-cut beams in the kitchen – so they look like they’ve been touched.) We’ve got Russian sage with its purple-blue stalks, bushy, aromatic lavender, red-leaf barberry, blue spirea that buzz with honey bees for months in the summer. All of them come with the nursery’s deer-resistant, bunny-resistant seal of approval. And all of them get munched.

The spirea have been decimated in the last month. Something bit off almost every flowering stem. Didn’t eat them; just left them dangling from a limb or lying on the ground. We suspected nest-building squirrels at first. But I think now it must have been deer. Deer or rabbits, or something else, nibbles the barberry down to the nub every winter. I raised the shade in a living room window one morning last January and found a large doe lying in the middle of the lavender bed not three feet from the glass.

They pretty much leave the lavender alone, though. Unless the snow is deep and they are having a hard time getting at the sage and other snacks they prefer. Then they paw through the snow and trim the lavender, too. Deer will plow a lot of snow to get at the lawn grass. Then the rabbits move in and chew what’s left.

We are not going to win. We’ve moved into their place. We can only root for the badgers and the coyotes, the eagles and owls, who do their darnedest to keep the rodent populations down. As for the deer, at certain times of year only chicken-wire, or netting, will work.

Maybe next year the trumpet vine will grow big enough to survive an animal pruning, and we won’t have to cage it. Then maybe we can also avoid a dreaded chipmunk scolding.
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