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Disappearing Gardens and Dead Greeks

Jul 20, 2009

I’ve planted my garden twice, and only a fraction remains.

While this might sound pithy and intriguing—akin to something Ralph Waldo Emerson or Ben Franklin might have said—I’m simply stating an unhappy fact. A fact that exists in such stark contrast to my plans, to my vision of how things should be, that even now I’m tempted to disbelieve it.

After all, gardens don’t just disappear. Not right out from under the gardener’s nose. Not while she’s paying attention.

Ah, but they do. And therein lies the mystery as well as the moral at the heart of my story.

First, a confession.

I knew—I just knew—that this year’s garden was going to be The Best Garden Ever. I had it all figured out, even to the point of planning what to do with the excess harvest. Way beyond counting un-hatched chickens, I was canning and freezing and drying the fruit of un-sprouted seeds. I was giving away non-existent vegetables to hungry families. Brimming bushel baskets danced in my dreams.

Given the ensuing events, such over-confidence strikes me now as a direct challenge, a double-dog-dare, to The Fates. But back in the spring, my expectations seemed entirely reasonable, especially in light of all the hard work I was putting in.
I didn’t sit back and expect The Best Garden Ever to grow itself. No, no, no. Through sheer force of will, as if the heat from my gaze were the sun and my sweat the rain, it would be me—me—who would make my garden a jaw-dropping success.

This was the general train of my thoughts as I toted wheelbarrow loads of turkey compost and lime and mixed them by shovelfuls into the raised beds, as I meticulously selected organic, heirloom seeds and started them in trays, as I picked rocks out of a newly-tilled 12 X 50 foot plot where I planned to grow eight kinds of bush beans and six kinds of squash.

In mid-May, as I inspected the solar electric fence that encloses the garden, I congratulated myself on how well it had succeeded in keeping out deer. There hadn’t been a single breech in three years.
I marveled over a bed of early-spring lettuces that had fed us for more than a month. Each leaf appeared as unmolested as if grown in a greenhouse. The absence of either insect or animal nibbles boded well, indeed.

It was about a week prior to Memorial Day when I discovered the lettuces completely shorn of their ruffles and furls. They’d been cut off right at ground level, as if a mower had run over them. No trace of their tender bounty remained. I stood in the garden, looking frantically about as if I might catch the thief slinking from the crime scene.

Rabbits.

In prior years they’d taken a polite serving of beet and carrot greens, the odd cabbage or two. Not so much that it couldn’t be spared, and never with the wanton disregard of this new interloper, whose gluttony I found frankly astonishing. Past summers, I’d seen rabbits hopping at the garden’s edge and been inspired by their grace. I took the philosophical view of their petty thefts. Even entertained myself with the rather Disneyesque vision of all of us—the wild creatures, my family and me—dining at the same table.

This was different.

Clearly, the rabbits were interpreting the slight gap between the ground and the first electrified fence wire as an invitation to an All-You-Can-Eat Buffet. This new generation had no shame, no self-control. I had planned to plant the summer garden over Memorial Day weekend, but couldn’t very well do that until they were stopped. Installing rabbit fencing below the electric fence seemed the only logical next step.

Then I would plant my garden in peace, secure in the knowledge that it was fully protected from the gluttonous bunnies, all of them banished from my table forever.

Simpleminded as it sounds, it did not occur to me that anything other than rabbits could have eaten the lettuce. It did not occur to me that I might not be in the power position in my own garden.

As the Greek philosopher Epictetus (55-135AD) wrote: “It is impossible for a man to learn what he thinks he already knows.”

And so, in short order, we installed the rabbit fencing and I planted the garden and in a matter of days it was gone.

The tomatoes, melons and squashes started from seed. The carefully researched cucumbers, eggplants and pumpkins. All of them pulled up by the roots and vanished. Every newly sprouted bean devoured. Even the marigolds were beheaded, their golden flames extinguished. The plants themselves nibbled to ragged nubs.

I’d never before witnessed anything eat marigolds.

Another Greek philosopher, Heraclitus of Ephesus (535-475BC) famously wrote: “You can’t step into the same river twice; for other waters are ever flowing on to you.” He believed that change is the fundamental organizing principal of the universe.

I could just imagine how Heraclitus would have looked at my ruined garden and shrugged.

“Change alone is unchanging,” he might have offered. “You’re lucky you got two good years.”

But what about all my work?

He would have shrugged again. “Whosoever wishes to know about the world must learn about it in its particular details.”

But—

“Knowledge is not intelligence.”

But—

“In searching for the truth, be ready for the unexpected.”

Easy for him to say.

I wasn’t nearly as interested in searching for truth as in laying blame. I wanted to bag a bad guy—and fast.

Woodchucks.

Of course, woodchucks! An old burrow within the fenced enclosure appeared abandoned, but simply couldn’t be, I reasoned, since it was the only possible way woodchucks could be getting inside.

I set-off smoke bombs and set-out Hav-a-hart traps baited with cabbage and apples. I replanted what I could of the garden and surrounded each bed with 36-inch chicken wire. I placed wire baskets around each tomato plant and threaded the tops with bright orange plastic tape.

As of today, I have four tomato plants left. The cucumber plants are gone again, as are most of the cabbage and broccoli. We’ll have a smattering of squash and bush beans. A few carrots. Potatoes, if it stops raining long enough for the sun to warm the soil. Maybe even a pumpkin or two.

I should be happy to have anything left, I suppose. I should be thankful that I’m not relying upon this plot of Earth for all the food I will eat in the coming year—and I am. But I also want to appeal to a higher authority.

Gardener’s dreams die especially hard.

When I showed a friend the pitiful remains of my Best-Ever Garden, he said, “Oh, I know what’s doing this: raccoons. They’re great climbers and they’re really good with their hands.”

“But I’ve never seen raccoons here before.”

“Oh, yes you have,” he said, looking around. “You just didn’t know it.”

Heraclitus wrote: “Not I, but the world says it: all is one. And yet everything comes in season.”

Perhaps this season belongs to the raccoon. Mine will come again, in time.

There’s always the Winter Garden.

This post appeared in slightly-modified form in the July, 2009 issue of The Appalachian Journal.