Do I have your attention? Not to worry: I am not gassing woodchucks, shooting rabbits, or doing whatever one does to deer who destroy a garden, but I am frustrated this summer. For some unknown reason, I have never had critter problems before on this property that I have occupied for over thirty years. I take that back, the squirrels and chipmunks steal and eat my flower bulbs. But I made my peace with that years ago. I submitted to the reality that what I call “my yard” is not my yard only. Dig a little deeper, try the folkways of putting some cayenne in the soil, and you can have enough bulbs to emerge to enjoy lovely flowers while supplying the more ambitious rodents with food to feed their families.
However, this year I have had deer come up to the patio in the afternoon, look me in the eye through my French doors, then bite the tops of my tomato plants and defy me to do anything about it. Little fat rabbits scurry when they see me coming, but they don’t fool me. I know what they are doing. And as of today, I am sad to report that I have no Asiatic lilies left, no hostas left, and half my black eyed Susans are gone. My tomato plants (the only vegetable I am attempting this summer) are housed in a maximum security prison rivalling Attica.
Finally I can identify with the speaker in a poem by Maxine Kumin called “Woodchucks.” I used to teach it to my college freshman on the first day of Introduction to Literature because it is a great poem, amazingly written, and because it would engage students, especially some of the young men, in a subject—poetry—that they were not readily disposed to. It begins
Gassing the woodchucks didn’t turn out right.
The knockout bomb from the Feed and Grain Exchange
was featured as merciful, quick at the bone
and the case we had against them was airtight,
both exits shoehorned shut with puddingstone.
but they had a sub-sub-basement out of range.
On the next day, the woodchucks are back. The speaker tells us that the cyanide overnight had done no more harm to the woodchucks that the “cigarettes and state-store scotch” the householders had partaken of during that same period. People and critters survived their toxins. In the poem, the chucks plow through the supposedly protective marigolds and begin “beheading the carrots” and “nipping” the broccoli. The speaker goes on to say something that I quoted to that deer munching on my tomatoes at my patio. Shaking my fist at him, I declaimed, “The food from our very mouths.”
The gardener in the poem then does what I don’t plan on doing. She gets her .22 rifle and stalks the family of chucks with clearly mixed feelings. On the one hand, “The hawk-eye killer came on stage forthwith." She is “righteously thrilling” to the hunt. But on the other hand, the “Murderer inside me rose up hard” as she shoots “the mother” and “another baby next.” By the end of the poem we see her wishing they had all “died unseen” underground from the knockout bomb. Nevertheless, she is still pursuing the remaining animal, the dad. In one of the best mono-syllabic sentences you will ever read, the speaker declares “There’s one chuck left.” She is obsessed with him, “Old wily fellow.” She hunts him all day and dreams about hunting him all night. He keeps her “cocked and ready.”
I love that poem. You can go online and read the whole thing Here. I love the poem, but in real life, I have decided to let go of my frustration and anger. Anyway, I don’t own a rifle. And I ought not to be shooting one in my small suburban back yard if I did. No, I will feed the critters if I must. I will be wiser next spring. For now, I’ll just get a glass of iced tea and go sit on my patio and relax. Oh, I forgot, a robin somehow made her nest on a slanted blade of my patio fan. I don’t want to scare the babies. I don’t want the parents to poop on me, and I obviously can’t turn on the fan to cool off on this muggy day. Hmm. I wonder what’s on TV.
Jenny Sullivan became a garden club member here in Northern Virginia, after retiring from 42 years of teaching English. She has authored two books in retirement, From My Father’s House, a southern novel click FMI here and The Purpose-Driven Life: A Children’s Catechism click FMI. Jenny recently taught a course on Flannery O’Connor in the spring for Arlington County’s Encore Learning Program for Seniors. She will teach a course this fall on Hawthorne and Melville, beginning October 1.