The Lonely Garden
“How Much Wood
Could a Woodchuck Chuck
If a Woodchuck
Could Chuck Wood?”
…Elementary school tongue twister
For summering Hamptonites from Gotham, Memorial Day weekend is one for grilling, hoping to lay down a base tan and planting the garden… fulfilling our urbanized species’ primal desire to return to the land… to till the ancient soil… to be food self-sufficient. At least in rosemary, zucchini and cherry tomatoes for a few weekends each year.
A road-trip to the Home Depot in Riverhead and the Hampton Bays Nursery on Montauk Highway filled the back seat of a ten year-old Mini Cooper convertible with little plastic pots of cherry tomatoes, white eggplants, hot and sweet peppers, pickling cucumbers, zucchini, basil and flowers. Included were pots of parsley and flat-leafed parsley. We East Quogue faux subsistence farmers proudly garnish our potato and macaroni salads with home grown, gluten free, organic, free range parsley and flat-leafed parsley. It makes all the difference in the world. Guests say so all the time.
After leaving the flats of plants next to their new summer home in our 18’ X 36′ raised-bed garden, we picked up Ramona – our little 15 pound Goldendoodle – and headed over the Ponquogue Bridge for a Memorial Day weekend walk on the beach by the cut between Shinacock Bay and the ocean. Carvel cone on the way home. Patriotic red, white and blue sprinkles. A joyful tradition.
Later on that day, whilst enjoying a cup of coffee and Sag Harbor’s Alan Furst’s latest WWII thriller, the Chief Agrarian of our farmstead came into the screened-in gazebo by the pool and showed me a flat of recently purchased plants. The little plastic tags said ‘parsley’ and ‘flat-leafed parsley’.
“Perhaps I was mistaken,” herself asked ever so sweetly, pausing for the desired effect, “Or did this parsley and flat-leafed parsley have…leaves…on them when we bought them?” Stems! Nipped off neater than a Southampton landscaper’s best privet trimmer. Varmints! Couldn’t be deer…we’re deer fenced in. Rabbit! Woodchuck! Capybara! Trouble in paradise. A disturbance in the force.
“Ohh… ohh, my goodness.” T’was just after dawn on an early June morning when I first laid eyes on our parsley – and flat-leafed parsley – gourmet nipper: the sleekest, most engaging woodchuck in the Garden of Creation contentedly munching away on tender baby clover buds on the lawn where we play croquet. He… or she… was dining at about center wicket. As no more plants had disappeared… and a mightedly cute furry animal had moved in under the garden shed to share our half acre of the Garden…I saw no reason to alarm the Chief Agrarian. Live and let live. The Peacebable Kingdom. All of God’s creatures. That sort of thing.
There is a defining moment for every species of life when one’s entire being… every neuron and every muscle… is focused upon a single primal thought: RUN FOR YOUR LIFE! I should note that, in such a race, a woodchuck is not very fast afoot.
After a heavy mid-June afternoon rain, I got a cup of coffee and headed out to inspect the crops. “Ahh… there you are!” My dandy woodchuck was grazing on the cool, wet lawn. Paradise. But, after a few minutes on the croquet court, it waddled… “GREAT SCOTT!” … into the garden having the appearance of an overweight tourist heading into a cut-rate casino breakfast buffet.
“HAR! WOODCHUCK! HAR! BANG!” I frantically made loud noises and strenuously thrashed my arms about, making what I hoped would be seen as threatening gestures by a woodchuck. Teach it that the garden was out of bounds. Woodchuck Academy. Learn and let live.
However, this loud and unusual behavior attracted the attention of our Goldendoodle, who was inspecting and sniffing a very suspicious leaf at the far end of the yard. Ramona saw the woodchuck. All of us, of course, have seen our dogs run. Chase balls. Bounce happily about. Run to greet a family friend. Play tag in a dog park. Folks: you ain’t seen nothing!
Turns out a playful pup and beloved house pet can switch into its ancestral predator mode in a nanosecond and run… silently and low to the ground at a truly amazing … astounding speed… a poodle-ish white blur against the dark green wet lawn. Spray flew up from her churning paws. “GREAT SCOTT!”
It was the Discovery Channel’s cheetah and gazelle… rabbit and fox… wolves and the buffalo calf… female lions and the gnu… wildebeest… whatever. Ramona made up ground in a flash and, as the ‘chuck dove under the garden shed, lunged and snapped at its stubby tail. Might have gotten fur. It was that close.
At this point, I should note that our family’s Chief Agrarian also considers herself to be our cute little lap-dog’s “Mommy.” A very protective Brooklyn mother to be sure. So, perhaps I erred in relating this “Run For Your Life” narrative to herself as there was, at the tale’s conclusion and without a single moment’s hesitation, “The fuckin’ gopher goes.” She didn’t have to add the implied “or else.”
By some odd coincidence, I have had experience in orchestrating the demise of woodchucks. About 65 years ago up in rural Dutchess County, I was paid ten cents… A WHOLE DIME…for every woodchuck burrow and mound I could find in a neighbor’s hay field. Hitting a rock-hard woodchuck mound with the blades of a late 1930’s mowing machine caused real damage.
When successful, and anticipating the late 1940’s buying power of a dime, I would lead the farmer’s eldest daughter to the holes where she would loosen up the mounds, pull the fuse on something that looked like a little highway flare, throw it down the hole and quickly seal the burrow. If smoke – and woodchucks-issued forth from an undiscovered escape hole, she would bash ‘em on the head with her shovel. Sturdy Hudson Valley farm stock. But, I digress.
Now, however, things have obviously changed and one can only imagine popping into ACE Hardware or Lowes and picking up a couple dozen poison gas bombs in the Age of Terrorism. So: the folks at a Hampton Bays pest control firm told me that they, “Don’t do woodchucks or, for that matter, moles, voles, squirrels or raccoons” and that what I needed was a Suffolk County licensed animal trapper and gave me Bob’s cell number. I spoke to Bob.
Many homeowner service industries thrive in the Hamptons. We have Doug, the landscaper; Doug II, our pool guy; Matt, irrigation; Dave, carpenter; Mike, painter; Andrew, handyman; and Jenny, house checker whose mom, Penny, seasonally housecleans. Now Joel, Bob’s assistant woodchuck trapper. As I showed him the garden and shed, I suddenly felt like a French collaborator in one of Furst’s 1940’s set-in-Paris novels.
“Been trappin’ ‘chucks for 50 years. Licensed for 50 years. Used to trap muskrats. Sold the skins to Sears & Roebuck in Chicago. Now its woodchuck season. Lots of ‘em. I can use live traps or dead traps. Licensed for both. Gotta use live trap here. You gotta dog. I’ll set it in by the shed. Nice shed, by the way. Looks Amish built. Strange people. Amish. Great carpenters. Like horses. Woodchucks are horrible for horses. Step in a hole. Break a leg. Gotta shoot ‘em. I’ll anchor the trap. Be back five days in a row. Maybe more than one. Sociable little buggers. That’ll be $597. $100 more for each extra ‘chuck. Check or credit card?” Oy.
One of my sons harbors a catalog of conspiracy theories and solemnly warned his dottering old father about the possibility, “Nay, the probability – you being in the Hamptons – that this ‘Bob’ is gonna squirrel away the woodchuck for a couple weeks… sneak back into your garden late some night when you’re in Brooklyn.. plant the woodchuck… eat the garden clean… another $597. Ha!,” he triumphantly exclaimed, “It’s undoubtedly a trained woodchuck. This ‘Bob’ is obviously a scoundrel and a knave.” Family. Oh, well.
There. There he…or she…was. Near the end of June, the hunt was over. Surprise. Humanpholk won. The woodchuck ended up in a heavy wire trap. A live trap. A cell on rodent death row in East Quogue. No last meal. No parsley or long-leafed parsley. No hope of a pardon from the Governor. No last rites that we know of.
It was a totally unexpected… and astonishingly powerful… wave of emotion that swept over me as I looked down into the dark eyes of the condemned. Crime: Parsley Nipping, First Class. Sentence: Death. I physically shook and felt a tad faint. What was in those eyes? In that look? Fear? Trust? Hate? Resignation? Forgiveness? Eternal Damnation? Prayer? I may have shed a tear.
Then, there were two little “thwipps” of a high-powered German Air Pistol and… suddenly… the Garden felt very… very… lonely.