How To Sweep A Garden Path

garden pathPerhaps you know the story about the Zen master and the student, whose task was to sweep the garden path. Again and again the student washed and swept only to have the Master say it was not done properly. Finally, when the student was sufficiently confounded – and the path totally sanitized – the Master reached up and shook a branch and let a few leaves fall where they may on the stones.  The task was not to erase nature from the path, but to appreciate and make room for its contributions to our lives.

* * *

This morning, the hollow-reed plaint of a mourning dove, rusted trill of a redwing blackbird and the high, chittering glissando of finches quilt their calls in a syncopated patchwork of sound. Cardinals, robins, jays and wrens race along the invisible highways in the air above the lawn while the squirrels flex their bodies like furred muscles around the trunk of the tall cedar behind the house.

I’m sitting on my backyard deck in the hot-sun, cool air of an early May morning, watching spring arrive; everything pushing up, leafing out, letting go with abandon. Almost perfect. Almost.

Beneath the lively scene, underpinning the warm embrace of the sun and breeze, the faint odor of my resident skunk persists.  It’s gone, now, but not as I’d expected it would go – trapped and removed, to be released elsewhere, or humanely (I hoped) euthanized.

I thought I was being so clever – dusting the deck with flour for several days to track its coming and going so I could block the gaps after he – or she – had departed for the evening (see previous post). I thought I was being so clever.

DSC00639An urban critter-trapper laid baited ‘have-a-heart’ traps around the deck and reinforced the blocked entrances, except one where he affixed another cage. If the skunk was still under the deck, this would be its escape route where it would surely be trapped, he said, though he warned it might take a few days “if it’s trap-savvy.”

For weeks there persisted a mild, skunky odor around the deck. But we caught nothing. The odor faded then for a few days until one morning – 3 AM – I woke to a powerful and sickening smell. I knew instantly what had happened.

The deck was already part of the house when I bought it, so I had no idea how it was constructed. Although we’d left the skunk an escape route, it had settled in a section under the deck that was blocked from that exit.  We had trapped it in and it had died. Its fur was still glossy and soft when the trapper removed it from its nest under the deck.

If I am honest, I must admit having a descending order of tolerance for my yard’s co-habitants, with skunks at the bottom of the list. Still, I have remorse over my actions, however unknowing, that caused this painful end to a small life. It reminds me of a beautiful poem, Snake, by D. H. Lawrence in which the narrator regrets the pettiness of his reaction to a creature which, upon reflection, he recognizes as having its own beauty and nobility within the realm of its ‘otherness.’

* * *

finchesTwo days ago my resident house finches left me. It was a Saturday morning and I was in my customary seat in the living room watching the male and female busily feeding their chick in the nest they’d constructed in the wreath on my front door (previous post). But they kept hopping away to perch, chirping loudly, on the chairs on my porch.  Back and forth, nest to chair, while the chick stretched and flapped its tiny wings, chirping back.  This exciting display went on for a good quarter of an hour. Needing another cup of coffee, I left my post for a few minutes, and when I returned – no chick.  It had found its way out into the world.

Baby finch in nest through the screen door.

Baby finch in nest through the screen door.

I confess to feeling a bit bereft.  The finches had become part of my everyday.  I felt privileged to be a small part of their lives and to be so close to this little bit of nature, even though it meant giving up access to my front door for a few months.

I left the wreath with its nest in place through the week-end – just in case anyone came back, but there were no visitors. When I finally removed the wreath,  one tiny, unhatched egg lay at the bottom – pale blue, with a touch of fuzzy down stuck on. I’d read that house finches often use the same nest and can have up to three clutches a season, So I found a high, protected spot for the wreath  out of the human traffic pattern – again, just in case. 

DSC00655

Finch egg, dime and Cheerio.

* * *

The trick, I think, is to figure out how to live with nature – not against it. So hard to do both at the global level but also on the small stage of a suburban back yard. Last week I put in two small raised beds for herbs. I put up a fence and attached mylar ribbons to float in the breeze. Whether these measures will discourage deer, rabbits, chipmunks and birds I cannot now say. But I am preparing to accept that one morning I will look out my kitchen window and be greeted by a bed of headless herbs. If so, I may re-plant – or not, and try to remember to accept letting the leaves  fall on the swept path however they will.

 

Skunked! Chapter 1

skunkI saw her first one fall evening a year ago. She waddled through the garden, hugging the fence line, slunk through the gate, across the drive and into my neighbor’s bushes.  Nothing like Disney’s suave Pepe Le Pew, or even the classic, glossy-furred black and double-white striped image familiar to us all.  No, she had a single horizontal stripe across her shoulders and a tiny wisp of white at the tip of her tail. She was bedraggled and dirty and the mass of her black fur seemed a burden to carry. An unlovely, pitiful sight.  I felt kind of sorry for her.  A few days later she made her presence known in the skunk’s inimitable way – in the middle of the night.

I’m a pretty handy and self-sufficient person.  I like to take care of things myself as much as possible. So, on to the internet and “How to Get Rid of a Skunk.”  I knew she was living under my deck, but didn’t know where she got in.  Taking the web’s advice, well after dark I sifted a thin layer of flour across the deck to capture her tracks as she came ‘home.’ It was unlikely to see her again, coming or going. DSC00577It worked!

I saw paw prints and the sweep of her tail captured in the sifted flour. But it was late in the year and the snows were upon us. I didn’t want to trap her in under the deck, and decided to wait until spring to block the opening. Researching the gestation period for baby skunks, I decided that by July she and any offspring would be nocturnally mobile – out at night.  So I waited and  spent a July night blocking that opening and every other one I could find. Pat-on-the-back! No noxious odors the rest of the summer.

Since moving to this lovely, inner-ring suburb of Cleveland and into my charming, 1920’s bungalow on a tree-rich street, I have enjoyed the wildlife that I encounter each day.  A small herd of deer sometimes sleeps among the trees at the back of my yard.  Two injured does have made it through last winter and this. DSCF4726 I see them limping on three legs, but still able to jump fences with the grace of ballerinas.  I have seen and heard owls. Birds of varied song flit from bush to tree, animating the air with chips of color.  The squirrels taunt each other and play manic games of tag, chipmunks scamper and veer like radio-controlled toys and the rabbits munch the dew-washed grass unconcernedly. I’ve seen an opossum and a raccoon and a few mice as well.  Hawks soar above the huge trees each day. The food chain is well supplied.

I am content for all these creatures to share my yard, knowing that I am really the interloper. I accept that the deer will eat my plants and the chipmunks will burrow beneath the stones of my walk and am willing to do what I can to discourage, but not harm them. As I said, I am content to share with all—save one.

There is a saying, “Man plans; God laughs.”  Its early spring now, and she’s back. Last week I got another distinctive wake-up call. Surprisingly, twice that week I saw her returning, about 6:45 AM, when I’m on my second cup of coffee and staring out my kitchen window.

So, with a blessed run of dry, sunny days, I tried the flour trick and it worked again. DSC00576-001She’d found a new way in.  Hoping to discourage her from setting up house again, I piled bricks in front of the new opening she’d dug at the base of the deck. But perhaps you can guess the measure of success.

The “call” came again last night, at midnight.  This morning I saw her trundling up onto the deck and watched her disappear under the steps—where I was certain there was NO WAY she could get in.  When I investigated, I saw she had pulled back the rolled-up chicken wire I had stuck in an open space under the steps.

Social media can be a good thing.  As I checked my email, there was a message from a neighbor on my Next Door  news feed talking about skunks.  The neighbor had called a live trap removal service which caught 16 skunks and a groundhog over two weeks!

Self-sufficiency aside, I’ve decided there are some things better left to the experts.  Stay tuned for chapter two. Meanwhile, here’s a lovely poem on the subject  by the late, Nobel Prize winning Irish Poet Seamus Heaney.  (Apologies for the double-spaced formatting.  I haven’t figured out how to change that for poems in WordPress yet.)

The Skunk  Seamus Heaney (1939-2013)

Up, black, striped and damasked like the chasuble

At a funeral mass, the skunk’s tail

Paraded the skunk. Night after night

I expected her like a visitor.

 

The refrigerator whinnied into silence.

My desk light softened beyond the verandah.

Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.

I began to be tense as a voyeur.

 

After eleven years I was composing

Love-letters again, broaching the word “wife”

Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel

Had mutated into the night earth and air

 

Of California. The beautiful, useless

Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absence.

The aftermath of a mouthful of wine

Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.

 

And there she was, the intent and glamorous,

Ordinary, mysterious skunk,

Mythologized, demythologized,

Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.

 

It all came back to me last night, stirred

By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,

Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer

For the black plunge-line nightdress.

 


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