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Of Woods and Words: Fences Make Good Neighbors


FinalCut_OWW_20100513.mp36.36 MB

Like any recent college grad worth their share of student loans in a floundering economy, I spend a fair amount of time at my parents’ place.  Coincidentally, I often pop around near suppertime. Sometimes I sit on their couch and pilfer for spare change. But that’s beside the point. . . .

The point is, that by spending time around my parents’ house, I’ve been able to watch an epic battle unfold over the past year. It’s the classic battle of gardener versus wildlife where my mother takes on the woodchuck family that set up residency in her backyard last spring. The battle of mother versus Mother Nature, if you will.

Remember the old tongue twister: How much wood could a woodchuck chuck? Last summer, my family finally got an answer to that age old question. Apparently woodchucks don’t give a fig about chucking wood, but boy can they make a mess out of a garden.

Last year, my mother would walk up the driveway after work with trepidation in each step, fearful to see what the woodchuck had gotten into in her absence. The herbs on the deck quickly got nipped off. Soon, the flower baskets had been pillaged through. To make matters worse, it seemed that Mama Woodchuck had had babies and before we knew it, there was a whole herd of woodchucks swinging by for lunch at the all-you-can-eat salad bar on a daily basis. Then one day, the woodchucks burrowed beneath the deer fence around the main garden and made a muddle of the salad greens and broccoli.

Robert Frost famously wrote that “good fences make good neighbors.” In Cook County, we don’t have a lot of fences, but despite that fact, we still have some pretty great neighbors. After years of struggling to keep deer and wascally wabbits out of her garden, my mother put up a deer fence a few years back. The fence did its job well enough, but last summer, it failed to prove impervious to woodchucks. It wasn’t a good fence and indeed, the woodchucks were not proving to be good neighbors.

So this spring, a fence building project has taken place in my parents’ backyard that seems comparable to the construction of the Great Wall of China. A 12-inch deep trench was dug around the garden and fencing was buried to barricade the garden from burrowing critters like the woodchucks. Above the ground, the fence stretches up 8 feet to prevent deer from leaping over it.

My mother seems confident that her battle with the woodchuck is coming to a close. I hope the fence proves effective and that the woodchuck clan wanders off before summer’s end.
Up here at the cabin, the kitchen table has been covered with seedlings for the last few weeks. It’s the first year we’re attempting a garden and not only do we not really know what we’re doing, we have no fence up to protect against marauding wildlife. Who’s to say what will happen to these seedlings when we turn them loose to the big scary world?

But, no matter the fences we build or other precautions we take, at its heart gardening in northern Minnesota has always been a practice in what another famous poet, John Keats, called “negative capability.” Keats wrote that negative capability “is when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.”

In her poem entitled “Negative Capability,” northland poet Lezlie Oachs describes the apprehension that fills so many of us as we look forward to the summer’s gardens.

She writes this:
The miracle –
real and right and raw –
is welcoming the Mystery,
living it.

This morning
I’m sowing uncertainty,
watering doubt,
waiting without reaching.

Someday something green
will sprout in this place.
Something small and moist and soft,
open to the sky.

Airdate: May 14, 2010