Mission Accomplished

"Bring it on!"



A Failure of Sorts

A Good Home-Run Swing

A Morning Stroll

A Small Stream

Applied Science


Chamber of Commerce

Close Observation of a Plant


Die, Bambi, Die!

Edith Schrantz, Pedant

Happy Birthday to You

My Garden

Pale Yellow Light

Recycle? Sure.

Sailing to Somewhere


The Death of Zane Grey



I want to kill it.  I want to see it in my Havahart trap, door closed, nowhere to go.  I want to look in its eyes and know I’m going to kill it.  Goddamn son of a bitch. 

Why the fury?  I've been gardening for 8 of the 9 years we've lived in this house.  Nothing dramatic since a 1/4 acre lot doesn't allow for much, but we've appreciated the dozen or so heads of garlic, couple dozen grape tomatoes, month and a half of fresh lettuce, and the handful of cucumbers I've managed to grow on the sunny south-facing side of the house.  This past spring, determined to make this year the best to date, I worked like someone 10 years younger.  The first job was constructing a proper fence for the catawba and concord grape vines, which through years of neglect had climbed up the side of the house, trellising on the 30-foot steel pole that held the tv antenna.  Two years ago, I had decided to train them properly to a 6-foot fence which I would construct right next to the house.  So I bought a 30-foot section of heavy-wire cattle fence and four 8-foot, 75-pound cedar posts to which I would attach it.  Good intentions.  For the next two years, the roll of wire fence and pile of posts lay on the hill behind the house as weeds grew up around them.  Having put that job off for so long, I finally got to it with somewhat grim but clear determination.  I knew it wouldn’t be simple. 

First I dug the 3-foot holes for each of the 4 posts, deep enough to anchor the remaining 5 feet above ground.  Any less and they'd gradually fall over.  I used a 7-foot, 30-pound prying bar to loosen the hardpacked clay next to the house, breaking up rocks and hauling the heavy clay up in smallish clumps with a post-hole digger.  I then packed the stones I’d dug up back in around each post in each hole, grunting as I rammed them hard into the backfill with the round end of the pry bar.  It was an unusually warm and humid spring day, and the sweat rolled down my face and back.  Next came the wire cattle fence, which I attached to the posts with large galvanized-steel staples that had to be hammered into the tightly-grained cedar wood.  Then I zip-tied a long roll of chicken wire around the inside of the cattle fence at ground level, the better to keep out assorted crawling critters.  After that I painstakingly disentangled the knot of overgrown grapevines, pruning the deadwood and tying the remaining branches, one by one, to the fence, bending and squatting for well over an hour.  To complete the job of protecting my bountiful-to-be garden, I added a 5-foot high fence of heavy-gauge plastic netting, connecting it to each end of the cattle fence in a large rectangle.  Deer had never been a major problem, and I trusted they wouldn’t bother leaping over the fence to nibble a few lettuce or spinach plants.  And the chicken wire and stiff plastic net-fence would keep out the rabbits and other rodents.  So after about 5 hours of non-stop work, my hands, knees, and lower back ached, but I was done, the garden safe and secure. 

            With confidence I went to the local plant nursery to buy my own future produce section-- kale, romaine, buttercrunch and redleaf lettuce, bokchoy, spinach, snow peas, snap beans, grape tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, Korean peppers, summer squash and cantaloupe seedlings.  Back at the house, I laid out the plants, carefully calculating the optimal spacing for my small 6 x 25 foot garden, dug the holes and spent another two hours putting them all in.  With the fence up and me inside it, I now had to do all the planting perched alternately on each of 3 12-inch circular concrete slabs I'd strategically placed for just that purpose.  Otherwise, I'd be standing on my carefully tilled, wondrously loamy garden soil, compacting it with my feet and ruining the tilth I'd struggled so hard to build the past 6 years.  This meant more bending, squatting, and reaching well beyond what my lower back would stand, but I was committed.  The onions and garlic that I had planted the previous fall had already grown tall and luxuriant, so when dusk finally fell, I beheld the most productive garden I’d ever made.  I couldn't help smiling as I envisioned the piles of fresh, crisp organic veggies I'd heap on the kitchen table, my grateful family liberated from the local supermarket, their appreciation payment for all my efforts.  Yes, all those plants cost a few dollars, but once they began producing, they'd more than pay for themselves.  This would be a very good year.

            Within a week, the lettuce and bok-choy, spinach and kale were beginning to put out their larger leaves, and the snow peas next to the fence began rapidly to climb toward the grapevines.  Yet that would be just the beginning.  I knew that as soon as all the plants' roots reached down a few inches into that layer of rich, humousy compost, they'd take off, destination Eden.  Sometime the next day, however, perhaps late in the afternoon when no one was home, it came.  I never saw it.  I just saw what it left—a 6 x 25-foot garden of healthy vegetables sheared flat, as if they had all been mowed, leaving nothing but a patch of nearly bare ground.  Almost everything was gone.

            My anger exploded, hot and murderous, and through clenched teeth I screamed, “Son of a bitch!  God DAMN it!”  Then I saw the shallow depression it had dug under the fence in the soft garden soil, right through a bed of green onions, their upturned shallow roots drying in the early evening sunset.  I knew right away--groundhog.  Like Basil Fawlty, fists clenched in apoplectic impotence, I looked around at what was left of the ravaged plants.  I'll kill him.  I’ll KILL him!” I shouted, suddenly seeing myself a bucolic Rambo flushed with righteous fury, the groundhog secure in my gloved left hand, my right shoving an 8-inch butcher knife slowly into its stomach as it screamed and writhed, pushing the blade up through its rib cage toward its squealing head, its miserable life ending in a bloody gurgling death rattle. 

            Absurd as this flash daydream was, it came from a deep sense of being wronged.  Goddamn it, I had busted my ass to make this garden, working year after year to turn hard-packed clay into darkly rich, fertile soil.  I planted the grapes, the asparagus, the garlic, the shallots, the potatoes, peas, beans, lettuce, kale, spinach, basil, tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, cantalopes, summer squash, and scallions.  I weeded it, bending my late middle-aged back over farther than it wanted to go and for longer than it should.  I made and spread the compost, tilling it into the soil each October till my sciatica screamed "Enough!"  I mulched and watered the plants through every mid-summer heat wave to keep it all bountiful.  And I had done all this year upon year.  More than all that, though, this was my goddamn food.  I worked to grow it for ME.  Not that thieving sunuvabitch!

            What to do?  I knew groundhogs usually feed in mid-morning and late afternoon, returning to their den each night.  Yet I didn’t know how to stop them.  Much as I relished getting one in my gunsights, shooting was out.  Even if I had a gun and could sit for hours or even days waiting for them to show, we live in a subdivision.  I did have a BB-gun, but I’d have to get a clean head shot to have a chance of killing it outright or stunning it enough to run over and bash its head in with the gunbutt or leap into the air and come down on it with both feet, like Bruce Lee in Enter the Dragon.  (Yeah, that would be good.)  I also ruled out poisoning; dangers to myself and others aside, I wanted to see its dead ass at my feet, not rotting somewhere out of sight down some hole, or worse—not poisoned at all.  Clearly, I’d have to do more than wish it dead.

            That left two other options.  One was deterring it, but fences clearly hadn’t worked, and I wasn't enthusiastic for chemical sprays.  Fox or coyote urine is expensive, reeks, and washes away after every rain.  Even if it did work, would I want to eat any of what I grew?  The last option was trapping it.  Hmmmmmmmmm.  Immediately the fantasy flashed before my eyes.  As I looked down the barrel of my BB-air rifle at the stupid groundhog inside my cage, its idiotic blinking eyeball resting right above my sights, I crowed, “Yeah, asshole.  Who da man, huh?  Who da man now?!

So after a quick call to the local garden center, I was off to buy a  trap (“Big enough for raccoons and skunks, too!”). The brand name is Havahart, and it's designed for catch and release—no nasty leg irons or lethal, neck-snapping springs, just a humane dumping of your problem somewhere else.  $53.95, and easy to assemble.  And as I sat on the living room floor late one night, slowly re-reading the small-print, easy-to-assemble directions, I entertained myself with a stream of movie clichés.   

         You've gotta ask yourself one question, ‘Do I feel lucky?’ Well, do ya, punk?" That’s right. 

Hey, you talkin' to me? You talkin’ to me?!  Well, I'm the only one here. Who the fuck do you think you're talking to?”  Oh, yeah.

            Most of all, I heard myself saying “Bring it on!”  Yeah, I wanted this bastard, dead or alive.  So I baited the trap with what he’d been robbing me of—lettuce, with a couple of carrots thrown in to make it irresistible—and I set it out next to the garden fence, a bit out of the sun, and waited.  Three days passed, but no sight of any groundhog.  Still I waited, hoping the “easy-to-trap” assurances I’d read about groundhogs were true.  As summer semester was starting soon, I was at my school office the next day doing some paperwork when my son called.

“Dad, we got the groundhog.  It’s in the trap.”

            Oh, yeah.  Booyah!  You’re mine now, you sunuvabitch.  Dead MEAT.  As I drove home, I fantasized how I'd get rid of this bastard.  I could just lower the trap into the laundry tub filled with water and walk away.  "I don't expect you to talk, Mr. Groundhog.  I expect you to die."  Or if I wanted my pound of flesh, I could hoist the trap about six feet off the ground and let the bastard slowly starve, stopping each day to wave leaves of fresh, crisp lettuce in its face, maybe even force it to eat just to lengthen its misery.  Or maybe I’d just pump up that BB-air rifle all the way to 10 and then draw a bead on his punk-ass head—an eyeball shot right through the brain.  Say hello to my Little Friend.  Uh-huh. 

           I don't know why, but when I finally got home and saw the trap next to the garden, I found my rage had ebbed.  Maybe my son’s entreaties for mercy –“How would you feel if you were a groundhog?”— had affected my resolve.  Maybe seeing the animal face to face, knowing it was completely in my hands, weakened by lust for bloody revenge.  Whatever the reason, when faced with this reality, I realized I hadn't decided what I'd do if I really caught it.  So I put off doing anything till the next day.

Later that night, after I had gone to sleep, my son came in and woke me up. 

“Dad, that groundhog keeps rattling the cage and making so much noise I can’t sleep.  I dropped a towel over it to try to quiet it down, but he’s been doing that off and on all afternoon and evening.  Can I move it to the back of the house?”

I saw it coming.  Not overly invested in dealing with the problem, son slips up and somehow lets the groundhog out of the cage, so next week it attacks what's left of the garden.  No, I wasn’t going to let that happen.  So I dragged myself out of bed, shuffled downstairs, put a pair of shoes on my bare feet, and went out to move the cage, son tagging along.  Since he knew how far under my skin this groundhog had gotten, his guilt over rousting me from sleep seemed to push him repeatedly to offer to do it himself. 

“That’s all right.  I’ll take care of it,” I said flatly, my voice reflecting my physical and emotional fatigue.  Standing next to the cage, I felt for the handle under the towel, picked up the cage, and began walking to the back of the house, surprised at the weight of the groundhog inside under the towel canopy.  "Bigger than I thought", I said under my breath.  As I shuffled along, my son kept saying “Dad, I can do this for you.” 

Maybe I was pissed at being woken up, especially for something I thought a bit frivolous.  (Ah, Jesus.  Close the window if it bothers you, for chrissakes.)  Maybe I was still a little groggy.  Maybe I should’ve taken the towel off first so I could keep an eye on things.  Whatever the reason, after walking about 30 feet around the side of the house to the back, I was just about to set the cage down when the groundhog suddenly moved to the trapdoor side of the cage.  The sudden imbalance in weight tipped that end toward the ground, which had the effect of pulling the handle past vertical in the direction of the cage top, precisely the motion that raises the door to set the trap. 

In an instant, the groundhog bolted from the cage, and as my son shouted “I told you I could do it!” I watched it scurry off into the darkness.






June 18th


For the past three weeks, as I baited the trap, moved it around the back yard and replaced the wilted lettuce and rubbery carrots, my hopes of catching either Big Mama groundhog, or lil' Baby G faded as summer approached and the temperatures steadily rose.  From the evidence of stripped leaves from various ground-level plants, I knew they were still around.  Somehow, they were still getting into the garden because the romaine, red leaf and buttercrunch lettuce kept getting chopped back after it re-grew 5-6 inches, so I counted myself lucky I still had beans, tomatoes, and peppers. 

Thus it was odd that I felt somewhat hopeful this morning as I re-baited the trap with some fresh lettuce and a small carrot.  After all, though I'd seen one of them late one afternoon several days ago, I assumed they'd learned to beware the trap.  When I came home today, I transplanted some basil next to my maturing tomato plants and then looked at the trap.  Imagine my delight when I saw the door closed and not one but two of those fat rats inside.  Mama G and lil Baby G, too.  

Well, well.   .................. BOO-YAH!!




 No, they're still alive.  My instinctive sympathy for any caged animal took over.  Besides, they do have a rather cute face.  So I took them for a ride to the other side of the local reservoir and let them out.  And when I let them out, Mama G flew out of the trap like a thoroughbred at the Preakness, without so much as a look back at lil Baby G.  If they manage to swim back or scamper across the 100 yards of heavily-traveled bridge and survive, more power to them. 

Copyright © Mark McTague 2008