The Garden of Eaten
MEMORIAL DAY All five 4 x 8 vegetable boxes have been planted: two near the house in one garden and three at the edge of the field (where the deer lurk) in the other garden. Both gardens are fenced, the one by the field in six-foot-high chicken wire. We are already pigging out on mountains of mesclun, spinach and arugula (lightly sizzled in a balsamic vinegar reduction, of course).
JULY 14 It’s a hot, dry summer. Drought. Global warming. Raised beds need lots of water. No trace of the late blight that wiped out the tomatoes last year. All crops look good: beans blossoming, beet greens up and choice, tomatoes already setting fruit in the tomato jungle. In fact, the crops are so lush you half expect to stumble on some little pigmy jungle tribe living under the canopy.
But we don’t like the way the damn chicken wire fence around those crops is rusting and sagging.
Before we got that fencing, I asked an old guy up the road (who knows his chicken wire since he’s a fourth-generation farmer on his family’s land) where I could get the best stuff. He pointed me to the farm store where he got his.
So I call him now to see if his fence was rusting.
No problem with his fence, he says. Galvanized.
Huh? So now you have to ask for galvanized? Or do crusty old farmers whose ancestors came over on the bleedin’ Mayflower get the galvanized stuff and the rest of us get tossed whatever old junk they have lying around?
At dusk, we see a mother porcupine with a young one in tow, nosing around the compost bin. Cute as can be.
JULY 26 Old Man, opening the garden gate for the day, hollers, “Come out here and look at this!”
I hustle out. The chard and most of the beet tops are skinned right off.
“Sonofagun! How the heck did it get in?”
OM points to a hole in the rusty wire, near the ground. “Look how thin that fence is there. Cripes, I could’ve gnawed through it. And the thing couldn’t be very big, because that hole ain’t even the size of a soccer ball.”
I dash to the nearby garden center and shell out fifty bucks for a roll of two-feet-tall, one-inch chicken-wire fence, guaranteed goshdarn galvanized.
Neighbor from down the road comes. He’s a Harley-ridin’ hunk. We call him Adonis.
Adonis and OM man lash that new wire to the old rusty fence, at ground level, while I crawl along behind them, shoving in ground staples, flagging them with pink surveyor’s tape. The new chicken wire shimmers silver, with a ruff of fluorescent pink.
We stand back admiring our work. Any critter dumb enough to think he can get through that deserves to bust his little bucky teeth.
JULY 27 OM goes to open the gate. He shouts, “Wait’ll you see this!”
The two rows of beans are mashed down every which way.
“Christ!” I say. “What? What? An elephant bed down here?”
We cruise the perimeter. The new wire is secure.
Adonis comes, speculates: Suppose a deer leaped the fence, landed in the bed, frappin’ freaked, then leaped out again? What else?”
Then we notice. The old wire sags everywhere, as if a baby bear has been swinging on it.
At dusk we cover the chard and the beets with scraps of gutter. But there’s no way to cover that waist-high snarl of bean vines.
JULY 28 Oh no! It has scaled the fence and tried to get at the chard. The gutter is shifted to the side. And the thing has been gnawing on the tomatoes. Two prize Jet Stars clean gone and a third almost gone, its gouged-out shell hovering over a pile of tiny green tomato chips.
And now the old fence sags even more, in some spots half way to the ground.
Adonis comes. Stumped, he shrugs, tells us to keep him posted.
Okay, that’s it. Let the battle begin.
OM and I fix up the fence the best we can. Then I get a brilliant idea. What if we hitch up tarps and black plastic sheets around the top of the old fence and then clip it to the new chicken wire? How can its claws get a purchase on that slippery stuff?
OM grumbles, “Are you nuts? How much money you wanna put into these damn crops?”
“Hey — we are going to do this. It’s a matter of principle. I’m not letting these buggers get my food.”
We spend all afternoon in the wilting heat, pinning the plastic sheets and tarps to the fence, using up all our clothespins and 80 more I send OM to fetch from the downtown hardware store.
Finished, we stand back to look at what we’ve done. OM says, “Jeez, it looks like Cristo Lite.”
Still I fret. Can we count on those sheets and tarps?
I e-mail a neighbor, “Do you have a Havahart?”
She replies, “What for?”
She replies, “Those things are heavy. You’d need a forklift to get one and the trap into the car to transport it somewhere else.”
I fire back. “We’re not taking it anywhere. If we trap it, guy down the road says he’ll pop it for us. Hey, do you have that trap or not?”
She huffs, “Even if I had a trap, I would not allow it to be used for such a purpose.” If we do trap something, she says, we can let it out at the end of her driveway because they have lots of land and they didn’t mind sharing. (Well, isn’t all that special.)
Yeah, well. She’s not the one facing famine. The heck with sharing. Anyway, who knows how far a porcupine will travel, sniffing its way back to the good eats? I want to ask her if we run across a swarm of killer bees or West Nile Virus mosquitoes or a clutch of 0Lyme ticks or a rabid fox or a man-eating tiger, could we let them out at the end of her driveway? Would she share with them?
From a rental place out on the highway, we get their biggest Havahart. OM Googles around, finds out that porcupines, our chief suspect, like salted carrots. We bait the trap with a fistful of those and lay the trap near the back corner of the garden, where three beaten-down paths through the grasses converge.
And we’re not done yet.
Friend from up the road brings a solar-powered zapper, some wire and a mess of insulators, and runs that stuff along the tops of the garden stakes. It’s getting dark. We turn on the juice. As our friend is leaving we see in the twilight a young porcupine sitting in a corner of the compost bin, gnawing on a watermelon rind. We chase it off, reluctant to dispatch a little one.
JULY 29 I go out just after dawn to check the trap. Ah, victory! A big porcupine sits there. He ate the carrots. The last supper. When I get close I catch a whiff — not like what you’d get from a skunk but still pretty unpleasant. (Later OM learns that when they are bothered, porcupines “give off an unpleasant odor.”)
We call Adonis, who comes with his 22 rifle. OM opens the door of the trap. The porcupine waddles off at a good clip, with Adonis dashing after it, blasting away. After I photograph its mug — dead staring eyes, hideous yellow teeth — Adonis heaves the thing into the wheelbarrow and trundles it off into the woods. When he gets back, he says he flung it over the cliff into the ravine. (Behind the house and field, it’s all rocky woods. Then the land drops steeply into what we call the gully. Creepy down in there, where the glacier receded, leaving moraines and gigantic granite erratics, and creating lots of little caves — and some caves that are not so little; we’ve seen bear in that gully. There are heaps of porcupine scat down in there, so we know that’s where they hole up.
I bleach the wheelbarrow, the trap, and the two pairs of gloves Adonis and OM wore for the unpleasant business.
That night we set the trap again.
JULY 30 Another one, and as fat as the first one!
Adonis comes. The menfolk decide to shoot the thing right in the trap because Adonis had such a hell of a job dropping the first one when they released it.
Bad idea, to kill it in the cage. Adonis plugs the thing, three times. When it stops twitching, OM opens the cage, shakes it like hell, but the beast, not quite dead, has locked onto the cage with its claws.
We debate. Meanwhile, we have gobs of gore to contemplate. This is not fun.
Adonis fires at it again; the porcupine releases its grasp on the cage, menfolk shake it out onto the ground and heave it into the hearse. Then Adonis trots it off into the woods.
After dark that night, sitting on the porch, we are serenaded by coyotes. We have not heard them for many moons. There are a lot of them and they sound pretty close, perhaps in the far corner of our land. Their fugue-like howling, never quite the same twice, gives me a shiver, and I hate it when they stop suddenly, the way they always do.
A little while later they strike up again and now they are very close, perhaps just into the woods, behind the dark pines. Have they sniffed the porcupines and are drawn to the feast?
JULY 31 Oh, good glory, there’s a third one, and the biggest yet.
Egad, how many of them are out there? Black lumps rolling out of their gully dens in the dark of night, waddling through the woods, humping through the sedges of the field, stubby noses wiggling, sniffing the carrots.
Furious, I lose it. I kick the cage, shouting, “Just leave us alone, will you?!” The thing isn’t fazed; it just sits there, beady black eyes staring up at me.
This one takes five shots. Adonis grunts with the weight of it as he hauls it up into the barrow and heads for the woods. The body count is rising.
AUGUST 1 I don’t see the porcupine as I approach the trap; the field grasses keep the trap partially hidden. But sure enough, yet another one — a little one, maybe the watermelon aficionado we chased out of the compost the other day. We discuss letting it go because it’s just a wee one, a baby. But when Adonis arrives he reminds us it will get big and greedy. Besides, it’s probably the one that got through that hole in the fence and skinned off the chard and the beet tops.
So OM opens the trap and that prickly little ball takes off at a gallop, with Adonis leaping and thrashing after it, shooting. The bugger is tough; it takes six slugs before giving up the ghost. (Who said this would be easy?) I remind myself it’s a matter of principle. They can’t have our food.
In my e-mail there’s a recipe from a friend for porcupine stew. It reminds me when, back in the day, I was keen to live The Good Life, close the earth. Obsessed with wanting to know how to survive in the williwacks by living off the fat of the land should The End Times come. I pored over Euell Gibbons’s “Stalking the Wild Asparagus,” gathering and feeding my family things like pigweed, purslane, wild mushrooms and even milkweed buds. (Boil six times, throwing off the water to get rid of the “bitter principle.”)
And I remember my aunt, now 85, telling how when she was 5, her mother took her to visit relatives in Nova Scotia and they ate porcupine stew that my aunt says was full of vegetables and delicious.
So, curious, I read the recipe. Pretty much looks like recipes for any other meat stew except that first you have to soak the meat in vinegar for an hour. Hmm. Is that to get rid of the “gamey principle?” I think of all that free meat I could stuff in the freezer for tasty stews, simmered on the wood stove, come winter.
But those porcupines in the gully aren’t exactly fresh, and they are full of 22 slugs, and if the coyotes and turkey vultures and ravens haven’t already made short work of them, they’re probably full of maggots. Anyway, even if they were still fresh, how the heck do you skin a porcupine?
But you never know what information will come in handy, so I Google for more porcupine recipes and find two offered by Jacqueline E. Knight, Recipe Girl.
Prefacing Jacqueline’s recipes is a pitch for eating porcupine and (bingo!) directions for skinning the things:
“The porcupine is rarely an intentional hunter’s target, but many hunters take a whack at one when they come across it inadvertently. Some people encourage this, particularly foresters who resent the porky’s habit of ‘ringing’ the trees, leading to the trees eventual death. [Ah, that we know about. A porcupine almost destroyed our ancient Gravenstein apple tree, skinning the bark off one main branch.] Others insist that porcupines should be killed only in dire emergency: they have been called a “walking lunchbox.” Since porcupines are very slow-moving, anyone lost in woods where porcupines live can always eat. The animal can be easily killed [Ho!] with a club for a source of food.
Whatever your particular attitude is, should you want to try a porcupine, go right ahead. It is not necessarily true that they taste like kerosene! [Uh oh!] The porcupine cleans out easily. Much as you would proceed with a rabbit, slit the belly area, thus avoiding the quills. Naturally, remove the stomach. [Naturally.] The hide peels off easily, as does the rabbit’s, right down to the feet and there you are with lean, dark meat… Porkies range from 9 to 40 pounds…In Pennsylvania, if the quills aren’t to be saved, they are first singed off, then the skin is cut off.”
One of Jackie’s recipes is for Marinated Porcupine Chops. Doesn’t sound too bad: before grilling the chops on a stone griddle greased with fat, you marinate the chops overnight — preferably in a birch bark container — in maple sap, wild onions and wild leeks. Wouldn’t Euell Gibbons love it?
Jackie’s other recipe is for New England Broiled Porcupine Liver. All you need is a handful of porky livers and some bacon. You soak the livers in salted water, drain, slice up the things, drop the slices into boiling water for a minute, cool. Then you “remove the thin membrane from the edges and all the gristle and tubes.” Finally, you wrap those liver slices in bacon strips and broil them for five minutes.
Recipe Girl is keen to encourage us: “Since the porky is a sedentary animal, the liver is relatively large. The liver is very sweet and considered one of the finest of game livers.”
Well, all this is good to know, I guess, in case we all end up in Cormac McCarthy’s “The Road.”
We set the trap two more nights. No more porcupines. And we haven’t heard the coyotes again. They’ve probably moved on.
AUGUST 6 We remove the Cristo tarps and plastic sheets from the chicken wire fence. The neighbors, driving by, have speculated about the shrouded garden. (“Holdin’ a funeral in there?” “Got those things up to keep tomato blight mold from driftin’ in?” and “What’re you two up to behind them tarps?”)
AUGUST 8 I open the garden gate and step inside for a look-see. All looks well. I hunker down, searching for ripe cherry tomatoes. Head inside the thicket of vines, I shift left, right, peeking under the canopy.
And then — holy mackerel! Not two inches from my nose, hanging from the underside of one of the branches, is the biggest mother of a tomato hornworm I’ve ever seen. Aaah! The thing is — what — four (or more) inches long? It’s as big and plump as a salamander — fat, fleshy, creepy — and I have all I can do to keep myself from freaking out. We haven’t seen those things for several years, but I know how they can strip a branch of leaves in nothing flat. And I remember reading that the moth that emerges from those hideous worms is as big as a bat — a bloodyfreakinbat!
I get a grip, fetch gloves and a coffee can with a little alcohol in it and hunt among the jungly vines, pulling off five of the hideous things, cursing, wondering if growing these precious vegetables is really worth what you have to go through.
I wonder if you can eat the things? Who knows? In those tropical jungles, don’t those little forest people grub for termites and other tasties? Maybe these hornworms would be considered the el primo delicacy. (I must Google for hornworm recipes. Anyone for a grilled porky chop with a side of hornworms lightly sizzled in a balsamic reduction?)
I’ll look for more of these little beasts in the morning. Meanwhile, given what we’ve laid out for chicken wire, stakes, rolls of black plastic, tarps, trap rental — not to mention all the time we and Adonis have spent — I bet these tomatoes must be worth around five bucks a bite.
But I don’t care. It’s a matter of principle.