Now my dears, said old Mrs. Rabbit one morning, you may go into the fields or down the lane, but don’t go into Mr. McGregor’s garden: your Father had an accident there; he was put in a pie by Mrs. McGregor. The Tale of Peter Rabbit by Beatrix Potter
Nature is out of balance, teetering toward an unsavory resolution that may, in fact, be revenge for the abuses that humans have heaped on both the natural world and themselves. “The time is out of joint. O cursed spite that ever I was born to set it right,” lamented Prince Hamlet upon receiving his fearful Father’s Day message from the ghost of the murdered king, his father, to resolve the political imbalance that had befallen Denmark. Like the Prince, we face acts of death and destruction with outpourings of disgust and anger, paralyzed by the uncertainty of our next steps.
Seemingly less dire, but maybe not, another English scribe would write 300 years later of Farmer McGregor who was determined to maintain an ecological balance tilted in favor of his family’s survival. “I’ll grant you the fields and the lanes,” the old Scotsman might have said, “But you damn well better not cross the line into my garden!” Unlike the Dark Dane, McGregor was not plagued by “to be or not to be” questions—it was either him or the effing rabbit!
As a New Age dad, I deliberately left out the fate of Peter Rabbit’s father when reading the tale to my young children. But I was only able to duck my responsibility to inform them of the struggles between life and death for so long. On one occasion I took my then-12-year old daughter to a farmers’ market where she became gleeful upon seeing a sign that read, “Rabbit!” “Oh Daddy,” she said, “let’s go see the bunnies!” I’ll never forget the look on her face when she saw a hunk of raw meat wrapped in cellophane instead of a wiggly pink nose and furry ears.
Lately, I’ve wanted to apologize to my daughter and son, not so much for humanity’s hubristic place atop the food chain, but for the last 20 years of sequential life and death struggles whose resolutions appear increasingly out of reach. Beginning with 9/11 and its subsequent wars of revenge, followed close on by the Great Recession, climate change and its catastrophic weather events, a global pandemic, and chronic police violence, my children have been riders on a storm that makes chaos seem like the new normal. Their grandparents may have suffered through the back-to-back devastations of the Great Depression and World War II, but my children’s generation has so far endured multiple threats of compounding intensity including on-shore terrorism, economic meltdown, rampant inequality, human-induced environmental and social chaos, and an indifferent virus pillaging the land. And my kids are not even half-way through their lives!
Where, if anywhere, does resolution, or at least balance, reside? Can my desire as an informed and empathetic human being to perform useful interventions amidst the chaos find meaningful direction? I looked for some answers in the presumably manageable microcosm of my garden hoping to locate nature’s equilibrium during these out of joint times. With my vanity on full display, I vowed in March to defy the pandemic by planting and harvesting the best garden ever. Bed preparation, though physically demanding, went smoothly, as did indoor seedling production and early outdoor plantings.
Knowing that northern New Mexico’s critters, big and small, eagerly awaited my first tender shoots, I reinforced my backyard fence with the diligence of a soldier preparing for battle – chicken wire was secured to the wooden fence to deter animals from tunneling under; holes and gaps were backfilled with dirt and rocks; mousetraps were set. The welcome mat was put out for helpful predators and scavengers by distributing chicken bones for coyotes and dead mice for ravens. My battle cry was “Reinforce, Repel, Resist, and (if all else fails) Replant!”
But nature looked at my shenanigans and laughed. It was the six-inch long lizards whose puckish personas always make me smile that first tipped me off to my folly. Looking out on my small back terrace I saw three of them squatting side-by-side, staring unflinchingly at the same spot in the backyard. Normally they scurry off when I approach, but this time they held their ground and gaze like hunting dogs on point. I stood quietly behind them sighting over their scaly backs to locate the object of their fascination, which in this case turned out to be a six-feet long bull snake curled in the grass 20-feet away, staring right back at them. Though non-venomous, bull snakes bear a strong resemblance to rattlesnakes and present a frightful appearance to non-snake lovers like me. But as I remind myself when I recoil from seeing one, they are helpful predators that do no harm to my garden, unlike the cute little bunnies that devour my vegetable plants in the time it takes a hungry man to eat his lunch.
What snakes like this signal is an influx of mice, gophers, and the Peter Rabbits of the world, all of which are fully capable of derailing my horticultural ambitions. Recognizing the snake as a harbinger, I launched myself into action: I doubled the number of mice traps that then filled up rapidly, producing a steady stream of rodent carcasses for the neighborhood ravens. I engineered and re-engineered 200-feet of fence line which seemed a formidable barrier until a large rabbit appeared in the middle of my garden! I chased him with a shovel, Farmer McWinne-style, until he found the hole through which he had entered. As soon as I would block that hole, the rabbit(s) would reappear, having tunneled under from a new spot. Whack-a-mole-like, I’d chase him to another newly dug access/egress point which would then be blocked. Etc.
Just when I thought the fence was impregnable, I was dismayed to see the rabbit again, now munching his way through what was once a perfect broccoli plant. Exhausted, but still determined to repel and resist, I gave chase once more, this time desperately hurling my eight-pound shovel, end-over-end, hail-Mary-like, at the fleeing rabbit 30 feet away. God knows how, but I hit and killed him square-on. Feeling more defeated than victorious, I shoveled his remains over the fence to be consumed later by an enthusiastic flock of ravens who like every other representative of Nature’s Kingdom I’ve ever assisted, never sent me a thank you note.
Sadly, the tale doesn’t end there. The following day, just when I was expecting tranquility to settle into my backyard, a baby bunny appeared out of nowhere. Thinking once again that I could encourage him to find a sliver of daylight through which to escape, I gave him a short chase. He turned a corner around one of my raised beds, made a mad dash to the fence, and collided head on with the waiting bull snake which dragged the unlucky critter into its den beneath a rock. It happened so quickly and smoothly that I thought for a moment I had somehow colluded with the snake.
For now, the outcomes look like this: the lizards, no longer feeling stressed over being consumed by the snake are growing in numbers while fattening themselves on thousands of small insects, including “no-see-ums” which had left a dozen angry welts on my legs. The ravens are so full of carrion they can barely fly to their perches in the nearby junipers. The bull snake, as far as I can tell, is resting in his/her den still digesting the rabbit. My vegetable seedlings are thriving and, for the moment, temporarily safe from extinction.
And me? I’m a wreck, an exhausted caricature of Caddyshack’s Bill Murray whose conflict with nature never finds a lasting truce. Having directly and indirectly contributed to the demise of some of my local wildlife, I sleep fitfully, waking to the sound of coyotes whose blood-curdling yelps indicate they have cornered a rabbit. If they had done a better job of maintaining the balance, I thought to myself, I wouldn’t have had to intervene. I could have merely planted my crops and studied recipe books for 10 different ways to prepare Brussel sprouts. Instead, my dreams are filled with angry gangs of 500-pound rabbits determined to even the score.
It was the novel coronavirus that gave me both the time and motivation to not just garden, but to garden with passion. In a so-called normal season. my powers of observation would have been dulled by attentions turned elsewhere—the snakes would be ignored or simply avoided, and the rabbits would consume a more sizeable share of the produce. Monitoring is not a passive activity nor a sometimes thing; it is interactive, dynamic, and not designed for those who desire a more contemplative lifestyle. Tuning into nature’s cues, including its irregularities, breeds understanding, action, an acceptance of chaos, and the need for flexibility.
Like a virus, the destructive forces in my garden can slip in under my radar; once discovered, they move faster than I can initially respond to them, and they eventually “attract” antibodies, in this case predators that slow their advance. Nature likes to do an end-run around our preventions, that’s assuming we even have taken preventive measures. Being incapable of out-foxing it, we try to corral nature once it starts to run rampant, never knowing how much and what kind of fence is required to restrain its excesses.
My natural instinct, my curse if you will, is to try “to set it right.” The apologetic urge directed at my children is a form of guilt that grows out of my (and everyone else’s) failure to prevent or rectify the ever-expanding evils of the 21st century. But there’s some kind of cycle emerging that seems inescapable, somehow pre-ordained that remains to be perfected by those who will take the time to observe, who will study history, and whose response–-action as it were–-will be considered and appropriate. Social chaos and natural chaos, influenced as they are by humankind’s manifest indiscretions, will always make us feel off balance until we examine their root causes and find the patience to work with them rather than against them. A commitment to action is an inevitable consequence of our humanity, heightened of course by our growing frustration that bad stuff keeps happening and that the end gets closer every day. As we know, doing nothing is not an option, but choosing the right thing to do at the right time is an art form worth perfecting.
In the meantime, Mrs. Rabbit will try to protect her children in the same way I try to protect mine, in the same way we must protect the vulnerable from the rampaging batons and brutal knees of law enforcement, the rising seas of our unchecked appetites, and the pandemic’s Pandora’s box. Humbled as I am by the little creatures great and small who can take down my food supply in a New York minute, I’ll observe, listen, adapt, and remain faithful to the pursuit of balance.