The Daily Muse

A GardenJournal -- August 2001

Last Update: Friday, August 31

Our pond (before the varmint vendetta!)

August 6 - morning

It is early in morning and I have already "made the rounds" checking to see if the neighborhood raccoons had gone fishing in our pond last night. We left a surprise for them, cayenne powder, and it seems to have done the trick. No little red footprints on the limestone that borders the pond. We have given them the "hot foot" once before and they seem to remember "the night of the habanero." As I walked around, I saw some of the frogs returning to the pond after their night on the town. They found the pond instantaneously, as if they had been hiding in the garden just waiting for us to finish it. Their nightly singing was so loud that, at first, it kept me awake. Now, I think I would miss their hyper sonic courting.

Despite the unrelenting heat and drought, I have had a very busy week in the garden. I overhauled our container garden, getting rid of the thirstiest plants, and replaced them with yuccas, grasses, and agaves. I also created a new planting bed for some agaves and a giant red yucca (hesperaloe funifera.) Agaves have become my favorite plant family- their forms are so striking, and of course, their ability to handle our ever more dismal climate is most appreciated. The agaves I planted come from the Chihuahan desert- Harvard Agave and a culitvar with an unfortunate name- Durango Delight. Despite their compact size, they have already made an impact in the garden.

Today I am going to San Antonio, one of my favorite cities, to help with the local public television premiere of my documentary on The Painted Churches of Texas. While there, I plan to do a little research for my next documentary project on the mission churches of Texas and the Southwest. I have some meetings set up and I am also looking forward to a stroll on the River Walk. I wish that Austin had such an urbane and civilized place- our hike and bike trail is great, but I miss the sense of shelter and oasis that you find on the the River Walk . It is truly the great public garden of Texas.

Stained Glass from High Hill Church, One of the Painted Churches

August 13 - morning

Beware of setting traps, you can never be sure just what you will catch...

After writing my last entry, one of the neighborhood raccoons decided that pepper-be-damned, he was going to go fishing in our pond and made a terrible mess. The morning after this violation of our sacred pool, I was relieved to see that all of our fish had survived, but quite upset about the fact that the raccoon had torn up all of our plants and eaten the flower buds off of our lilies. This was getting personal. That very day I purchased one of those capture and release traps, determined to catch the transgressor and deport him to the sticks.

The first two nights we set the trap out, we had visitors who scarfed up all of the bait and went happily on their way. This only deepened my anger and my resolve. I consulted with the folks who sold me the trap and learned how to adjust it so that even a mouse would trigger its door. Two nights ago, I set the trap and baited it with something that I thought the raccoons would find irresistable- stinky wet cat food. After taking great care to be sure the trap was properly set, I went to bed knowing that he would be mine. At about two in the morning I woke up and remembered the trap, I got out of bed and moved towards the window to look outside. Much to my surprise, Victor spoke up and said, "Don't bother looking." I asked if we had captured something and he said, "Yes, it is black and white and has a fluffy tail."

I was horrified. A skunk? How could that be true in central Austin? What a nightmare, literally, I went back to sleep and dreamed about skunks invading our house and running amok.

When I woke up I looked outside, and sure enough, there was Pepe Le Pew scratching around the edge of the cage, trying to dig his way out. Victor woke up shortly after I did, and I had already devised several plans for getting the skunk out of the cage, one of which involved laying down a line of defensive fire with a water hose as we approached. Victor was, shall we say, skeptical, " Don't you think he is angry enough as it is?"

Plan A, involved approaching the cage holding a large tarp up in front of us. After quickly consulting the internet, we read an account that described a similar plan so we decided to take our chances. We slowly walked up to the cage and draped the tarp over it. So far so good- no spraying sounds, no horrible odors. The problem we now faced was opening the trap. Unfortunately, the model that I had purchased could not be opened easily and would not stay open unless we uncovered the cage to latch the door. This was not going to happen. So we improvised a Rube-Goldberg like way of opening the door and propping it up with some bamboo canes. A few moments later Pepe was on his way, scooting under the fence in record time. No spraying, no tomato juice baths-there is a God.

Until that night, I had never imagined skunks living in the center of the city. They are actually very cute little animals, but I hope never to see another, at least not in my back yard. That same day, we "marked" our yard using a concentrate of predator urine. Yes, it is very nasty stuff, and no, we did not "harvest" it ourselves. This stuff is commercially available, believe it or not, and is used to ward off varmints. So far, it has worked. From now on, when we set our trap out, we'll put it in a place where the racoons can get to it but not the skunks. Hopefully, this will be the last adventure of the skunky sort in possumhaw hollow.

We were both a little shaky

August 16 - morning

No such luck.

Well, I did not set the trap high enough off of the ground and Pepe returned, apparently thankful for the free handouts. This time releasing him seemed like no big deal, simply routine. In fact, when we found him he was sleeping, contentedly waiting for his release. At this point, we decided that we had had enough trapping adventures for one week and fell back to our "Maginot line" of cayenne and predator urine.

Again, no such luck. In fact, the French fared better in World War II than our pond did that night. The return of the raccoon was devastating, his march down our Champs Elysee marked by his wet footpints in the cayenne powder. Every plant in our pond was smashed, every flower eaten or chewed up. To make matters worse, once the raccoon realized it was covered in cayenne, it climbed one of our young peach trees and used the tender vegetation as "handy wipes" in what appeared to be a most desperate attempt to rid itself of the red pepper powder.

So, once again, into the breach...

Last night, I built a tall table of plywood and cinder blocks and set the trap on it. I felt certain that this time it was too high for the skunks but easily accessible for the raccoons. This morning, I am proud to announce the first victory in our little varmint vendetta. We captured a very large male raccoon and have banished him to parts unknown. Don't feel too sorry for Enrique, we released him in a rural location near water with lots of natural cover. Join us in wishing him well in his new home far from our "well."

A friend has warned me that trapping racoons is like trying to bail out the ocean, the only certainty is their return. That may be so, but for the moment, I am flush with victory and it feels so good.

A cantera angel with blooming cactus from our garden

August 17 - morning

For the past several days we have been teased by the promise of rain, but so far, we have received barely enough to wet the leaves of our plants. Two times in the past week, the weather radar showed approaching storms and I dutifully ran around preparing for a downpour. I moved containers out from under the eaves, covered some of the garden furniture, etc, only to go back in the house and see the radar echoes dissolve before my eyes. I could smell the rain and hear thunder booming just a few miles away, but nada, zip- our string of rainless days must now stretch to sixty, possibly more.

Every year, about this time, I dream about moving to a gentler climate. I fantasize about the verdant Northwest or even the cool climate of the Northeast where I spent my childhood. But then, I tell myself that August will soon be over; that last year, our rainy season started in September; that surely, in just two months, the weather will be bearable if not glorious; that somehow, I can hang on. I think it is called delusion, or maybe hope. I'm not sure, but now, I need to close. There is a 20% chance of rain and I have to check the weather radar.

The following Zen haiku comes from Quotes-

Looking at it, it clouds over;
Not looking, it becomes clear.

- Chora

My version of the above-

Weather radar:
Looking at it, it clouds over:
Outside, it becomes clear.

(For more on gardening in Austin during August, be sure to check out this month's addition to the Library.)

Damselfly on Wood Fern (Hamilton Pool)

August 20 - morning

Yesterday, we were taken by surprise when a light shower moved through the area just after dawn. We only received a quarter of an inch, but still, it was rain and I am very thankful. Yesterday evening, it was actually pleasant outdoors (if you were sitting in the shade.) Victor and I took advantage of the slight break in the heat and sat beside the pond watching the fish swim around- seeing our little school patrol for food and listening to the sound of the waterfall was enough to make us decompress almost instantly.

We captured another large adult raccoon the other night and the pond has been left unmolested. So, things are good in possumhaw hollow. Right now, the cats are outside enjoying the enclosed catporch that we built for them and I can hear some chickadees and titmice at our birdfeeder, they seem particularly insistent, which probably means that I need to refill it. In a short while I will be replacing some of the tomatoes that we put in this spring with new plants. We enjoyed the Jeff Davis heirloom tomatoes so much that we decided to try two more old favorites: Brandywine and Porter. We are a little late getting them in the ground, but I'll let you know how they perform.

August 26 - afternoon

I just had a Mary Oliver moment.

I was out weeding the garden in full summer sweaty psycho weeder mode... "Invaders be damned! " When, a grasshopper caught my eye. It was only a fleeting glimpse, I saw its green matchstick legs flick its body onto the fence directly in front of my downturned face. I reached for the next weed, only to stop and direct my attention to the insect that was carefully positioning its hind legs, poised for flight. Its "enormous and complicated" eyes seemed to be scanning me, weighing the dangers presented by this invader of its turf.

Mary Oliver is my favorite poet. In fact, I consider her book "New and Selected Poems" to be a sacred text. One of its most celebrated poems, "The Summer Day", describes an encounter with a grasshopper that transports the writer into the infinite wonder of the particular. In her poem, Oliver describes the grasshopper, makes a few observations about what it means to be present to creation, and asks an unforgettable question.

So, instead of pulling that next weed, I decided to spend a few moments with the grasshopper. I returned its gaze, admiring the herringbone pattern on its thighs, its barbed calves, and tiny delicate feet that were covered with almost microscopic hairs. I stayed still just long enough for it to relax its posture and clean one of its milky eyes with those hairy feet. As I watched it, I remembered a phone call that came to my radio program only yesterday- the caller was distraught about the swarms of grasshoppers that were devouring her garden and wanted to know what she could do to drive them away. Here was her enemy, and mine too, within my grasp if I wanted it. I weighed my options for only a moment and then walked indoors, trying to remember a few of the details of the grasshopper's intricate anatomy.

Tomorrow, if I find the leaves of my bigtooth maples chewed up, I may regret my decision to walk away. However, for now I am savouring the gift of the grasshopper, and the words of Mary Oliver. The loving mystery of creation is always there waiting for us to gaze into its eyes.

August 27 - morning

If the only prayer you ever say in your entire life is thank you, it will be enough.

-Meister Eckhart

Rain. After months of waiting and hoping, last night we received over four inches of rain. This morning, when I walked the garden's paths everything was shining, washed down, filled with life. The cypress trees were glistening, their fern-like branches heavy with the still clinging drops of precious water. Our oxblood lilies have magically appeared. The deep cracks in the earth, that only yesterday seemed like crevasses, have disappeared. The pond is filled with "God's" water, the fish exploring higher levels of their domain. And I, I am deeply thankful. Amen.

August 30 - morning

My friend, the renowned Texas conservationist , J. David Bamberger, likes to tell a story about an Iowa farmer and Hill Country rancher.

It seems the farmer was in Texas visiting relatives and was admiring the land. He commented on the the lushness of the vegetation saying, "Things look pretty green around here."

He asked his host, the rancher, "How much rain do you get? "

The rancher replied, "About thirty inches a year."

"Thirty inches a year, that's pretty respectable," said the farmer.

"Yep," replied the rancher. "And I remember the night we got it."

Well, it has been that kind of week in my garden, from famine to overflowing feast. It is pouring outside, we've had another half- inch of rain in just a few minutes. Our total during the past five days now stands at over ten inches, about one third of our annual expected rainfall. The garden is in the process of 'becoming one' with Shoal Creek. In fact, I am beginning to wonder if the fish are going to swim out of our pond and go looking for the raccoons. If you see a fat fantail goldfish floating by your front door, please send her home!

When it rains, it pours. Our region is one of the most flood prone areas of the nation. This shot is of Pedernales Falls during a flood several years ago. (For scale- the cliffs in the background are probably thirty or forty feet tall. The water here is usually only a foot or two deep.) I shared this picture withThe Austin American-Statesman, it ran on page one.

The falls at Hamilton Pool after heavy rain.

August 31 - evening

The sun peaked out just a few moments ago, and it hasn't rained for a few hours, so I am hoping that the creeks throughout the city and Hill Country (not to mention my back yard) are subsiding. We have received between 12 and 13 inches of rain in our garden since the 26th. From ground cracking dryness to complete saturation in a matter of days...Texas is a state disinclined to moderation!

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