Year of the Rat

Wendy Johnson

In early summer, just when gardeners should be tying up the waving tentacles of Marmande tomatoes or pinching back the tips of imperial larkspur, I find myself once again at the periphery of the garden, sowing a fresh border of Good Bug Blend. This miracle mixture of herb, flower, and vegetable seeds is sown to attract beneficial insects to the garden. These “good bugs” - the golden chalcid and the minute pirate bBug, the green lacewing and the big-eyed bug - are all natural pest control allies that keep the June garden clean of pernicious troublemakers. But lately I’ve been wondering what my role is in the cycle of predation and rebirth.

I used to be an organic gardener concentrating solely on plants, but these days I feel more like a frontier rancher herding hosts of visible and invisible beasts to the harvest table. This turning toward animals happened to me last winter, when I reluctantly fell under the spell of a scrawny pack rat rodent, the dusky-footed wood rat. In early January I joined 400 other gardening volunteers for a habitat restoration project in Muir Woods National Monument, just a few miles north of the Green Gulch garden. My assignment was to dig up a section of ancient forest floor in the pristine Bohemian Grove and to plant understory communities of tan oak, coffeeberry and sword fern beneath the redwoods. “Why tan oak and sword fern?” I asked innocently. “To encourage wood rats to nest in the woods,” answered the park ranger.

I confess that this business of planting elaborate gardens to lure wildlife to the land has always been a hot koan for me. Why should I waste precious gardening time growing acorns for pack rats? I know that a koan can be a vital instrument in the work of awakening, just as a pickax is an essential instrument for opening the ground. But even when I learned that“Neotoma fuscipes,”the dusky-footed wood rat, was the primary prey of the rare and endangered northern spotted owl, that totem guardian of old growth forests, I still balked at planting habitat for crafty rodents.

Every summer at Green Gulch we spend tedious hours repairing our battered deer fence, setting gopher traps between the lines of dessert apples, paying our children two cents apiece for every snail they pluck out of the Chinese delphiniums, and fashioning circular collars out of old roofing paper to protect our tender-necked sweet pea plants. Instinctively, I stiffen whenever I see an insect at work in the garden. I’m sure that every chrysalis contains the tomato hornworm and never the beneficent chalcedon checkerspot. So it has been a real stretch for me to welcome woodrats and assassin bugs into my life.

How did it happen? The wood rat pushed me to the edge, and then I just moved over. The garden got bigger. Way bigger. I gave up struggling against the “great majority” and slowed down long enough to watch them. Whenever possible, I looked them in the eye. I breathed on cold honeybees, torpid in the frosty blue core of Borage flowers, and watched them fire back to life. I laid down on the ground below the Poorman gooseberries when they were heavy with fruit and followed the Argentine ants rolling rotten berries home to their nest. I stopped running away from snakes. Instead of discriminating between the food grown for market and the crops that go to wood rats and good bugs, I began to plant a little bit more of both.

Gardening is consequential work. It has its haunting sweetness and it has its sting. For relief, I take the time to walk in Muir Woods, no matter how busy I am. High up in the broken-out redwood snags, spotted owl chicks begin to hatch out now, an event that coincides exactly with the summer birth of wood rat litters. I imagine the newborn wood rats curled deep in their sword fern nests. They are pink, almost blind, and strangely translucent. Later, I know that I have helped draw them to the woods when I see their tender bones poking at odd angles out of fresh owl scat voided on the floor of the forest.

Wendy Johnson has been gardening and practicing meditation at Green Gulch Farm Zen Center in California since 1975. She is currently at work on a book about meditation and gardening.

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