First Person: Groundhog Day

Last modified: Thursday, August 28, 2014
I’ve spent some of these soft, summer evenings watching the sun’s last shine climb the green wall of trees on the east boundary of my property, and wishing I had a gun. I don’t own a gun so tonight I’m hoping that our ever-hungry groundhog will visit the trap I’ve set and that I’ll hear the door close behind him.

Trap him or blast him, I just want to get him.

I’m sure he knows I’m sitting here in the Adirondack chair, but he’s not concerned. He has plenty of reasons to be cocky. He may have already snacked in our garden today. For this creature, one meal is never enough; he goes from one garden to the next and returns fatter and happier.

Here’s our strategic mistake: We planted our garden near a long-stretching bramble and tangle of poplars, small oaks, wild grapevines, blackberries, jewel weed, and Virginia creeper that serve as his protection and his highway. He peacefully cruises through the bramble, turns off the highway and comes out into the open to munch his favorite treats in my garden.

I list here those treats to which he has helped himself in the order of his dining experience from mid-May to late July: snap peas, kale, snow peas, purple coneflower, butternut squash, lupine seedlings and now sunflowers. He recently took out several stout, 2½-foot-tall sunflowers by bending them to the earth and eating every gorgeous leaf. He left nude stalks with helpless amputated branches. As I sit here, the sunflowers are trying to wave at me, except they have no leaf-hands with which to do it. I think those sunflowers might want to report an assault.

He has scoffed at the defenses I have raised against him. They are many and all ineffective. I erected 65 linear feet of wire fence, the holes of which I thought too narrow for our gigantic rodent. I caught him inside the fence one June evening and he squirted through a hole so easily that I thought he was a shape-shifter turned into a furry snake. The name groundhog implies a certain heaviness and clunkiness. He displayed none of that as he slithered through the fence.

Then he toyed with me, digging a tunnel under the fence. He was telling me that I’m dumber than the 6-foot inflatable rattlesnake that I set next to the sunflowers to scare him away. He goes under the fence at will, despite my refilling the hole and adding boards as a deterrent.

I even attempted chemical warfare. A couple of springs ago, I successfully chased groundhogs away from a nesting hole under my garage with a few doses of that known toxin: human, male urine. I applied it enthusiastically, feeling smug that keeping rodents off my property should be so easy.

This summer that defense has failed.

I tried my Havahart trap, after learning that cantaloupe is irresistible bait for groundhogs. I put little chunks of the sweet bait in a line leading up to the mouth of the trap, then a mound of melon inside. Let’s be clear here: I’ve never caught anything in my trap — ever! — since it’s illegal to move wild animals in Massachusetts. I can tell the truth about my trap this summer: it has caught nothing — no groundhog, no possum, no skunk.

So the last defense I’ve used comes from my friend Bernadette, who worships at an altar I admire but can’t seem to find. She knows my groundhog woes, because one evening she saw it snacking on our snap peas. She consulted a farmer friend, and returned a week later with bad news: A groundhog is too wily, too determined, too hungry to be stopped. She advised that I should speak with the groundhog and ask it to leave. Her friend, a spiritual farmer in Shutesbury with the Native American belief that we can communicate with wild animals, assured her it was the only way. My skills as a groundhog negotiator, it turns out, are poor. He still comes, taking his 10 percent like a mobster working a protection racket. I never know when he’ll come: I do know he’ll take as much as he pleases and he does not care what I think. What I think is I wish I had a .22-caliber gun and the guts to use it. What I have, though, is a garden that gets treated like a soup kitchen for an already fat groundhog.

My last defense may be acquiescence. Maybe I won’t call it giving up, I’ll call it sharing. Stanley Kunitz, the late poet and gardener of Provincetown, described sharing his garden bounty with marauding raccoons as “paying my vegetable tithe.” If I change my attitude from warfare to compassion, I have to hope that the groundhog/mobster leaves enough for us, so that our garden endeavor will have been worthwhile.

I could also hope that he mistakes one of my jalapeno peppers for a snap pea and never returns.

Greg Kerstetter lives in Northampton.

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