PEACEABLE KINGDOM?

In retrospect, perhaps the worms were a bad idea. Lily and Sage—my orphan possums—adored them, but perhaps too much adoration is not a good thing. The worms sent the babies into a frenzied trance state. They went wild for worms. At the sight of a wiggler, the possum sisters would get a strange glint in their eyes and begin channeling their inner Keystone Cops: Much rushing about and colliding with each other ensued.

Portioning out my margarine container of night crawlers, I was stunned to see my sweet, slow-moving, peaceful little babies become break-dancing whirligigs at the prospect of fresh meat. In those feeding-frenzy moments, everything their eyes fell upon became a potential worm: my fingers, each others tails, twigs, the wrinkles in their bedding—it was all up for grabs, and grab they did.

As I’ve said before, a possum mouth bears an uncanny resemblance to alligator jaws. When I fed the babies formula, they were little lambs, lapping sweetly at the bowl, their small bodies jittering in delight. When I offered worms, it was like tossing meat into an alligator pit. I had to move fast, or they would latch onto my fingers.

Still, I sort of liked seeing them go all fire-eyed and fierce. They would need that wild heart to make it out in the big, nasty world. While I wanted nothing more than to kiss their moist noses forever, I realized that was truly not in their best interests. When each possum tipped the scale at just over a hundred grams, it was time to take them back to WildCare. There, Sage and Lily would learn about solid foods (besides worms) and eventual outdoor living before being released back into the wild.

The next day, I had an experience that has left me asking myself this painful question again and again: Are there any wild mammals that are welcome among humankind?

I volunteer one day a week at a two-acre organic garden a couple miles from my house. The guys who own it and farm it are brilliant and gifted fellows steeped deeply in the permaculture tradition—which acknowledges the interconnectedness of all systems. I go there to learn to garden, which is something I have no natural talent for.

Just after my possum babies were settled back at WildCare, the garden guys had live-trapped a possum and by the time they checked the trap days later, the possum was dead. I asked them why they had wanted to trap possums, and listened as they told me that possums competed for the garden produce, especially the fruit. So did the chipmunks and woodchucks, and the raccoons that mucked up the garden ponds. None were welcome. Most that were trapped found their way to the compost pile.

When I asked them where these animals fit into the permaculture scheme of things, they outlined on paper a theoretical larger farm where just the center of the land is taken up by humans, and the surrounding land is left to nature and animals.

It was a good theoretical idea, but humans don’t much live like that. They guys didn’t. We take over our large and small plots, and work hard to rid ourselves of the “pests,” which are all things nonhuman. Is there room for no one else?

Deer eat the hostas and the gardens; raccoons bother our garbage and make noises under our homes and in our attics. Bats are scary, woodchucks tunnel too much. Chipmunks are just rats with stripes. Rabbits ruin our landscape plants. Squirrels have the gall to rob from our bird feeders. Skunks stink, and opossums take our fruit and dig nasty little holes in our yard digging for grubs.

The concept of the Peaceable Kingdom falls apart the moment you add a human to the mix. It makes me crazy.

My mother shared her small suburban yard with deer, toads, possums, coons and skunks. She knew these wild neighbors were there because the deer ate some of her apples and the rest of the critters showed up each evening to a small bowl of cat food she left outside her door. Sometimes the raccoons ate all of her treasured cherries. All of them. But the abiding delight of wild company trumped any of the nuisances they may have caused. She truly loved her wild neighbors. And my mom had the most beautiful and productive garden-yard of anyone in her neighborhood.

It doesn’t seem there are nearly enough people in this world who take any pleasure from the simple company of wild neighbors. Even when I lived on the edge of the Snake River in Teton Park, the estate owners wanted the moose and elk hazed away, and the beavers trapped and killed. Why choose to live near the wild when you only want it to go away?

These thoughts sadden me and make me more determined to keep my own two acres a place of interspecies diversity. All are welcome here: The possums who do indeed dig small holes in my garden beds and lawn, the squirrels who can empty four bird feeders in a day, the bugs that pollinate my garden and the skunks, frogs, snakes who eat all those bugs. The coyotes who wail in the hollow are welcome here, and the bobcat, and the deer and the wild turkeys who eat along the edges of my fenced vegetable garden. Last year we put in a grass and wildflower meadow, and many animals are making good use of it. I can tell they are there by the “calling cards” of scat they leave behind to fertilize the grasses.

Toads are foraging around the garden beds now, and a couple of snakes, and a small tree frog who has taken up residence in the old water-softener tank I keep filled with water behind the blackberries. I do what I can and, you know, none of it seems like enough sometimes. When did the nonhuman world become nothing more than a nuisance to us two-leggeds?

My friend Debbie emailed me the other day. A skunk had turned up at her outside cat food dish. She was enchanted. “They really do bounce around like Pepe le Pew!” Shortly after, I got another message from Debbie announcing an entire le Pew family—Mama brought six babies to the cat food buffet. Debbie wrote, “They’re adorable!”

She wanted to know how to get them to move along to some other place other than beneath her pergola, or if they could be trapped and relocated to a better place than a suburban Sacramento backyard. Also, to make matters a bit more complicated, Debbie was about to bring home a brand spanking new golden retriever puppy in just a few short weeks.

In California, any trapped skunks must—by law—be killed. Debbie didn’t want them killed. “They’re just trying to make a living like the rest of us.” After pondering her situation for a few days, Debbie has decided to take up the cat food dish and just let the skunks be. God bless her. And bless all of you who treasure a world populated with wonders, and make room for some of them.

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6 Responses to PEACEABLE KINGDOM?

  1. Carter says:

    When I was eleven years old my family moved from the freezer of Southern Wisconsin to the then relatively undiscovered Upper Sonora Desert – a small place called Scottsdale, Arizona: The West’s Most Western Town. I fell in love with that desert which, it might surprise you, was full of life. The spring brought blossoms to the flora and fauna and no place in the world was more beautiful.

    After living in California for a while I took a friend to see the McDowell mountains where I roamed in my youth. Her reaction was “It looks just like Disneyland.”

    People grow up away from nature and so lose their connection to it that it is no more real than a theme park. Is it any wonder that they can no longer make room for wild creatures in their lives?

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Hi Sweetie: A friend of mine who was a river rafting guide told me of a time he was taking two older women down a section of the Snake River, where the cliffs are high on each side and very awe-inspiring. He claims that one woman said quietly to the other, “Can you imagine what it took to construct these? They look so real!”

  2. kathey says:

    Hi Susan, and hugs to the possum babies! I feel honored to be visited by the wild creatures with whom I share this piece of land. It has been an evolving experience for me, coming to that place in my heart and mind where I can appreciate their presence, their lifecycles, and knowing that I have such abundance that it can and has to be shared. I believe that we humans are very very greedy, selfish, and fearful of animals in the wild as we are of one another. Living our lives as part of a “peaceable kingdom” must be recognized for the sanity and positive future it can provide for humans. This is a wonderful topic. Thanks so much. I am going outdoors now and hope to see a black snake or two!

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Kathey, I love your word “honored” to describe how you feel about visits from your wild neighbors. I feel that way, too. Sharing abundance is another theme you brought up that is so valuable. There was a time when humankind lived amicably among all beings. Some indigenous people still do. We became human in the peaceable kingdom. Personally, I believe that civilization building and aggressive forms of agriculture worked hand in hand to bring out the worst in the human animal. I’m hoping this post brings many comments. It is good to hear other perspectives on this topic!

  3. Yvette Thompson says:

    It’s confounding why people move into a “natural” setting and then try to eradicate the natural species. My husband and I planted a yellow delicious apple tree that bore six fruit last year. Before the fruit was entirely ripe, I plucked one and we enjoyed munching it. The deer helped themselves to the rest of the apples before the next evening. We were happy to have the one apple and also happy to share! We always have more than enough from the garden. It’s a comfort to know there are others that work with nature rather than against it. Thank you Susan.

    • Susan McElroy says:

      Yvette, sharing is such a good thing. We always have extra strawberries to share, as there are always so many that are not quite gorgeous, and I always leave those for whomever wants them. I am keeping our new little “meadow” full of grain grasses and flowers so everyone has something to eat. In these days of humanity insanity, I find great comfort in the grounding peace and endurance of my wild visitors.

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