Of beetles and birds and bees and chipmunks and worms and snakes and moles and gophers
September 16, 2006
A wildlife garden is a popular garden theme, like a Japanese-style garden or a butterfly garden. Grazing deer come to mind, raccoons trawling the fishpond, cute bunnies nibbling grass or maybe a fox trotting through. In reality, every healthy garden is a wildlife garden. It’s just that the wildlife is mostly beetles and birds, spiders and ants, yellow jackets and bees, chipmunks and squirrels, centipedes and earwigs, grasshoppers and crickets, snails and worms, flies and caterpillars, snakes, moles, voles, gophers, and skunks. To name just a few. As the captain of the ship said when he alerted the passengers to sightings of dolphins, whales and seabirds, “In order to see sea life you must watch the sea.” Here’s some of the wildlife I saw last week while I was watching my garden.Hummingbirds make their way from zinnia to zinnia. Occasionally one buzzes the red collar on the cat snoozing up on the deck. A warbler flits up and down the joe-pye weed stalks, snatching insects. I have just crushed a beautiful yellow and black striped bumblebee with an orange rump. Something went wrong – did a bird take a nip at it? – and it plummeted to the stone path next to the marigolds. Do bees breathe? The vibration of its rump looked like the rising and falling of an exhausted person’s chest. It was rubbing a wing over its back, again and again, like a yellowjacket rescued from the birdbath drying off. When I got too close, it tried frantically to get away from me. Its pathetic dragging limp caught at my heart and I made a split-second decision. I played God and killed it with one stomp of my foot. I’ve been thinking about the ethics of “putting it out of its misery” rather than letting it die ever since. Creatures live and creatures die, including us, and I wonder if it was not so much the agony of the bee as my own uneasiness with its suffering that triggered my choice.A chickadee just landed on a woodbine vine, snatched a steel blue berry off its apricot red stem and took off again. Hey, those are for the flickers, those handsome russet barred jays that entertain me in the winter, landing outside my window, usually in pairs, to chatter and eat the desiccated berries. I hear the heavy landing and then the beating of wings splashing water in the copper birdbath behind me, and though I can’t see it from where I sit, I recognize a robin and have to laugh.Charlotte is back; I found her when I inadvertently tore an intricately patterned orb-web from its moorings between two outdoor houseplants I was watering. She was nowhere to be seen – what spider, where? – but a careful search revealed her hanging underneath a leaf, waiting. Once I knew she was there, close to my chair on the porch, I was careful not to disturb the web, and every morning I crouched down to peer under the leaves until I found her. Charlotte, named after the wonderful character in E. B. White’s book “Charlotte’s Web”, that transformed my view of arachnids (and pigs!) is the size of the end of my thumb, with a chunky light tan body like a clumsily wrapped package and dark brown markings on its abdomen, like eyes. I recognize this spider because at least one has set up housekeeping in a protected place near our doors every summer for years. I have never seen this spider at work on her web, or consuming a meal or even moving. She must be nocturnal. I figured by the time the houseplants had to be moved back inside, Charlotte would be gone. This morning Gerry saw a garter snake on a sunny part of the porch. Now I can’t find any trace of Charlotte. Is there a connection? While watering another container, this one planted with colorful annuals in sunshine, I noticed a dead grasshopper and was about to remove it when a narrow-waisted wasp landed on it. Time stood still as I watched the wasp saw away at the carcass until it had cut out the entire abdomen and carried it off! For just an hour, stop in your garden, tear your gaze away from the flowers or chores that need doing, quit swatting at bees and flies and stomping every creeping crawling thing you see, and just … look. You’ll be amazed. Anna gardens in Basalt and has finally figured out that you can’t have butterflies without caterpillars. She’d love to hear from you at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org. Please put “Anna’s Garden” in the e-mail subject line.