Autumnal Setbacks in the Serenity of the Garden

Autumn is definitely here now, unmistakably. The sun now glares directly in my face as I drive to work at 7:45 a.m. It gets dark so early in the evening now that it feels as if the endless summer light just collapsed overnight sometime in the last three weeks.

The cottonwood leaves are starting to turn. There is nothing quite so lovely as the cottonwoods along the sacred Little Missouri River when they burst into fiery yellow-gold sometime in September. They define the term "achingly beautiful." Hiking the badlands on a crisp autumn morning when a jacket is required but soon becomes a burden, when the light is so clean that it clarifies the beauty of every object in nature, and the blue of the autumn sky makes you weak in the knees, that's reason enough to live in North Dakota. Hunters hunt as much for this as for the birds and venison. Hunting allows strong rural men to be poets for a few days per year without losing face. I love listening to farmers talk about the pure satisfaction of the first day of the wheat harvest without self-censorship, and hunters are positively romantic when they talk about the quality of the light and the sense of oneness with nature as they move through the grassland or stubble.

On the morning I wrote this I woke up three times before dawn—first, of course, to pee, which can be done on autopilot without really waking up at all. Then to pull a blanket off the floor below the bed and drag it up to my chin. Finally to go pheasant hunting in the back yard. But the blanket first.

One of the purest delights of autumn is those mornings when you wake up sometime before first light realizing that you are cold, because you fell asleep under a single sheet, and the temperature has dropped ten or fifteen degrees in the course of the night. You are still very tired and groggy, a little grumpy that this mere meteorological circumstance has disturbed your sleep, and for quite a while you pretend that you can maybe gut it out till your regular waking time without searching for the errant blanket at the foot of the bed. I don't know why we all try to resist just fetching the blanket and getting it over with—a simple motion, after which we know things are going to be much better--but we all procrastinate, losing good sleep meanwhile, until the discomfort finally becomes painful enough to tip us into action and force us to do what we should have done half an hour sooner.

I spent that much time, or more, doing a variety of heat and convection experiments under my bed sheet. I tucked the sheet right up to my chin. I got into the fetal position. Then I got into the fetal fetal position, until I looked like John Lennon on honeymoon. Then I pulled the sheet over my head. I thrashed in place a little to generate some internal fire. After all of that, I cursed under my breath and reached over the end of the bed to get the blanket, a lovely Pendleton of rich chocolate brown with wide rust and charcoal stripes. A perfect autumn blanket.

I love the process of warming up. Of course you want to be warm instantly, but if you are patient and just let the experience unfold, you can actually learn to enjoy the thermodynamics. The acute chill disappears almost immediately with the advent of a blanket, and then the gradual "toasting" process actually creates an exquisite joy. The continuing slight chill makes you glad to be alive. With any luck I can at this point fall asleep again for some really satisfying "top up" sleep.


Sometime in late August, a little terrorist cluster of pheasants began to ravage my garden. I ran after them with a baseball bat. I sprinkled commercial varmint repellants along the perimeter. I begged my friend Jim to turn his faithful hunting dog Lizzie loose in the district. I bought live traps. I wired the sheaths of my sweet corn shut with rubber bands. I threw netting over my tomatoes. But these were pampered suburban welfare pheasants, who knew no decency and did not respect the rule of law. Eventually I bought a paint ball gun—actually a paint ball assault rifle—and began to obsess about revenge. Those pesky pheasants transformed me overnight from a serene Jeffersonian gardener to an enraged and pathetic Elmer Fudd.

Last weekend I gleaned most of the last produce from my garden, ate a couple of perfect minimalist garden meals, and began the autumn cleanup and shutdown. I pulled the tomato cages and stacked them as carefully as such unwieldy contraptions can be stacked. I pulled up all the gallon-sized tomato cans and put them in a neat pile. I mowed the whole garden and prepped it for a thorough fall tilling. The only produce still on the vine is in my raised Monticello garden: a few Hidatsa squashes, an ear or two of Mandan corn, a few Jefferson Costoluto Genovese tomatoes that are still worrisomely green, and two butternut squashes.

My point is that I had, by now, largely stopped fixating about the pheasants. Whenever I walked past my paint ball rifle near the back door, I had begun to feel faintly ridiculous. Maybe I had over-reacted. One must share the abundance, after all, and the fine dynamics of evolution have made plants such as corn and tomatoes desirable to a variety of critters so that their seeds can be distributed across the land. Maybe the pheasants were not perpetual entitlement bums, but just troubled birds going through a rough patch. Surely they had some melancholy sense that they would not be alive much longer. Perhaps they quote Ecclesiastes in the evenings as they hunker in the prairie just west of my yard.

So when I woke for the third and final time this morning to the sound of "kuk… kukk.. kuck" in the vicinity of the garden, I slipped out onto the deck in a mostly light-hearted mood. I was clad in suburban camouflage--t-shirt, boxer shorts, and slippers, holding a faux Rambo and Full Metal Jacket assault rifle stocked with orange paint ball ammunition. Nothing ridiculous there!

The pheasant saw me coming and slipped between two rows of corn stalks. I approached as silently as Natty Bumpo, then fired a burst of ten paint balls into the corn. The appalled pheasant flushed and squawked at me menacingly as it flew off. Point made. Time to shower.\

But when I looked into my raised Jefferson garden, my heart fell on the ground. I was light-hearted no longer. My last acorn squash had been violated by those very pheasants. I do not exaggerate. The entire interior had been consumed, after a gaping hole had been pecked through its many hard rinds. I would not have thought it even possible for a bird to hack its way into such a well-protected vegetable. My last garden dinner was now entirely despoiled.

I fell into a towering, drooling, helpless rage, and swore that I would eat the culprit(s) for spite, with a commercial squash on the side, even if their breast meat was stained with orange pigment! I rushed into the house and reloaded my magazine.

O the humanity. This ain't over.