War in the Garden of Eden

Here's what makes me supremely happy. Last night, after a long day of work, I came home, walked out to my garden, and plucked four tomatoes right off the vine, wrenched a fat ear of corn off of its monumental green stalk, and severed a Hidatsa squash from my special Thomas Jefferson & Lewis and Clark Garden. I went inside, shucked the corn, rinsed the tomatoes, and cut the squash in two. I carefully saved the squash seeds for planting next spring. I baked the squash, sliced the tomatoes into lovely little identical rounds, and boiled the bright yellow corn. My entire evening meal came straight from my garden, as fresh and local as any food can ever be. It was twice delicious. The vegetables were intrinsically delicious—subtle earthy flavors that are mostly lost in the grocery store and Wal-Mart food delivery system. And it was delicious to feel a little wave of satisfaction for having grown my own meal. It was being off the industrial-consumerist grid for an hour. For a few days per year in the fall, I am a child of the soil.

No raspberry from the grocery store can compete in flavor with the one you pluck from the vine. Nor do you know the life history of the store berry: where it was grown, under what labor conditions, how long ago, under what petrochemical regimen, with what flavor-enhancers or color-improvers, and how much it was jostled in transport. I have read enough to be certain that whatever I buy in the produce section has a chemical history that diminishes its value as an effusion of the Life Principle and the earth.

Thomas Jefferson was right. The closer we get to nature, the closer we get to Nature's God.

One of my goals—as I move forward into the autumn of life—is to increase the number of days per year that I eat what I grow until it produces a deep serenity and a Thoreauvian spirit of independence. I do not want to get so deep into organic self-reliance that I become chained to the soil. That's for true retirement. But I would like to equal my closest garden friends in eating from my hands at least 45 days per year.

Last week my sweet corn looked fabulous. Two long rows of slightly yellowing stalks, with 25 or 30 perfect looking ears thickening a little every day. All garden vegetables delight me, but I have a special joy in corn. Back in my childhood, my grandparents grew many acres of "field corn," most of which wound up as silage for their small dairy herd. In August we would drive out in Grandpa's 1957 International Harvester pickup and pluck a few hundred ears, a handful of which we would boil for dinner (1 p.m.), and the rest shell for "putting up." When I think of abundance, I think of wheat and corn. One corn seed produces an ear with up to 300 kernels. Every wheat head produces approximately 50 kernels. You could almost say that this idea is the very origin of civilization—off in the valley of the Euphrates some tens of thousands of years ago. I'm with Jonathan Swift (1667-1745): "Whoever makes two ears of corn, or two blades of grass to grow where only one grew before, deserves better of mankind, and does more essential service to his country than the whole race of politicians put together."

So you can imagine my horror when I ventured out to survey my little garden world the other morning and discovered that something had eaten every kernel of every ear of corn in the westernmost row. I actually sat down on the ground in befuddlement and rage. It felt like such a violation. Once long ago I had my first car stolen, in southern California. It was recovered a week later a few suburbs away. Only the sound system was missing, but I never felt the same way about that car again. Now I had lost half of my corn crop virtually overnight. I became a drama queen: what kind of God would permit this sort of injustice to happen? I tilled that soil. Heck, I spent a week repairing my tiller in order to till that soil. I planted those 40 kernels on my hands and knees. I weeded that corn patch half a dozen times, and ruthlessly slew the Canadian thistle that wanted to snuff the corn out. I watered that corn, sometimes by hand with the joyous lazy summer's eve s-curves of a handheld hose, on which I tuned the nozzle like a harpsichord for perfect gentle coverage. Never was a patch of corn so loved!

From a purely economic point of view, I had several dozen hours of human labor in that cornfield, and whatever the cost of gasoline, water, seed, spare parts and the amortization of that tiller added up to. Thoreau would know it to the last cent. For many years I have understood that it would be economically more sensible to buy my vegetables at farmers' markets. Given my actual expenses, even without factoring in what I pretend my time is worth in the market, it made no sense to grow my own. But if you measure your life solely by dollars and cents you have long ago sold your soul to the devil.

For more than a week, now, I have been obsessed, almost haunted, by "varmints." My mind jumped to the usual suspects: raccoons, jackrabbits, deer. The days of taking my garden for granted were over. There was war in the Garden of Eden. The morning after I noticed the corn massacre, at first light, I studied the garden with binoculars from my bedroom window. One corn stalk was bending like a pendulum. As I steadied the binoculars, I discovered that the culprit was--a pheasant! In my bathrobe and bare feet I rushed into the garden with a baseball bat, but the wily pheasant disappeared into the west prairie without flushing.

Breathlessly I called my hunter-gardener friend Jim. He brought his faithful hunting dog Lizzie over to do reconnaissance. The news was grimmer than I could have imagined. It was five, no seven pheasants, two males, and a bouquet of females. I had a host of rookie questions: 1) Would they relocate now that Lizzie had chased them? No. 2) Could I set out traps for them and haul them away? Very unlikely. 3) Could I shoot them in self-defense? Not a good idea, and if you kill the females, you are going to federal prison. 4) How about a pellet gun? Probably wouldn't kill one and you probably couldn't hit one anyway. 5) Then what's the remedy? Eat the corn as quickly as possible and share with your closest friends!

The Internet taught me that if you put rubber bands around the end of the corn sheath, it would be harder for critters to get to the fruit. True, but as Jim reported a day later, now the pheasants are just pissed off, and they have taken to eating my tomatoes.

I have purchased a paint ball gun and approximately 10,000 shells. I may buy camouflage. I have officially become "that madman down the street who does nothing but stalk the elusive pheasant." I am willing to go to prison. This is Armageddon.