It’s Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom Out Here

I went mole hunting today.  It was still cool with a gentle breeze hinting that fall is coming but not quite here yet.  I noticed new paths underneath the ground with cracked earth where the mole had come to the surface briefly before burrowing back down.  We have had these meandering paths before but none this year so near my flower beds.  I have a method that involves a chair or gardening bench and a shovel.  A master mole hunter in the area taught me the technique.  You must determine where the mole has disturbed the fresh earth, tamp it down, and sit and wait, eying the ground to see movement.  When you see movement at the end of a tunnel you place yourself above the moving spot and drive the shovel into the ground quickly enough so that the mole does not get away.  Obviously, it takes patience this mole hunting.  My brother-in-law uses traps and a golden retriever, quite successfully I might add.  Our small dogs have caught a few themselves, and I have managed to pop several out of the ground with my shovel.  Today, however, in spite of seeing the ground move, I did not even get a chance to dig.

People ask us often (usually during fall and winter) if we see any deer or turkeys on our farm.  The follow-up question is usually “Do you hunt?”  We pause and think of the comebacks we have dreamed up, like “We don’t see deer, but we do see monkeys in the trees.”  Somehow an answer like this seems too facetious.  So, we simply say “Yes and no.”  This answer is narrowly out of the facetious range, but it works.  Sometimes we get puzzled looks in response, but people are usually too polite to press.

From our porch we see automobiles drive slowly past our open field in front of our house, and we know that they are scoping it and the outlying woods for wildlife.  Like many rural areas, our county is full of hunters.  My husband was one well into his twenties.  I remember many mornings when he would get up before dawn, pile on the layers of baking-soda-cleaned clothes with no scent and sit up in a freezing deer stand for hours to snag that illusive buck.  He was a good hunter; we have beautiful mounts on our library walls as evidence.  But he just got tired of the game I suppose.  Once a career and children robbed him of his needed rest, he recognized that deer didn’t have as much allure as sleep.  Plus, he was the only one of the family to eat venison, and giving it away still required hours of cleaning and handling.

When we first moved here, we did see many turkeys for the first three years or so.  We delighted in counting them, “10…..11….12” as they waddled across our front yard.  Sadly, we now only count one or two a year.  We surmise that they have succumbed to neighboring hunters’ bait.

As for the deer, well, let’s just say that those gorgeous, lithe creatures can be a real nuisance.  My husband, Kerry, spends much of his free time during July and August trying to outsmart them to keep them away from his purple hull peas.  For a few years he was successful with a single strand of electric wire.  The next year, after moving the garden to a different location, he tricked them by putting up three sides of fencing, the open side facing the driveway and our house.  It worked but only for one season.  This year the deer devoured the entire first planting of the purple hulls.  He finally admitted defeat and stretched the fence across the last side.  We will see if we get another crop for freezing.

One last word about the deer.  They are darters.  Our vehicles have encountered them more than a few times as they spring across the driveway, usually in pairs or groups.  We tell visitors to be ever mindful of them when visiting.  Thankfully, we have had no injuries just damage to vehicles.

Now, raccoons, we do hunt.  Sort of.  What the deer do to the peas, the raccoons do to the sweet corn.  They have been known to clear an entire planting of corn in one night.  We tried trapping and releasing, allowing coon hunters to trap, and attempting to catch them in the middle of the night with flashlights and a shotgun.  Our fencing proved useless.  After Kerry moved the garden to its new location next to a row of scraggly Cleveland pear trees, our luck changed.  One evening as we sat on the front porch with gin and tonics, someone let the dogs out.  They tore across the front yard and stood around the trees yapping and yapping until we chased them down to get them back inside.  Kerry sat back down and became thoughtful.  “The dogs know something.  There must be raccons in those trees.”  So, we put on our Wellies and our headlamps and walked silently out to the trees.  I swear, Kerry could spot a wild animal anywhere from hundreds of yards, and that night he saw beady glowing eyes in branch after branch.  He crouched, I crouched over his shoulder, shining my headlamp where he pointed.  “Bang!  Bang!” his rifle cracked.  That night we eliminated seven raccoons and two possums from our menagerie.  We got a few more several nights later.  We figured out that the Cleveland pears were loaded with millions of berries, forage for the hungry climbers.  So, was our corn now safe?  Not by a long shot!  The next summer crows pecked three plantings out of the ground!  Kerry has not planted corn since.

There are elusive and somewhat scary creatures that roam fairly close to our house.  We see coyotes playing in the early mornings sometimes, their dens tucked in the edges of the woods surrounding the front field.  We find those large holes in the ground when we explore.  They give me a shiver every time I see them.  I would say that we haven’t had a coyote to come closer than 100 yards, so they are cohabitating nicely with us.

We see red foxes occasionally, one who ventures to within fifty feet of the house or so to frolic with our rather large cat, Roux.  Roux could pass for a fox, he is so big.  He gets along quite nicely with our dogs, sharing their beds, grooming them and vice versa.  We have also seen him claw his way up a fence post, perch on top, and touch noses with deer.  So, what’s one little harmless fox?

Possums visit us quite often.  During the past winter months we fixed a shelf in the garden shed behind our house for a kitty condo.  We kept the shed heated for the cats as well as the plants we were nurturing under lights.  Imagine our disgust when we went out at night to feed the cats, and instead of Gingi and Roux curled up sweetly in their beds waiting for us, there was a creepy possum, eyes aglow!   A few times, Kerry donned thick work gloves and pulled the possum out by the tail, carrying it to the edge of our property and setting it free.  Afterwards, I was left to remove the contaminated beds and launder them before our clean cats could return.  Then we tried the “shoot the running possum” game.  Kerry dropped the possum and my brother or I would try to shoot him as he took off for the woods.  Each time, the shooters missed, and the possum scurried away.  Not to be out-possumed and never admitting defeat, Kerry was prepared this last time.  Hunting rifle in hand and our dogs poised, Kerry dropped his prey.  Those little yappers caught wind of the possum and treed the little rascal.  He didn’t survive.

Armadillos joined our menagerie late last winter for the first time.  Guess they needed a new place to wreak havoc.  They decided that the beds around the house were the perfect places to do whatever they do.  Hunt?  Feast on insects?  They tore up bed after bed, scattering mulch and uncovering all of the buried soaker hoses Kerry meticulously circled around the shrubs.  They proved to be an easier shooting target.  The last little varmit who came, however, proved to be more elusive.  He started digging in my flowerbeds and destroying my plants.  One day I discovered that my beloved Foxglove was gone!  Not even a root remained.  I had nurtured that blush pink flower for three years, and it was just stunning, balancing its twin on the other side of the gate and walkway.  I wondered about the health of the armadillo after his choice of sustenance.  After all, Foxglove is also digitalis from which heart medicine is made.  I found him a day or so later, stiff and legs up near the barn.  At least my other Foxglove was safe.

We don’t see as many rabbits around the house as we used to.  Our pooches have kept their population at bay.  Our oldest daughter, Claire, was horrified one morning when she found Calpurnia, one of our “twin” dogs stalking and then chewing on an innocent baby bunny.  It was only after she read a book about natural dog instincts that she forgave her.  A couple of years ago, I found my precious Boo, a Yorkie/Maltese mix chewing on a rather rancid rabbit in the yard.  She became violently ill on a Saturday night several days later and died by Sunday morning in my arms. Our whole family still mourns her.  Our dogs have freedom and no threat of cars or dognappings, but there are dangers all around our property to be sure.

For one, there are bats that swoop down at dusk every evening, making every guest on our back deck do a sort of ducking maneuver while holding their beers or gin and tonics.  Once my brother came for a beer and eyed a rather large bat all night, swearing that he could feel a breeze from it as it flew past him.  He claimed that he had a neck ache for a week from the ducking.  Just thinking of his terrified dancing on the deck makes me laugh.

We have all of the normal insects like dirt daubers, yellow jackets, wasps, moths, and bees, and we carefully plant flowers that draw butterflies.  We’ve also seen African hornets flying around our porch, drawn to the candles we burn at night.  I suspect that they are not as dangerous as they look, though they will scatter the porch sitters in seconds.  The strangest insect encounter involved our Dill, the gentlest of our dogs.  He developed a long swelling under his front leg with a hole at the end.  The veterinarian informed us that a Bot Fly or a mosquito carrying Bot Fly larva bit Dill and deposited the larva under his skin.  The hole provided a place for the larva to breathe.  We began to wonder what other strange creatures we might encounter.

Of course, there are the snakes.  We knew before we bought this farm that the back hillside was a habitat for snakes.  Rattlers, to be exact, and we have also seen several Copperheads.  Hunters and neighboring farmers were well aware and open to us about the snakes that live on the rock bluffs that run for miles on our side of the road.  Since it is illegal to kill snakes in Tennessee; indeed, the Timber Rattlesnake is a protected species, we respect them when we are in their areas.  We always wear boots, carry sticks, and remain wary during the warm months when traipsing in the woods.  When they come into our domain and threaten our family and small pets, we aren’t as forgiving.  One day, my youngest daughter, Annelise, and I were walking around in the orchard in our flipflops picking up chestnuts.  We ate our fill and devoured a pear on the path back to the house.  The next day, I went back to retrieve chestnuts I knew would have fallen overnight.  Because the chestnut tree has low limbs, I resorted to crawling to reach an elusive nut.  As I pulled myself under the limb I came face to face with a very large brown-patterned snake.  Had it struck me, it would’ve been on my face/head area.  I inched backwards, ran to the house, and called my husband at work.  “What do I do?” I asked.  I was actually calm!  When I described where it was in the orchard, he asked me to take a shotgun and shoot it.

“Okay,” I said as I raised the gun to my shoulder, “remind me how to do this.”

He talked me through the processs, and then I put the phone on the ground beside me.  “BOOM BOOM BOOM!”  I shot three times and hit it once.  I picked up the phone to hear laughter.  He had put me on speakerphone in his office, and I had had a crowd listening and waiting for the shooting to stop.  I was a hero among many hunters that day!  I never knew why the Rattlesnake didn’t strike at me or at least warn me with its rattler.  I did find a dead rat beneath it when I hauled it to the house, so I surmise that it had just depleted its venom and was not quick enough to threaten me.  I could boast about the length of that snake and the large number of rattles, but that would be tacky.

Scary stories aside, there is nothing like sitting on the back porch this time of year, listening to the almost deafening sounds of the bullfrogs and tree frogs that call to each other every evening.  The tree frogs squawk in a high pitch to be answered by the lower croak of the bullfrogs in the little lily pond beneath.  All around are hummingbirds, buzzing and darting from one of our feeders to the next, pausing to perch on the snag or a tree limb, exploring my flowerbeds for any leftover treats.  They are storing up for their long migration this month, and I am glad that they chose our farm to visit on their way.  I think of the beautiful box turtle that dug a hole beside our porch steps to deposit its eggs right before our eyes the previous spring while the Carolina wrens sang and the Cedar Waxwings gathered around the lily ponds to gossip and scold.  It may be just a small farm in the middle of nowhere, but to us it is a wild and wonderful kingdom.  I wonder if Marlin Perkins would approve.


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