I’ve spent my first complete week up here on Wildcat Mountain, and I can’t express how amazed I am with the place: a week here is a thousand years with the Lord. Most of the small, good things that constitute life in the Catskills have happened in some form for me in the past few days. I’ve been working in the garden and it seems to get a little more beautiful each day because of my presence. There’s been no moon and the stars have been astonishing; and miracle of miracles, the fireflies have taken notice of the fact that I’ve turned the area right around my house from forest to meadow, and when I step out of my door at night I peer into firefly-lit blackness under stars. I’ve found a rare plant growing happily here that I’ve never seen before; stood alone on a mountaintop; seen people I love; met new people I’ve heard about; worked on our community garden; been all alone for days at a time; the bear has visited and the deer have been running amok. I’ve been reading well (Peter Brown on early Christianity) and writing well, and while there’s not much edible coming out of my garden just yet (more on that anon), I’m always nibbling on something odd. (I’m snacking on marigold flowers while writing this, a colorful supplement to violet leaves and Oswego tea).
The garden of course is ten thousand joys, and ten thousand sorrows. Failure is part of the experience, I suppose. Last year I planted strawberry plants; in my clods nine plants have become more than fifty. My Mother Earth News tells me I can get up to a quart of strawberries per plant, which seems an amusing fiction, if not a bitter mockery. I will be happy to get so much as a strawberry per plant.
When I first arrived I found the gates closed but the footprints of deer everywhere; and the strawberries blooming bravely but utterly stripped of leaves. Deer are able to hop my six-foot fence – I’m looking into putting a line with some streamers above the fence to discourage them from jumping (any recommendations on pretty ways to do this are welcome – one of my favorite things about the fence is how invisible it is). The deer apparently left the blooms due to a prior agreement they had with the chipmunks; for as the blooms turn into fruit the chipmunks eat them. They don’t wait for them to ripen: today I watched a bold little chipmunk go into the patch, pluck off a green berry – it hadn’t even whitened – and devour it whole, all within six feet of me. (For an amusing video of chipmunk face-stuff go here.)
I find the chipmunks so adorable, and such good company, that I am inclined to just let them feed on the Lord’s bounty, but I feel a bit like Horton and the Whos. With some friends I built twelve large planters in the garden, and now I believe every single one of them is being used as a chipmunk den; I don’t know how many chipmunks there may be, but I feel there is one moving within my field of vision all day long. Even indoors I see them: they come up onto the porch and scramble up onto its railing as if to say hello to me at my writing-desk. When I put on my pasta one evening I went out to pull weeds for awhile, putting the weeds into a tin basin; I shortly went in to check on my meal, and as I came back to the weeding I heard a ringing of the tin – it was a chipmunk half-falling out of the basin and scurrying away. Goodness gracious, I thought. I just stepped in to stir the pasta.
The chipmunks make odd clucking noises throughout the day, which I would take for bird calls if I had not spent much time watching them make the sounds. Once a chipmunk gets clucking, he can be relied on to do it for a good two minutes at least if left undisturbed. The sound travels adequately and they can be heard all over the woods here. I believe they cluck only at this time of year.
The woods are theirs, of course, but it is very hard for a gardener to give up a cherished ambition – I had dreamed of strawberries in June, raspberries in July, and blueberries in August. My fifty plants have produced three berries for my palate, and those taken half-ripe in terror that the moment must be seized. Strawberries may have been a Sybarite’s wintry dream – I suppose I should focus more on the raspberries and blueberries, which already fruit abundantly here without any help from gardeners.
One of the strange things about life in the woods is the fact that frequently experience itself has a weird, dream-like quality. This morning I stepped out onto my porch to greet the day, and literally as they heard the door close behind me the chipmunks all began clucking in the woods: and in response to them I could see more chipmunks emerge from the bushes: they climbed onto the stumps in my field of vision, and started clucking themselves. There were even some tiny ones, half the size of the others, each on their own stump and clucking away. It was as weird a moment as I’ve ever had in the woods. It had all the ambiguity of nature: I felt welcomed and mocked and threatened and celebrated and mystified. And I had the distinct feeling that there was no way I was going to get another strawberry this year.