Woodchucks (Actual and Otherwise), Part II: Woodchucks Otherwise

There are Woodchucks in my writing.

The phrase popped into my head in January, far from the days of warm dirt between my fingers. There are Woodchucks in my writing.

I had become discouraged by a work-in-progress, unhealthily attached to its “success,” and had returned to that old refrain–I’ll never have a piece that is good enough. Undermined by my own thoughts, tempted to give up, give in, to forces that seemed greater than myself–What the heck, my essays will never amount to much, so it would be best to give up now.

Dig-dig. Burrow-burrow.

I began to see how Woodchucks appear in many forms, and got excited about creating a guide–yes! a field guide! isn’t that clever?–Identification and Management of Woodchucks in the Writing.

And then one of those damnable Woodchucks swaggered up and bit me in the butt, before I even got to the garden gate. So let’s begin with that one.

Scratch-scratch. Tunnel-tunnel.

I scribbled down stories almost as soon as my oldest sister taught me to read, when I was four. She also wrote, lush adventure stories and even whole novels.   I studied her fiction—the form, the characters, the movement of the action. In my admiration, I believed I could never be as accomplished. As I aged, prolific and polished and Pulitzer-prize winning authors entered my consciousness, and my Inner Critic, a nasty Woodchuck, emerged–

–to the point where I believed that somebody else could probably pen this essay better, draw out the metaphor with more sophistication and grace; so at first the vision of this non-existent essay stopped me like the sight of my chomped down, messy garden in the midst of everyone else’s blossoms.

But I committed to the task, anyway. (Even though the moment I publish, I will have changes I want to make.)

Yes, we learn from studying how other authors work, but we also just have to write. Yes, we can analyze when other gardeners plant, how they organize their pieces of ground, but our plot is our plot, for us to grow our choices of vegetables, fruits and flowers. Flourish or fail—but not to compare to others’.

Toddle-toddle, shuffle-shuffle.

The big ol’ Papa-Bear of a Woodchuck, previously identified as  A+ Student Syndrome, shows up regularly.  The creatures will come, and they will eat part of the garden. Like the nasty self-deprecating voices in our heads, they can be addressed.  If you let Woodchucks keep you from planting or weeding, you will never get to where you want to be. Or you will have to adjust your expectations. The garden can never be perfect, and in fact is kind of attractive in its messiness, like being a human is imperfect, and a little messy.

During the summer, I called myself the worst garden coordinator, thinking I had to be the best. Why couldn’t I be just-ok, sometimes great, sometimes not?

Peck-peck, bite-bite.

It happened so fast!

The first time the cauliflowers were damaged I had tried to wish away the Woodchucks, but that’s like anticipating the sun to not rise tomorrow: Highly Unlikely. Instead, look at the evidence of sneaky invaders and name them: Yup, those little critters look like groundhogs to me!

What a difference a fence makes—the fence in your mind that says, Whoa! That’s an undermining message!, from the Supposed Expert or Mumsie & Dadsie, or those composition teachers or that nosy neighbor or The Permanent Record, of all our wrongs, mistakes, mis-steps, mis-understandings, pain we have caused others, pain we have caused ourselves—here’s the slippery slope to doing nothing, being stymied by the prospect of not doing so well.

Steel yourself against incursions, gather your resolve. I had these beautiful little cauliflower plants, carefully planned out. Something went wrong and I just wanted to give up, but I didn’t.  Try again.

Nibble-nibble, crunch-crunch.

Sometimes you avoid the feelings: you avoid what you might find (destroyed or not growing or scary) by shunning the garden, by shunning the writing.

Chew-chew. Snack-snack.

My favorite therapist says we are not “bad” at things; we’re just not always skillful. Helpful mantras: I am learning new skills. I have become more skillful. I have options.

With Woodchucks, we learn to face a difficulty and not “fix” it, but discover how to live with it, with patience, becoming more proficient every year.

Crunch-crunch, gulp-gulp.

Sometimes we need a partner in our work; a garden-mate, an encourager.  The garden-mate is about asking for help, knowing you don’t have to do it by yourself.

Enlist the help of others, to do these things. Trade knowledge. Even if the suggestions don’t work, you can commiserate.  The people who choose to be in the garden reinforce my choice to be there, and so it is a circle, a wheel of support, like my writers groups where we read each other’s work, or have writing bouts together, to get the work done.

Munch-munch. Chomp-chomp.

Scamper-scamper. Scurry-scurry.

Because I planted anyway, in spite of my worries/concerns/downheartedness, because I wrote when I didn’t think I had it in me; because I fought back against the Woodchucks of the Mind, eventually I succeeded.

Gulp-gulp, waddle-waddle.

My garden mate thinks woodchucks are cute, even in their destructiveness. I am not so sure about that. And yet, being able to step back and see them as not so large, not so vicious, yeah they are just those fuzzy things, that takes some of the sting and power away; they are just doing what they do, and I just need to do what I need to do. No need for panic or drama.

Gnaw-gnaw, Taste-taste.

Make no mistake, they will still be there, come next year. They will not somehow miraculously mislay the directions to our gardens.  The fencing will have to go up, we will have to be vigilant. The doubts, I have to be vigilant about those too. I tell myself: don’t be caught up in the hurry-hurry of getting it done; instead, relish the moments, second by second, breath by breath.

I write to slow down and look, to figure things out, to show others what I’ve seen so they might enjoy it as well.  I go to the garden not just to reap the squash and basil, but to step into the muddy soil, feel the weeds dripping onto my sandal-exposed toes while I tromp up to my plot, take in the cicadas’ buzz and smell the cilantro in the heat, hear a friendly voice in a fellow gardener, feel a part of a community and be reminded of what I bring to them that is valued.

Scramble-scramble. Clamber-clamber.

Often life intervenes; we make other choices so we don’t make it to the garden or the writing. But growth is still going on, even if we aren’t tending actively. Even the halfheartedly planted seeds.

Run-run! Dive-dive. Under the fence and out.

You rally. Every spring you rally. Every piece you write, you rally. Sometimes like a good gardening day, it flows, and other days you struggle to get there, wrestle to get the tools up the hill, get smacked by the damage you find, find bugs you weren’t expecting—but then those bugs (Old Yeller!) might be found helpful after all.

There’s a whole range of experiences to be delighted in, and we won’t have them if we let the specter of Woodchucks keep us from wandering up to that sun-filled garden.

Things to remember when you encounter real and other woodchucks:

Don’t compare your creation to others’.

Let go of perfectionism.

Anticipate invaders; identify them as the Woodchucks they are.

Don’t look away.

If you “fix” it once, it is not “fixed” forever. This is an ongoing struggle–but your worst attempts are getting better.

Structure and persistence are your friends.

Don’t let fear or doubts keep you from starting or following through on your work.

Live moment by moment, in beauty.

Community is valuable; you don’t have to go it alone.

Don’t take it so damned seriously!

Woodchucks (Actual and Otherwise), Part I: Woodchucks Actual

Our community garden sits on a hill, while another heavily wooded hill continues the rise behind us eastward, toward Vermont.  This picturesque setting quietly belies the insidious population (if not hundreds, at least dozens) of woodchucks. Also known as groundhogs, these waddling, middleweight rodents burrow masterfully. They joyfully excavate their little homes and then tenaciously tunnel their way right under any and all barriers to early spring vegetation. Which, while waiting for the wild plants to sprout, includes a delicious twenty-item salad bar conveniently located right in their own neighborhood, a snacking opportunity otherwise known as my community garden.

For three summers I have battled woodchucks. “Battle” is not the most accurate word, since I tend toward nonviolence—so I haven’t engaged in hand-to-claw combat, or even met them up close–but fear not, their presence is clear.

My plot adjoins the first groundhog-hole-under-the-fence that the locals dug my beginning year, when the voracious critters rapidly decimated my early-planted oak leaf and bibb lettuces.

Even as I joked with my fellow gardeners when we discovered the damage, I was heartbroken, and dispirited.  Emails flew back and forth about how difficult these invaders are:

“Woodchucks?—might as well give up now.”

“J only plants corn and tomatoes, ‘cuz groundhogs don’t like ‘em.”

“They WILL destroy your plants, and are impossible to get rid of.”

I wondered what I had gotten myself into. Would this Community Garden thing really be worth it?

At some point that initial summer the gardeners rallied and plugged the holes, making the woodchucks reroute their speedy access over and over again; some folks fenced their individual sections, though I didn’t get quite that far.  Finally, the groundhogs found enough tasty morsels outside of our chain link, and we breathed easier.

Last year, my second year, I planted spring greens and then had to go out of town; I returned to nibbled-away spinach and the weeds that replaced it—It’s too late, anything I do will be destroyed; these nuisances are too numerous to deal with… If I weed now, isn’t that just a big “Come munch me” sign to the woodchucks?  Finally, I volunteered to be the Garden Coordinator and now have the worst looking plot in the place!

I became very sporadic in my garden visits.

But one day I discovered that later seeds, half-heartedly tossed into the soil, had sprouted into sturdy, sprawling, bristle-legged plants, some with orange blossoms promising vegetables to come. The arugula I had allowed to overtake my lettuces seemed to have repulsed the woodchucks, as tender pale frisee revealed itself, barely alive under the weight of now-overly-spicy leaves.

That second year I harvested more salad than the first, and went on to reap more than enough cherry tomatoes to pop into salads and put up for the winter. My belief in Community Gardening was strengthened.

With memories of the previous summer’s bounty dancing in my head, this year I started in promptly on planting.

During the first official workday in April, while I coordinated Perimeter Litter Cleanup and Getting To Know Your Weed-Wacker sessions, my newly recruited garden-mate cleared weeds in our plot; then I joined him to add the peat and compost, form mounds, plant seeds in double rows, and even put in a row of little cauliflower seedlings, carefully selected from the store for healthy stalks and lack of yellow leaves and well-developed but not overgrown root systems.

I came back two days later and saw the plants chomped down to the ground, just one half-eaten cauliflower leaf to identify what had been there. Once again I felt discouragement in my gut as I surveyed the other, untouched-as-yet plots, and sighed.

So, you thought perhaps the woodchucks weren’t around yet this spring? Or that they’d become stupid over the winter? Well, wrong on both counts!

After a phone consultation and determined trip to the hardware store, my garden-partner and I returned to erect an orange plastic fence around our plot, digging slit trenches to bury the bottom edge underground. We sweated, we dug, and rather like Bill Murray in Caddyshack, we cursed the little buggers while giggling at our own nefarious devices.

We still worried they’d get in—one vision involved finding woodchucks on their backs crunching carrots like babies sucking bottles; instead on the next few visits, we found the protected plot lavish with young basil and parsley, nasturtiums and acorn squash, and even volunteer tomato plants sprouting up!

As May turned into June and then July, the whole garden community worked to block the outer fence holes, continuously looking for new holes and filling them. Emails chimed in, this time encouraging each other:

“S has extra fencing if anyone needs it.”

“We just have to wait them out, til the hillside plants give them enough to eat.”

“Stick your weeds into containers with some water and let them rot; then pour the decaying smelly stuff all along the fence-line.”(That one was fun.)

The survivor from that initial vegetable holocaust come back from its gnawed state to inch by inch grow some stunted leaves, and then larger ones, and it finally produced a single creamy-bumpy head of cauliflower–which I harvested this third week of August.

the “White Cloud” Cauliflower that pulled through…

Yes, it’s beautiful.

But I have received more out of interactions with woodchucks than just, well, the skills of dealing with insistently burrowing rodents.

More on that, next week.