Our gift to the animals, and their gift to us

If we followed the Chinese custom and named years after animals, 1999 would have been the Year of the Rodent. We had days when we thought rodents - and deer - were taking over our Vermont hillside.

Early in spring, an enormous woodchuck came and, about 20 feet from the house, dug a hole of a size fit for the king of all groundhogs. We watched Mr. or Mrs. Chuck check out our defensive barriers around blueberry and vegetable patches and - to our surprise - wander away, leaving the freshly excavated pit as a hazard for all two-legged creatures.

Over the winter, meadow mice (voles) had dug golf-ball-size holes all over the back lawn. When the snow under which they had traveled melted, they kept the network of hole-to-hole runways covered with thatched roofs. They pulled flowers down into the holes, where we suppose they ate them.

Tiny kangaroo mice, in their golden coats, made eight- foot-long broad jumps. Sometimes they leaped straight into the air, twirling as they rose, and returned to earth to do a frenzied dance.

Chipmunks, usually the epitome of hyperactivity, were sedate by comparison. Snowshoe hares serenely munched on whatever low-growing vegetation they could find.

One night, just below our porch, we heard coyotes singing. There was less obvious rodent activity after that, but the mice and chipmunks didn't go away.

It had looked as though we'd be harvesting our usual 100 quarts of blueberries, but they were all taken, almost every one. The chipmunks and mice had tunneled under the buried wire mesh. Some had climbed up and chewed holes in the aboveground netting.

Once inside, they were safe from us, from the coyotes, from the foxes that traverse our land nightly. They were safe even from the owls that floated in frustration above the netting roof.

We visualized vast storage rooms under the bushes, and maybe there were berries down there. But one day while weeding the tomatoes a good 100 feet away, we found a trail of little piles of blueberries leading into the woods.

Toward the end of the summer, we went away for a weekend and came home to find that the deer, which had never come so close to the house before, had feasted on all the flower borders, leaving them looking like haircuts administered by toddlers. The deer hadn't eaten quite all; they had wisely avoided the foxgloves, just as they avoid the equally indigestible daffodils in the spring.

You might think that we would resent having the space we have designated as ours so impinged upon, but we don't. We have supermarkets, cars to take us to them, and money with which to buy food when we get there. Our wild animals had slim pickings in last year's summer of drought. The ribs of the deer showed as they greedily ate every weed they could find, every green twig they could reach.

So, despite the lost blueberries and the shredded flower borders, we found ourselves admiring the ingenuity of the voles, the cleverness of the chipmunks, and the acrobatics of the kangaroo mice. We almost wished the woodchuck had stayed to raise a family, for there is no sweeter sight than that of the tenderness shown by a mother woodchuck to her young.

We still loved the grace of the deer, and our hearts, as always, flipped whenever a doe brought her twin fawns through the ferns for us to admire.

We have a recompense this summer. Wild foods are abundant; the berries are turning blue; no creatures are showing interest in breaching our barriers.

Usually, the foxgloves sow their seeds among weeds so densely packed that they produce very few offspring, hence we usually have very few flowers. Last summer the deer weeded out competing edible species so thoroughly that by fall dozens of foxglove plants were thriving where we had never seen them before.

Now, in the summer of 2000, we cherish, as a gift from the deer, a garden of pink and purple foxgloves brightening our banks and borders, just as the golden daffodils do each spring.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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