We Who Buy Bags of Dirt

by

JC Schildbach, LMHC

I spent an inordinate amount of time this morning attempting to purchase what I hope is the final bag of potting soil I need for this year’s “garden.” What I thought would be a quick and convenient stop in the midst of other chores, became, instead, a series of interactions with numerous store employees apparently necessary to the process of transporting a two-cubic-foot bag of ‘Black Gold’ from the no-public-access, chain-link parking lot pen where it is kept, to the actual checkout counter where I could pay for it. In past, would merely wheel a shopping cart to the garden center of the store, throw the dirt-bag in, and be on my way–well, after paying for it, of course.

Such has become the plight of the urban gardener. Okay, not really. That was the only time this year I’d experienced such an involved dirt-buying process, since that was the first time I’d stopped by that particular store for soil this year. And, I don’t know if I can really call myself an urban gardener. While I did buy that particular bag of soil in Seattle proper, I live in a rurally suburban (suburbanly rural?) area a few minutes north of the city.

Just to give you a sense of the rural flavor of the decades-old ‘development’ we moved into, the neighbor who owns rather large swaths of used-to-be-farmland to the south and west of our house still keeps ‘free range’ chickens—so free range that when we moved in, the chickens were very much in the habit of hopping the fence and making a mess of our yard. Our rather excitable part-Blue-Heeler mutt cured the chickens of that habit in short order.  In the meantime, we’ve grown accustomed to the ever-present sounds of clucking, which guests to our home often find rather amusing and hard to ignore.

Joy: Chicken chaser extraordinaire

Joy: Chicken chaser extraordinaire

That same chicken-owning neighbor also has a rather picturesque (read: abandoned and decaying) “canning shed” on the lot to our west, complete with rusted-out, ancient farm equipment, providing a lovely home to numerous small animals, of those varieties which are attracted to collapsing wooden structures.

The canning shed next door

The canning shed next door–do you see it?

We live within walking distance of many other neighbors who keep chickens, goats, horses, and cows, mostly in small numbers.

Still, I started my more-arguably-urban gardening adventures, of the vegetable-growing variety, back when we lived in the north end of Seattle. At the time, said ventures were mostly confined to attempts to grow pumpkins to be used for jack-o-lanterns, a fun project for myself and the then-elementary-school-aged kid.

But, each year, some new plight would befall the pumpkins…neighborhood cats thinking the cleared patch of dirt was an amazingly generous bathroom I had installed expressly for them…squirrels enjoying just enough of a taste of the young pumpkins to cause them to bleed out and die (the pumpkins, not the squirrels)…various forms of plant blight. We were lucky if, by the end of the growing season, we had a pumpkin or two large enough to accommodate the knife and a candle.

The first growing season we spent in our current digs, I had what I thought was a good thing going in terms of pumpkin patches. To the east of our house, I had cleared a patch. Several plants were going. Birds were kept away by rubber snakes (and the removal of the garish birdhouses the previous neighbor hung in the carport—birdhouses for which she left express care instructions–sorry, Vera, not your house anymore, not your birdhouses anymore, and not my intention to regularly clean a bunch of bird crap out of a carport and off of my car–and, yes, I just accused somebody of garrishness after stating that I deliberately place rubber snakes in my yard). Squirrels generally steered clear of the property because of the dogs. Few-to-no neighborhood cats were prowling about. No serious plant diseases.

And then…the sun shifted.   Well, actually, the earth tilted just a bit too far (although still within normal parameters) leading to that same chicken-raising, canning-shed-neglecting neighbor’s large stand of pine trees denying my pumpkins access to direct, glorious sunlight. The pumpkins didn’t die. They just had their growth viciously stunted.   I ended up with a small crop of apple-to-grapefruit-sized pumpkins. I drew jack-o-lantern style faces on them with a sharpie, and went off to the supermarket to buy carving pumpkins.

The following year, I attempted to address the problems of shifting light by doing some container planting, up on the back deck. Plant blight took the small number of pumpkin plants that year.

But something slightly revelatory (well, to me anyway) took place that year. On a whim, while shopping for pumpkin seeds and containers to grow them in, I picked up a few extra pots, and some tomato starts. Despite knowing nothing of how to grow tomatoes (I’m still not particularly knowledgeable—I just read and try different things) we got quite a few ‘Lemon Boys’ and ‘Early Girls’ that year. And, as those who grow their own tomatoes know, the difference in taste and texture between homegrown tomatoes, and store-bought, mass produced tomatoes is as vast as the gulf between the concept of trickle-down economics and reality.

The next year I added more varieties of tomatoes, learning an important lesson about “days to harvest.”

The year after that, I added more varieties of tomatoes, and a few varieties of peppers, and abandoned the idea of pumpkins altogether. Each year, I’ve expanded the container-garden to where we can count on a good crop of multiple varieties of tomatoes and peppers, a decent batch of cucumbers, some snow peas and green beans, and some hit-and-miss with different types of squash.

Each year, as spring arrives, I get into gardening mode, buying seeds and starts, adding new pots and new varieties of plants. M enjoys the results, so she endures the mess and my enthusiastically-delivered, but surely-boring explanations of various things going on with the plans.

A few years back, we added a greenhouse to the effort—one of those walk-in, metal-frame with netted-plastic, collapsible/moveable kind. I’m still trying to decide if that made a great deal of sense in terms of the actual amount of time it adds to the growing season (basically just a few weeks at the beginning and the end, when we could realistically just move the still-producing plants inside the house, although the light situation would be tricky).

This year, we purchased a rain barrel—which I am still waiting to install, as we also, in a case of bad timing, treated the roof for moss at about the same time. A recycled olive barrel full of diluted herbicides is not, I assume, a particularly good water source for growing vegetables and fruits.

Down on the farm

Down on the farm up on the deck

I’ve also gone back to attempting to grow pumpkins again this year. I mentioned this to the (now-adult, and learning wood-working) kid one night, explaining to her that I was contemplating building a simple, 8’ x 4’ frame for the front yard (hopefully out of reach of the neighbor’s pine shade). At the time, I had already gotten multiple varieties of pumpkin seeds into a seeding tray, and was trying to decide on a good strategy for where and how to transplant them.

The kid asked me to sketch out my idea for the frame, and asked me several questions about my insistence on certain aspects of the frame. A few days later, while I was at work, I got a series of text messages from her about varieties of wood and my willingness to front her a bit of cash. I arrived home to a completed, 8’ x 4’ cedar frame, complete with stakes, parked on the floor near the back sliding-glass door—something that would surely just be in the bought-some-wood-didn’t-get-around-to-the-actual-building phase if left up to me.

So, last weekend, I finally cleared the ground, set in the frame and soil, and got my pumpkin and squash starts in. I also have multiple kinds of squash, zucchini, cucumbers, green beans, and snow peas in movable containers, all started from seeds. Once again, I waited too late to grow my tomatoes and peppers from seeds, so bought starts, some of which are still waiting to get into their more permanent pots–hence, the dirt-buying trip this morning).

I suppose I could wax philosophic about the zen of gardening, or the joy of producing one’s own food, or maybe the health and mental health benefits of making space for a little bit of nature in one’s immediate surroundings…or maybe about how my and M’s grandfathers (well, actually M’s step-grandfather) were both committed to pretty significant gardening operations (not container-based). But, really, I engage in all the work of raising these plants because it leads to some very tasty food…well, maybe not the pumpkin patch…that’s just tied to my lifelong obsession with Halloween.

At any rate, it will be interesting (well, to me, at least) to see whether the pumpkin plants survive the shade, the rabbits, moles, squirrels, and birds, and produce anything that can be turned into a jack-o’-lantern.

But, whether we’ll be working on pumpkins grown in my front yard or purchased from Safeway, the carving party is already set for October 25.

Happy Halloween…I mean, happy gardening!

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Requiem for a Snake

My daughter’s pet ball python, Smeagol, died over the weekend. We had no reason to think anything was wrong with him. The last time I observed him for any length of time—Friday, as I was yawning through the long pauses of eliminating a computer virus—he seemed just fine, climbing the ceramic branch/rock fixture in his cage. Sometime between then and Sunday, he vomited up his last meal—a partially-digested black mouse, eaten several days before—and shuffled off this mortal coil, while coiled on the floor of his cage.  I first took notice because he was lying there with his “nose” up under his body, which would have made it extremely difficult for him to breathe—had he still been breathing.

Smeagol was only about ten years old—not all that old for a ball python. And he wasn’t around long enough for me to resolve my mixed feelings about him. To put it mildly, I am not a big fan of snakes. To put it less mildly, they freak me the f*ck out. Constrictors, like Smeagol, don’t raise a panic in me as bad as smaller, squigglier snakes, or, of course, vipers and the like that can cause all manner of swelling, necrosis and more complete death with a single bite. But, still, he was a snake. And for me, that took a lot of getting used to—or not getting used to.

When my wife questioned my dislike of snakes, and more specifically, my queasiness toward our daughter’s pet, I told her that snakes are essentially tubes that crap out of one end, and bite with the other, and that being shat on and bit are not high on my list of favorite things. I didn’t explain to her how, when I saw a snake just out and about, say, in a field or a forest, I would completely lose my mind. She’s only come close to witnessing a subdued version of that once or twice. She still tried to convince me that Smeagol was cute—and he was as far as snakes go. He was pretty, even, with a funky black and brown pattern, a white underbelly, and a face that looked to be smiling.

Smeagol investigates some ice cream.

Smeagol investigates some ice cream.

We had invited him into our home under the thought of good parents supporting our child’s interests. Back when she was in the fourth grade or so, our daughter got caught up in the idea of having a pet python. I told her if she could save up the money for a snake, I would buy the cage—a large, glass tank, with a screened, slide-out lid—for her birthday. Truth be told, I wasn’t sure she would meet the challenge. Ball pythons are not cheap; and I figured something else would capture her attention before she finished piecing together the money. But cash received as birthday gifts put her over the top of her fundraising goal, and she held me to my promise.

On the night we first brought him home, Smeagol bit my daughter, who admittedly was not exercising any caution whatsoever toward a small, confused animal who had just been stuffed into a box and transported through a cold, November night, to his new and unfamiliar home. I tried to tell her to just put the box in the cage and open it there, to let him come out in his own time. But instead, she set the box on a table, flipped it open, and reached in. Chomp!

Granted, when Smeagol bit anybody, it was more like a nip, designed as a quick warning. But he invariably drew blood with his little, hooked teeth when he did it. It was lightning fast, too, almost impossible to escape once he had a mind to do it. I know of two occasions, aside from his first few minutes in our home, when Smeagol bit my daughter. I also remember him taking a shot at one of our dog’s noses. The dog was just curious and unsure what to make of Smeagol. Smeagol took the dog’s face, with its looming mouth, to be a threat. Both dogs steered clear of him after that—she because she’d been bitten, he because I like to believe he shared my general belief in the benefits of snake avoidance.

Although it’s not good to speak ill of the dead, at times I wondered if Smeagol was perhaps something of a jerk among pythons. But then I figured he had, on average, only committed about one quick bite every two years—not bad considering everything he was put through, including visits to my daughters’ classrooms, and my wife’s classrooms, where he behaved around preschoolers and grade schoolers, even when one or two of them made lunging grabs at his face.

Personally, I never got bit by Smeagol, most likely because I kept my distance, even though, with my daughter spending less and less time at home, it fell to me to take care of most of his feedings and cage cleanings. My wife was the main one to spend time “playing” with Smeagol–letting him roam outside of his cage or drape himself over her shoulders. But, sometime in the last year, he bit my wife as she tried to retrieve him from behind a huge bulletin board that was leaning against a wall. Prior to the wife-biting incident, I had a theory that Smeagol’s likelihood of biting someone was, like with German Shepherds, tied to some sort of fear-sensing mechanism. With that one bite, my theory went out the window, as I knew my wife was the only one who had always approached Smeagol with a complete lack of fear, and a full sense of trust and love. This one bite sharply reduced my wife’s willingness to provide Smeagol with passes outside of his cage.

The need to take him out of his cage, or rather the need to keep him in a cage, or perhaps, the whole situation of pets in cages, had become increasingly troubling for me in the past few years. Part of my growing discomfort had to do with seeing Smeagol, essentially a wild animal who had grown to about four feet long, confined to a glass box, where he seemed to spend a good amount of his time searching for a way to get out. Snakes, as a rule, are pretty darn good at finding ways of getting in or out of wherever they want. So I imagine being trapped in such a way was maddening for him.

Part of my growing discomfort had to do with having dogs who have fairly free rein to go anywhere they want within the house and backyard—something I marvel at from time to time in the sense of, “Wow!  We have some fairly large animals just wandering around our house.”

When I was very young, we had a dog that was on the scene before I was, and who didn’t have much use for me, and vice versa. I never marvelled at her, and rarely even realized she was around.  Seriously, I can barely recall her existence, aside from some vague memories of my siblings’ reactions from around the time she was put down. I also didn’t give much thought to the idea of keeping animals confined to cages. In junior high and high school, well after the dog was gone, I acquired quite a few reptiles and amphibians (no snakes), and occasionally rodents, that were kept in a variety of fish tanks, mostly in my bedroom. Hell, once, with the help of my younger brother and a friend, I even transplanted a (slightly-larger-than-puddle-size) pond’s worth of native Oregon frogs (tiny little creatures) from their home in the suburban wild to a tank in our backyard—never thinking about just how difficult it would be to sustain that little ecosystem as the summer wore on and the heat became unbearable in that glass box. They were tadpoles when we caught them, and monitoring their transformation to frogs was pretty amazing. But we could have just visited the pond repeatedly and gotten the same basic show, all without wiping out the small frog community.

The vast majority of the reptiles and amphibians I collected met with premature deaths, often for reasons unknown, but more often through my own failings. There was a red-eared slider (turtle) who died shortly after I fed him bologna, unaware that turtles cannot physically process fat in their food.

There was the fire-bellied newt who escaped his cage (how a newt climbed out of a fish tank with only a few inches of water in the bottom, and a few flat rocks and a small branch poking out of the water is beyond me). I found the newt several days after his disappearance when I stepped on his dehydrated, crunchy little body, tangled in the shag carpet downstairs by the front window. I can only imagine the adventure he had making his way down the steps.

There was a procession of anoles (small lizards they sell in pet stores as chameleons), one to three at a time, who all caught the same wasting disease, despite thorough cleanings of the cage between inhabitants.

Various other turtles and lizards succumbed to death prematurely, with no real indication that anything was wrong until they woke up dead.

Later, well before my daughter acquired Smeagol, she had a pair of Russian dwarf hamsters—one of which completely consumed the other, except for its pelt. I kid you not.  There were no bones left or anything else aside from a well-preserved fur, in the style of a stripped and cleaned item you would find at an actual furriers. What was left of the devoured hamster would have made an excellent rug for, say, a beetle’s bachelor pad. I’m not sure if the consumed hamster died of natural causes before it was cannibalized, or if the carnivorous hamster just decided he’d had enough of corn and seeds, or maybe had had enough of her roommate’s bad habits.

But enough with the tales of animal woe. At this point, I’m going to make a little pledge in honor of our too-soon-taken Smeagol. I’m done with pets that have to be kept in cages. I don’t want to contribute anymore to the kind of recklessness that involves people boxing up animals in the first place. This is not to say that I think it is inherently wrong to have pets that are kept in cages. I suppose in some cases, it makes life more pleasant and less dodgy for the animals, and hopefully involves children learning some measure of responsibility, and hopefully a great deal of kindness and love. But in my personal weighing of the situation, I’ve made too many dumb mistakes. And I’ve failed to provide adequate levels of life outside the box. I’ve apparently failed to monitor properly for signs of illness, and to make sure I was avoiding harm.

Smeagol deserved a greater measure of freedom than he got. Of course, a ball python could do worse in life than to have a safe, warm home with regular feedings. But a snake native to the East coast of Africa probably could have done much better than to be kept in a glass box in the Northwest corner of the U.S., cared for by someone with a large measure of phobia aimed at him.

So, peace to you, Smeagol. May you pass through the fires of Mordor to the place of white shores and beyond—a far green country, under a swift sunrise.