In defense of Rats
As winter grows near, the green herbs and leafy vines that once covered the bare earth in my garden are dying back to the roots. The ground is more visible now, what was once hidden is naked and exposed. My secret is no longer so safe. I'm just going to be honest about this: there's a colony of rats living in my garden. You can see them now, scurrying on trails cut into the mud, leaping down the mouths of burrows that gape from every corner, no longer hidden beneath the leaves.
Oh, I knew they were there, all right. They've lived there for several years now. I used to watch them through a telescope from my upstairs bedroom, before I realized I could watch them from much closer if I wanted to. I talk to them at night when I wander around the garden. And yes, I even feed them sometimes. They built elaborate tunnels snaking under the tomato patch, through the squash, and in and out of the chicken hut. Every night after the chickens go to bed, the rats tunnel into their coop and gather up the leftover grain. Some are as small as my fist, others are as big as my foot, and none seems to mind my presence. They know who tends the garden and where the grain comes from.
In the summer, they climbed the tomato vines to take one big bite out of every one of my caspian pink tomatoes as fast as they could ripen. I'd have preferred that they eat one whole tomato at a time and leave the rest for me, but apparently the first bite is the best. They never bothered the cherry tomatoes or the san marzanos or the brandywines or the sungolds or the big, weird roma things that volunteered there. Only the caspian pinks. They like cucumbers, too. I planted 10 vines this summer, and I don't think I got a single cucumber before the rats did. Lemon cukes and pickeling cukes and armenian cukes, all nibbled and gnawed. And so it went, all through the summer.
When fall came, their peaceful co-existence with the other beings in the garden was challenged by an early end to what had been a bountiful harvest. It happened in the tomatoes. Usually, I leave my tomato plants up all winter. Most gardeners don't do that -- one is supposed to clean up the garden in the fall, I'm told. It's just good hygeine. But I love to watch the gothic cathedrals they become after the first frosts. Blackened vines hang shrouded with the black, tattered remnants of summer's leaves and summer's leave. The ghastly remains become a labyrinthine fortress for the sparrows and the juncos and yes, the rats. Whatever fruits remain begin to rot where they hang. Slowly, the tops begin to froth with microbial activity. Seething and oozing, they break open, exposing pale seeds which the sparrows eagerly feed upon. Life living off of life. Whatever is left, the rats drag away to underground burrows before the cold sets in.
This year, though, I had to take the tomatoes down early. As the fall came on, I noticed the first signs of sickness in the plants. Perhaps I imagined it, I don't know. But it looked like the first symptoms of late blight. As an Irish woman, I have a special horror in the pit of my unconsciousness when it comes to late blight virus. Thousands of my ancestral kin starved to death when it swept through Ireland, striking down every potato on every vine in every field. I had to remove the tomtatoes.
It was painful to do. They were still green and growing, still reaching questing shoots into the warm autumn sun. Even though I knew the frosts would not be long in coming, I did not want to hasten their demise. I had planted most of them from seeds. I had nursed them through a cold, wet spring and a hot, dry summer. The first fruits had ripened in the first days of July. They had fed me (and the rats) all through the warm summer harvest. And now, in order to spare future generations of tomatoes and potatoes and peppers and eggplants, I had to uproot them from the beds I had made for them. Yes, it hurt. But it had to be done.
As I unwound soft tendrils from the hidden bamboo cages and wooden supports I had erected for them six months before, I heard a rustling among the leaves. When I stepped back, I saw that I was not the only one who did not want to see the tomatoes go. A strong and voluptuous rat had crept from her burrow to survey the damage. She stood about a foot from my ankles. Nearby, others waited just below the surface, staring from the cavernous burrow under the vines. Together we paused briefly to consider the symbolic nuances of the moment. Then, we went to work.
The tomatoes had been very important to the rats. They had been a jungle that had sheltered them from hawks and hungry cats, and had hidden their nighttime forays from the sharp eyes of owls and raccoons. They had provided sweet sustenance that would soon vanish with the warmth of summer. Like me, the rats had anticipated a longer harvest. It was a sobering chore, but we worked out there together, trying to minimize the damage. As I pulled each plant, the ripe fruit thudded softly to the earth near my feet. And as soon as each fruit fell, that big, furry brown rat came forward and solemnly rolled it away. Tomato after tomato was quietly rolled off to the mouth of a burrow in the corner of the garden and pushed down into the hole. Three small rats no bigger than field mice sat just under the lip of the burrow and gnawed and fussed with each tomato until it fit. Then, they dragged it down out of sight.
As the afternoon wore on, we sweated, the rats and I. We worked until the last web of roots let go of the ball of earth it had held all summer. Until the last vine untangled itself from the last wooden support. Until the last of the tomatoes had gone. We said our solemn farewell to those tomato plants, and the tomatoes bravely forgave us. All of us felt the ponderous weight of the moment, and all of us worried about how the colony would fare without the jungle.
That was two months ago now. The rats have had to make many adjustments since then. The squash is gone now too, except that huge, half-eaten pink thing in the corner of the herb bed. I left that for them because they seem to like it. The cucumbers have withered away and the flowers have mostly gone dormant or died. As have the beans and the peppers and the corn and the strange peruvian vegetables whose names I have forgotten but whose flavors linger still. The hops are dry and brown now and no longer provide much shelter. The honeysuckle and the locust trees have lost their leaves, and the hollyhocks have all been cut down. Even the fennel has died back to the ground. The weather is growing colder. The earth is wet and fat brown mushrooms grow where the canary vines used to be. But the colony is thriving. And so, my secret is out.
Soon, I think they will curl up under the earth and wait for spring. At least, every year around this time they disappear for awhile. Whether they will hibernate or just hide, I will miss them but it will be good for them to be more discreet until the leaves come back. I don't really want people who don't appreciate them to see them. It puts us all at risk. But when the jungle springs to life again, so will the rats in the colony. I eagerly await them all, the spring, the plants, and the rats.
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