Loving The Wild Life
Gary the Gardener's Body Double
Having a squirrel for a friend is a lot like having a child. Squirrels, like children, are noisy, messy, and inclined to end up in places they shouldn't. Gary the Gardener is one such squirrel. As the temperature continues to drop here on the mountain, I look longingly over my back patio, remembering one warm August afternoon when Gary was trespassing once again. With my head bowed, I was deep in though about sentence structure and whether to use the Oxford comma or not, when I felt the tiny toenails of Gary run across the top of my feet. As if that wasn't startling enough, a playmate of his was in pursuit playing what I thought to be a rigorous game of chase and he, too, ran across my feet.
Gary and his friend's actions were much like the ones of my children when they were little. When playing chase, my son would tag his sister "it" and then declare me "base" as he barreled toward me. My daughter would scream no fair and race toward him and me in an effort to tag her older brother. Gary had declared me base and falsely believed my presence would stop his playmate from pursuing him. He was wrong and I had two squirrels scamper over my feet.
I am beyond the "ew" factor when it comes to wildlife touching me because this very same thing has happened once before in my life. When my children were young we were living in Florida and remodeling a historic home. It was also during this time I felt the need to monitor my weight in meticulous detail so I would get out of bed each morning and step on the scales at the foot of my bed. One particular morning the room was dark and as I stepped on the scale I felt something run across the top of my feet. I froze and then jumped on the end of my bed waking my cocker spaniel, Simon. Well, actually, my scream woke the dog and my children.
The ensuing scene rivaled the best French farce or one of the early Marx Brother's movies with running, slamming doors and yelling. As the dog chased the squirrel, I pursued the dog, my son ran after me and my daughter trailed after my son yelling don't hurt it. After completing two laps around the house, we opened the front to release the poor, frightened squirrel tackling the dog before he could continue the chase outside. The whole episode was funny though I believe it to be funnier now then when it actually occurred.
Gary the Gardener makes life on the mountain fun as his behavior triggers good memories of life with my children when they were young. I do wonder though if he tells his friends and family stories about me?
The garden produced an embarrassment of riches this past summer. As an enthusiastic and eager novice gardener, I may have planted a little too much for household use by two adults. I planted three varieties of tomatoes, three varieties of carrots and beans, two varieties of cucumbers, two types of lettuce, bell peppers, sweet peas, broccoli, yellow squash, Bok Choy and Brussels sprouts. That long litany of food producing plants does not include the herbs and edible flowers that could be found in my garden. To say I got a little carried away is a suitable description under the circumstances.
And what were the circumstances? Do you remember the candy factory scene from I love Lucy? No matter how fast I tried, I couldn't keep up with production. Cucumbers and carrots were stuffed in every open drawer or shelf in the refrigerator. Rows and rows of tomatoes lined the shelves of the herb window in the kitchen as I filled mason jars with homemade tomato sauce. If I were attempting to be accurate, maybe vegetable production was more like the Sorcerer's Apprentice in the movie Fantasia. At first I was self satisfied and pleased with the magic I had unleashed by my own hand but by the end of September I was promising never to tinker with forces I did not understand again.
Before dancing cucumbers and Bok Choy menaced the nighttime dreams of my budding horticulturist slumber, I would write at the table on my patio that overlooked the garden. Cool mornings on the mountain allowed me to get in a couple hours of work before the glare from the summer sun made working on a laptop futile. These were joyful moments as I faded into the landscape and the natural world carried on as if I were visible. Indeed, maybe I was invisible because one morning I looked up to see Gary the Gardener, not ten feet away, eating the leaves off the broccoli plants. I had recently learned that all parts of the broccoli plant were edible so I was not surprised to see Gary chowing down. I quickly calculated the garden was going to produce more broccoli crown heads, leaves and stalks than we could use, so why not share?
Later that day I was recounting Gary's visit to the garden and his love of broccoli, when Marty demand to know if I had told Gary that was unacceptable. Hmmm, did Marty really think I was going to use the word unacceptable when communicating with Gary? Did he think I talked to wildlife like Snow White or Cinderella, singing as blue birds sat on my finger? In the interest of relationship harmony, these questions remained unspoken. What I did say was we had plenty to share and I felt it would do no harm to let him have a couple of leaves from the broccoli plants.
I will, of course, tell you the real reason I did not shoo Gary away. Gary believes I planted a lush and abundant garden as a gift for him. If I could understand the Sciuridae language, I am sure he was saying, "You like me, you really, really like me." I did not have it in me to break his heart. So what if we give up a couple broccoli leaves and the best of the heirloom tomatoes on the vine. Isn't that worth allowing a fellow gardener the joy of feeling loved? I did not share this thought with Marty because he would accuse me of being anthropomorphic in my relationship with Gary. I did not pursue the discussion further because I know I would not take his observation of my behavior seriously. After all he is a man who would use the word unacceptable when talking to a squirrel.
My relationship with Gary the Gardener developed slowly after it became known to me that he was the one digging up and replanting my tulips. Gary would energetically run along the top of our six-foot wooden fence stopping occasionally to eavesdrop on Marty and me as we sat in “our chairs” by the lake. He was particularly interested in our Sunday morning gatherings that included hot drinks and cool conversation.
Gary is not a stealth squirrel, Gary is noisy, brash and at time careless. I remember the day he was jumping through the limbs of the dogwood tree that canopies our patio and fell from the lower limb to the ground. I was alarmed not only because a grey squirrel fell from the heavens to my feet but he also fell equal distance between Dorian and me.
Dorian, named for the doomed character in the Oscar Wilde novel, Dorian Grey, was a lovely, sleek grey cat that was always willing to accompany me as I searched for a warm spot in the sun on chilly fall days. After finding the perfect spot, we would lounge together happy to be alive.
Dorian was startled too when Gary came from nowhere and landed at her feet. She did not move but give me a wry look that said, “Bless his heart, he doesn’t have the brains God gave a, well, a squirrel. Dorian and her sister, Emily were both New Yorkers but once I moved in they began to use some of my Southern aphorisms.
Gary took only a moment to realize that neither Dorian nor I were going to come after him and that he needed to move immediately in the event one or both of us changed our mind. He did the Fred Flintstone scramble and ran away.
I thought about Dorian’s amused response to Gary’s fall and wondered if she didn’t chase after him because she was getting on in years. After all she was 18 years old. But honestly I know that wasn’t the reason. Unlike her namesake, Dorian was gentle and laid back. Emily was the huntress in the family and she most definitely would have pinned Gary to the ground, if for no other reason than to teach him a lesson about the hierarchy of squirrels in relationship to cats. But that is a story for another day.
I do believe that day Gary understood that I meant him no harm. We could co-exist and if occasionally we ended up in one another’s space, we would work it out. Little did I know that his personal space was a lot larger than mine and that there would come a day when I would be required to have an open and honest conversation with him about my personal space.
In the middle of my daylilies was a singular blooming tulip. This import from Holland was silky pink and should have been cause for celebration. Spring had arrived with a burst of color that signaled the end of another brutally cold winter but the sight of this lone blooming flower confused me. I had planted a cluster of tulips in the front garden but not down by the Lake. How did a tulip end up there, in the middle of the daylilies?
Each August, the daylilies lean majestically into the warm summer sun prideful of their neon orange color. I've not had the heart to tell them that they are not true lilies. To be a real lily they must be part of the family of plants known as Lillaceae but sadly daylilies belong to a family known as Hemerocallidaceae. To make matters worse the Hemerocallidaceae family is not from North America but hail from Asia. Botanists and Horticulturist are as ridged about keeping proper records on the lineage of flowers as is the Daughters of the American Revolution are about documenting roots to a patriot of the American Revolution. My daylilies are not true lilies but it's best to keep that information between us. I know my daylilies are snobs and would not welcome a spring pink "foreigner". And I know I didn't put the unsuspecting Hollander in the midst of group of Hudson Valley New Yorkers.
That is when the confusion gave way to fear. My first thought was, "Who moved my tulip?' but I quickly dismissed that thought as paranoid and an indication that I was crazy. I mean who would come into my garden uninvited and move a single tulip. So I settled on the only other logical reason for the tulip's new home. I did it and I was losing my mind. That was the only explanation. At the time my mother's health and mind were failing and I was over extended. I was working desperately to keep all the plates spinning so it made perfect sense to me that I went into the garden and planted a single tulip in an unwelcoming place. Mystery solved and time to move on.
The next spring a single tulip bloomed in the side garden in the middle of my pastel pinwheels. I was no longer confused or afraid. I was just plain angry. Well, maybe not angry, just annoyed that I couldn't figure it out. It was time I faced facts. I wasn't the one playing musical chairs with the tulips. But who was doing it? And why? Was a Taoist gardener sneaking into my garden to arrange tulips without intention and minimal action to purify his soul? Could it be an obsessed fairy with the desire to recreate Vincent van Gogh's painting Irises with lilies and a tulip?
Nothing made sense until one fall day I saw him. He was standing next to the garage with dirt under his fingernails and a tulip in his hand. We made eye contact and he did not look away. No remorse. My surprise at catching him in the act left me speechless. He gently caressed the tulip and sauntered away. That was my first encounter with Gary the Gardener, an Eastern Grey Squirrel.