About a dozen years ago my wife and I planted a hedge of twenty-seven arbor vitae trees along the border of our backyard, which, although our house sits on nineteen acres of fields and woods, is also the back border of our property. A sloping hayfield with a realtor’s dream of panoramic views lies directly behind us, so the hedge was our attempt to secure privacy for the future. The nurseryman who sold us the shrubs assured us they were the best species for our purpose and climate. I measured and marked the planting sites, called in “Chink” Norris (whose possibly racist nickname I’ve not looked into any more than I have the nurseryman’s credentials) to come with his small backhoe and dig the holes. As advised, I faithfully watered and fertilized each tree throughout the first year, with results that were everything I’d been promised: dense, hardy, and luxuriant, a towering bulwark of green.
Thus began an episode of great vexation and buffoonery in my life, known and (I have no doubt) merrily recounted in local circles as the tale of “Garret and his trees,” or as my wife puts it, “Garret and the deer.” It so happens that we live next to one of the county’s most extensive “deer yards,” those areas of canopied woods to which the deer retire in winter, making networks of deeply furrowed tracks and foraging as best they can until there’s a declared winner in the yearly foot-race between spring and starvation.
It also happens that deer find arbor vitae a delicacy, related to the cedar that they also love, but thicker and more succulent. By the second winter they’d found and attacked my trees. I fought back, not with a vengeance—I stopped short of that—but with something close to obsession. I erected fence structures that made our backyard look like a scene from the Somme. I played recordings of wolves howling, recordings of me howling. I fired pistol shots at random hours of the night. I hung or sprinkled repellents of blood meal, urine (mine), and deodorant soap. Hearing that deer were repelled by the scent of human hair, I asked some hairdressers to set aside their sweepings in a bag with, as the saying goes, my name on it.
Joan Didion once wrote, commenting on a folk remedy for hysterical distress, that it is difficult to feel like Catherine Earnshaw in Wuthering Heights with your head in a Food Fair bag. It is also difficult to imagine you are Santiago in The Old Man and the Sea when you’re stuffing sachets of cut-up pantyhose with human hair. But often I thought of the old fisherman, whacking the sharks with his club as his labor and his dream were devoured in front of his eyes.
As any game warden will tell you, if deer are hungry enough they will get through anything, which this year included an electric fence hooked to a charger supposedly powerful enough to deter elephants. So the farmer who’d helped me rig it up assured me. What he did not tell me, because he did not know, was that the insulating snowpack would prevent an animal from completing the circuit with the ground. In came the deer like a school of piranhas. This was shortly after a man from Connecticut purchased the hayfield behind our house for a price few of my neighbors could have afforded and none of them could believe and set about measuring the foundations of a house.
Nature teaches us economy and art, tenacity and grace, but all by analogy to itself. “Eyes front, please,” it says, tapping the blackboard with its teeth and claws. What it gives us for homework, though, is futility.
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