There's a Bear in My Garden
Susan P. Blevins
One thing I have never been short of is imagination. Especially when it comes to real estate. The more rundown a house is, the more it appeals to an irresistible urge inside me to restore it to a former glory it possibly never enjoyed. This was the case when I bought a house in northern New Mexico a few years ago. I knew the moment I drove down the weed-infested lane to the ramshackle adobe house that this was going to be my house. It hunkered down in the midst of towering sage bushes like a broody hen, and it just felt like home. It spoke to me. It had been there since 1830, so house and land had already settled into a comfortable longterm relationship. In my mind’s eye I could already see the luxuriant flowerbeds, planters, big pots outside the front door, fountains, and spreading trees I would plant.
Along the way to completion of my vision, which thanks to copious amounts of blood, sweat and tears, I did achieve, I experienced a few hiccups. There was no boundary fence, so I was at the mercy of all the local wild life. In the early days I found random chickens perching on top of my incipient compost heap, the heart of any garden, I always aver, and once I came home to find an entire flock of sheep daintily but inexorably devouring all my new plantings. Fences are constructed in that area to keep things out, not to keep them in, so the farmer down the road felt no obligation to confine his sheep to his land. Dogs and coyotes were regular visitors too. All my cats had to be indoors by sundown if they didn’t want to be somebody’s dinner.
I also encountered my first opossums, raccoons and skunks. I often looked out at night and saw the little masked bandit faces peering through my windows, and on one sleepless occasion I wandered to the window and watched as all three of these creatures played games, chasing each other over benches and walls in a very amicable way. The raccoons were very dextrous and greedy, and regularly wrenched the cages I had so carefully installed off my bird feeders, casting them contemptuously down the steep slope towards the little Rio Grande which bordered my property. One winter a family of skunks made their lodgings underneath my bedroom. My house was built on top of rubble, no crawl space, or pier and beam, just stones and mud. I didn’t mind the smell wafting up through the floorboards of my bedroom, in fact I rather liked it. To my nose it resembled brewing coffee. However, their snuffles and grunts were a bit much to bear on a regular basis, and my fervid imagination had Mr and Mrs Skunk enjoying rampant sex beneath my bed on those cold winter nights. I found the entrance to their den at the back of my house and threw in a box of mothballs, which local lore said they hated. Foolishly, I thought that would get rid of them. The next day I went to check, and all the mothballs had been flung out of their dwelling, the skunks still in residence. Eventually I was able to close up the hole with cement when I knew they were out and about for their nocturnal ramblings.
Then there were the snakes. Admittedly they were only grass snakes, but even so, I shivered in fright when one slithered across the grass in front of me. I suddenly understood fully what it means to call someone a “snake in the grass”. I got on top of my compost heap one day, garden fork in hand, to start turning it, but when I pulled the fork out I uncovered an entire nest of grass snakes, writhing beneath my feet. On looking up the details online, I learned that up to forty eggs can hatch from one female grass snake, and the babies are seven inches long and fully independent immediately. Apparently, a warm compost heap is their preferred dwelling. It was bad enough when they were in the garden, or sunning themselves under my porch, but when I walked into my bedroom one day and saw one coiled with its head raised à la cobra just inside the door, I didn’t think it was very funny. I picked it up with my large barbecue tongs and cast it down the steep bank towards the river. Even worse, one evening one of my cats brought me a snake and dumped it on my bed, while I was in it, reading. What a gift he thought he was bringing me.
That wasn’t the worst thing that happened in my bedroom though. There were the spiders, in particular the black widows and the brown recluses. If a brown recluse bites you, its toxins gouge a deep crater in your flesh, and necrosis sets in. They lived in my house because it was so old and made of mud, so I kept a wary eye out for them. One night when I was sleeping, I thought I felt something on my lips. Only half awake, I brushed my hand across my face, threw the covers back and went to the bathroom and thought no more of it. I got back into bed but left the coverlet turned down. The next morning, when I started to make my bed, as I pulled up the coverlet, there nestled cosily on the bedding, was a very large female black widow, with the characteristic bright red hourglass mark on her abdomen. She had casually strolled across my lips in the night and could have given me a very nasty bite had I upset her. Local lore says it’s bad luck to kill one, so I put her in a jar and threw her as far away as possible down the river bank.
I planted my gardens, including half a dozen fruit trees, amongst them two cherry trees, one of which was finally covered in fruit which I was jealously protecting with green plastic netting made for that purpose. All very fine until I came out one morning and found a baby magpie hanging upside down by one foot screaming bloody murder at me. He’d managed to get under the netting but couldn’t get out. I ran indoors for my nail scissors and cautiously liberated him, wearing gloves to avoid his angry beak. I vowed there and then that we were all in this together, and we would share all my fruit from then on. I never used the nets again.
My garden progressed, I put up a gate, and walls and fences, so I was finally closed in and safe from all intruders, or so I thought. The little Rio Grande was the boundary on one entire side of my property, and that provided easy access one night to a black bear. We’d had little rain that spring, and there were not many berries up in the hills come summer, so the bears were coming into town hungrily devouring hummingbird nectar, seed from bird tables, and fruit off the trees in people’s gardens. My fruit trees were still small, but the bear was determined to enjoy the handful of apples hanging on the apple tree. He climbed the tree, grabbed his apples and wrecked my tree in the process. The next day I bound it together as best I could, but it was always a lopsided tree after that incident. My neighbor gave me some fire crackers to scare the bears away if they came back again. There were lots of bear stories that year. A friend of mine, who lived quite close to me, heard a noise in the night so got up to investigate. It was August, the night was hot, the doors were open and the screen doors closed. He wandered naked to check the front and back doors, and then went into the kitchen and was confronted by a bear looking at him, just as surprised as he was. The bear was the first one to beat a hasty retreat through the broken screen door, and my friend closed up the house and returned to bed, no longer complaining of the heat. The worst bear story that year was of an old woman who had been making jam, and the sweet smell had drawn a bear to her house. He devoured the jam and the old lady too. They found her remains in his stomach when he was killed.
We had a little extraterrestrial that used to hang out around the neighborhood too, spotted by several people, but that doesn’t qualify as wild life any more than the two-legged intruder who found his way into my garden one night and vandalized it. It was a very colorful neighborhood, and between two-legged and four-legged visitors to my garden, there was never a dull moment.