I’ve been particularly attuned to the weather for the last few weeks, because I planted my autumn/winter garden seeds at the beginning of September. Walking to work on nice days, I’ve been guessing at the heat of the light and the number of hours its been landing on the garden, warming the seeds. We had lots of days like that, interspersed with gentle September rainbursts, which I gloried in, imagining the droplets seeping down through warm soil to nourish emerging seeds. It was the perfect weather for starting a cool-season garden.
autumn in the garden 1: ripening tomato
Witnessing vegetables sprout from seeds is one of my favorite things, so I watch my garden like a hawk in the days after I plant it. When they’ve had enough time to germinate, I start checking every few hours, increasingly giddy and paranoid. Giddy because I know tiny green shoots will appear at any moment. Paranoid because I know as soon as the shoots appear, the snails will come. They decimated my spring starts, migrating into my garden under cover of darkness by the hundreds and chomping the plants down to the dirt. So, as I took satisfaction in the garden-friendly September weather, I also because increasingly neurotic, imagining hordes of gastropods converging on my garden to destroy everything I’d planted and yearned for.
Autumn in the garden 2: pumpkins
As the day neared when the seeds would sprout into the daylight, I became increasingly obsessed with tactics to protect them. I could use poison to keep the snails out. Or something less toxic; say a beer trap for them to slime into and drown. I could even follow the example of New Zealand grandmother Oriole Parker-Rhodes, who decided to one-up the helix aspersa by harvesting them right along with her garden veggies and serving them up in butter and garlic.
But weirdly enough, even though the snails destroy something I love SO much… I can’t bring myself to kill them. For a couple reasons.
First: its hard for me to kill anything, honestly, which is part of the reason why I am mostly vegan. [I eat fish maybe once a month, cheese once a week or so, and meat once or twice a year. Every meal I cook at home is vegan.]
Second: I’ve come to realize that each of my actions—particularly those that involve consumption—have far reaching consequences. I recently discovered that, in addition to creating a carbon footprint, I am also creating a water footprint. Josh Harkinson recently published a fantastic article on the subject in Mother Jones. Chew on this:
[Farmer] Shawn Coburn, turned toward me and demanded if I knew how much water it took to grow one almond, a cantaloupe, or a pound of tomato paste. (I didn’t. Turns out it’s 1 gallon, 25 gallons, and 55 gallons, respectively.) “The people in the city, they don’t know what their footprint on nature is,” he scoffed. “They sit there in an ivory tower and don’t realize what it takes to keep them alive.”
autumn in the garden 3: peppers
Farmer Shawn is right. We have no idea what it takes to keep us alive. After reading Harkinson’s article, I did some research and discovered that being mostly-vegan also enables me to reduce my water footprint by nearly TWO TONS every year. Once I learned that, I became obsessed with my two tons of not-wasted water. Where was it? I started imagining a tiny, two-ton alpine lake, ringed with talus slopes and huckleberry plants. Every day in the year I abstain from consuming animal products, the lake gets a little deeper. If I’m dawdling in the shower, I picture my lake-level dropping, and I turn the water off. I try to only water my garden at night or in the early morning, and if a dry spell goes on for too long, I will stop watering altogether and let my garden die until the rains come again.
I suspect that, akin to the imaginary lake filled with water I have Not wasted, there is an unseen ecological consequence of all the snails I have Not killed.
I’m not against using scare tactics. The other day, while helping me rake leaves and fill holes our dogs had dug in the yard, my friend Gretchen picked up a snail to study it more closely. Her chocolate lab puppy Butters darted up and licked the snail, top to bottom.
Butters, prior to snail-attack, in bottom left.
Gretchen turned the snail to face her and informed it seriously: “Tell all your friends. This is what we do to snails around here.” Then she tucked it safely in an empty potting container, from whence I deposited it in the (covered) compost cone later that day, to live out its snail-life in a paradise of rotting vegetable matter.
I’m too lazy and squeamish to pick them off my garden at night with a flashlight, like Thich Naht Hahn does at Plum Village. Some online gardeners suggest lining your garden with hair clippings, but I don’t have any at the moment. I have lots of dog hair, but I’m sure it would blow away. Eggshells are also supposed to dissuade snails from crossing into your garden, but being a predominantly vegan household, we don’t generate any eggshells. Copper is also rumored to dissuade snails and slugs via a tiny shock to their tender bellies (vaguely Guantanamo, but still non-lethal), so I tried lining my garden with pennies. It seemed to be working, but then they started getting knocked off the edge of the bed by unshocked and/or braver snails, clearing a path for their legions of followers.
By the time I’d pulled together a little extra cash to buy copper wire to wrap around my 36 foot garden perimeter, it was too late. The snails had made short work of my babies. Six rows of winter greens, chomped all the way down to the root. And despite all those hours of obsessing over my seeds, weather patterns, and non-lethal slug aversion techniques, I wasn’t angry at first. Just sad and frustrated.
I comforted myself with the concept of coexistence. I thought of a conversation I had last week with Dharma teacher and organic gardener Dan Peterson, who reflected thoughtfully that the snails probably enjoyed eating his garden just as much as he did. Staring ruefully at my decimated garden, I thought about Aldo Leopold, who noted in the Sand County Almanac, that humans are simply “plain members of the biotic community.” Who’s to say those snails’ pleasure is any less important than mine? I’ve identified philosophically with deep ecology since my early twenties romance with the writings of Gary Snyder. I agree with deep ecology’s founder Arne Næss, who wrote in 1973: “The right of all forms [of life] to live is a universal right which cannot be quantified. No single species of living being has more of this particular right to live and unfold than any other species.”
Still, this was MY garden! Those winter greens belonged to Ryan and I. We were going to use the kale in soups, as and bake it in olive oil and salt. The spinach was going to get drowned in peanut sauce and served up with tofu, and the rainbow chard was destined for hundreds of breakfast scrambles. I clambered into the garden and knelt down, searching in vain for any surviving green. There was none. Now I was mad. I shouted at the alley, and retreated into the house.
Later, I listened to a recording of a talk Dan Peterson had given at the Seattle Shambhala Center on mind terma, the treasures of Buddhist teaching passed from teacher to student through the generations. I’m not a practicing Buddhist, and I have trouble sitting still, so a lot of Buddhist teachings sail straight over my head. But Dan tells great stories, and his talk pulled me in. He talked about “how we wake up, moment by moment.” I thought of all those days I’d taken note of the weather and the light, and all the times I’d knelt by the edge of the garden to watch for the tiny miracle of green sprouts pushing their way up through the dirt. Moment after moment of awakening to my surroundings, to the intimate process of growing food. The moment of discovering decimation by snails contained an equal amount of awe— awe at destruction, not creation. But in that destruction, the snails thrived, and something else was created. Dan told a story from his own garden:
In the morning I go out into the garden in my barefeet to water, and I had the experience of stepping barefoot on a slug. It felt like electricity. It was a sentient being! So I would gather the slugs in a plastic container and carry them to my compost heap. I kept it moist, and they were fine there. Later, I found literally fifty to eighty slugs coming out of the compost heap, and they were all lined up in the same direction, going back to the garden! Our regard for what we call slugs can be east. We can be facing east when we look at a slug. There’s no enemy.
By facing east, Dan was referring to a Shambhala chant. “Radiating confidence, peaceful, illuminating the way of discipline, Eternal Ruler of the Three Worlds, may the Great Eastern Sun be victorious.” He explained:
The East represents richness, brilliance, and is the quality of unconditional experience… Peaceful means that there’s no aggression, which means there’s no territory. There’s complete openness. With no territory, there is primordial confidence. There’s nothing to defend, no enemy. This is a lot of conceptual load to put onto the simplicity of direct experience, but I think its helpful to point out that’s what happening. There’s no enemy… Radiating confidence, peaceful, is east.
I tried facing east. Watching snails destroy my planting, after all those weeks of tending and watching and waiting, was an opportunity. A pile of direct experience to wade into and consider.
There is no territory. The garden Ryan and I built belongs no more to me than it does to the snails. The land the garden sits on belongs no more to my landlord than it does to me. We are all of us only dwelling here for a little while. Here, in my decimated garden, was my deep ecology philosophy made real. How could I be angry? There was no enemy. I took deep breaths. Felt peaceful.
A couple brussel sprout plants were large enough to survived the snails, so today I planted some company for them. Stopped by the West Seattle Nursery and picked up small starts of red cabbage, kale, broccoli, winter greens mix, and some onion and garlic bulbs, all big enough to (hopefully) survive the oncoming snails and frosts.
It begins again.