Yesterday we were talking with our friend Marie about the possibility of having a patio garden of edibles outside our apartment this summer. This reminded me of all of the things Gram grew in her garden over the years. Yes, she had numerous varieties of flowering plants, but she grew other things as well. There was a patch of mint, for example, that threatened to take over the entire back yard. Plum trees with luscious fruits too numerous to count. There were always chives and garlic, and usually green onions. There was one summer we had lettuce and carrots under the side yard kitchen window. When the carrots bloomed, we knew we'd never dig them up because the blossoms were so beautiful.
And the tomatoes! Gram proved that given water, a stake for support, and some benign neglect, the tomatoes would produce numerous deliciously juicy, flavorful tomatoes. I did have an important duty regarding the tomato plants, however. With gardening gloves to protect me, I would examine the plants a couple of times a day for the terrible green caterpillars that could chomp the plants down to nothing, and do so pretty quickly. These critters could be as big around as your finger, and had bright red and yellow bulbs sticking out all over them that would sting pretty fiercely. I had to pull these worms off of the plants with pliers, no touching, and they hung on pretty tightly. And about the only way to dispatch them was to squeeze them with the pliers. Gardening can be a violent business.
There was one summer when the next door neighbors decided to keep their dry dog food in the utility shed in the carport. A colony of field mice infested the neighborhood, lured by the twenty pound bag of free kibble. The label may have said dog chow, but the mice found it pretty tasty as well. The mice decided to check out the surrounding yards as well, and liked to hang out under the lush forest of tomato plants by the back door. And Gram's dogs loved to keep their hunting instincts honed by loudly chasing them away. Between that and the numerous mousetraps that Gram placed out of range of doggy toes, they soon decided that our yard was not a haven for mice.
Summertime also brought other creatures around. Squirrels and birds both loved our fruit trees. We couldn't reach the plums at the top of the trees, so we were more than happy to share them with any squirrels and birds that wanted to eat them. From time to time, we would see birds flying around that seemed too colorful to be natives of our area. There were a few canaries and parakeets that had either escaped form their homes or were released to fend for themselves. And every so often, we would find a stray garter snake hiding in the hedge between the neighbors' yard and our own. Once Liz even found one with the lawnmower!
I remember an incident one summer when I was going outside to move the garden hose around to water the lawn. Those of you in less-dry climates are not accustomed to the twice-weekly dance of lawn irrigation. Without doing that here on a regular basis, our lawns don't just go dormant, they burn to death, and just lay there, brown and crispy. So I would turn on the hoses in the front and back yards, and read for twenty minutes in between moving the hose to the next location.
One day while I was engaged in this lawn-watering ballet, I was in my usual distracted hurry to get back to the book I was reading when I heard an unusual sound. It came from the window-well of the basement laundry/utility room, which was under the kitchen window. This was the location where the tomatoes grew, but there were no tomato plants there at this time. It was a strange rattling sound. Not a sound that I was used to hearing at any time in my back yard. It made me feel a bit uneasy, but as I got closer to the window, the sound stopped, so I went back to reading my book. Twenty minutes later, when I was back to move the hose again, I heard it again. It made me feel a bit nervous. It definitely wasn't normal. But again, it seemed to stop as I got closer to the window.
When it happened a third time, I started to get genuinely scared. I'd never have thought of our area as rattlesnake territory, but the noise coming from the window-well sounded exactly like the rattlesnakes that I had seen and heard on television nature programs. I told Gram that I was afraid that there was a rattler in our window-well. She knew that I was not the kind of kid who made up crazy stories, so she went with me to investigate. As I recall, she was armed with a hoe for protection (I think I had a straight-bladed shovel) in case the snake got nervous and struck out at us. You never go looking for rattlesnakes without some sort of weapon, preferably long-handled!
There we were, walking slowly and quietly toward the basement window, crouched over, and listening to the rattling sounds. Gram said that it did sound like a rattlesnake was in there, but we needed to check. Before you say this is foolhardy, remember that we had dogs to protect as well. If they had been attacked by a rattlesnake, they would have been goners, and we would never have forgiven ourselves. So we continued to creep slowly and quietly toward the window, until we got close enough to peek in and see the scary intruder, but far enough away to run fast if it saw us, too. And then we broke into hysterical laughter. Inside the window-well was a huge Cecropia moth with a wingspan of at least five inches. I think it had just crawled out of its pupa and was doing rapid wing-flaps in order to dry its wings so that it could fly. The flapping was echoing in the window-well, making something harmless sound like something scary and threatening.
We were happy to be safe from the rogue rattler that we both were afraid had invaded our territory, and it was really cool to see the beautiful, huge moth so close. By the time I was finished with my lawn-watering duties, it had flown away. And we had a lot of good laughs at ourselves bravely attempting to seek out and dispatch the killer rattlesnake that was curled up by the basement window!