“Are the Locusts Going to Come Next?” Friday, July 24, 2020

Bad news is everywhere: streaming on your phone, the radio, delivered by your friends as though they’d discovered it, it’s on headlines everywhere and also in the small print, don’t forget the small print, it’s in the walls and on the floor and in the fridge. Lucinda Williams has a great song, “Bad News Blues” that captures perfectly the sense of paranoia one can experience in these times of escalating crisis. But she pushes the repetitive refrain into hyperbole so that disaster eventually morphs into hilarity. You can see and hear her play this song, in dialogue with Steve Earle. She introduces Bad News Blues by asking “Are the Locusts Going to Come Next?” I like even more the other song she performs as it’s more familiarly Lucinda Williams – “When the Way Gets Dark.” the refrain is “Don’t give up.”

While some are asking “Are the Locusts Going to Come Next?” others of us, gardeners that would be, are asking “what can be done about the plague of rats that is here already?” Murderous thoughts fuel my nights and days. I go out in the morning to discover they have chewed great holes in the bags I foolishly and laboriously tied around the bunches of black grapes, and have demolished the crop. 

I knew that this was likely to happen so why did I even try? I suppose because it sometimes seems like a bit of a crap shoot. They haven’t, for instance – so far –  gnawed through the bags protecting yellow and orange tomatoes. And they haven’t yet attacked the plastic clam shells. But perhaps this does not indicate color or taste preference so much as the fact that they have been obsessively absorbed in the project of demolishing the grape crop. Now that’s done, they will move on. My fear is that they will move on to the figs, first the strawberry figs, swelling and turning a deep purply pink, promising succulence

I’ve done enough research on rats to know that they are unrelentingly invasive. I wrote a little piece for a fabulously frightening on-line project that Anna Tsing (who wrote the wonderful Friction and The Mushroom at the End of the World) and a group of colleagues are about to launch, called Feral Atlas. In initial discussions I had with Anna she kept gently reminding me that I was adopting a typically Humanitstic position which goes something like: of course invasives are terrible but in the end equilibrium and balance prevail. She was interested in invasives that have really done irrevocable damage, most often damage initiated in the post industrial world and spread through the paths of empire and colonialism. Rats, I discovered, actually started migrating and wreaking havoc much earlier: on the first boats to sail between continents. And they have never stopped. The bottom line is this: it’s almost impossible to eradicate rats except on islands, small ones preferably, like the Edenic Ulva Island we visited on the southern tip of the South Island of New Zealand.

But you can wage a vicious war that will eradicate their presence for a while. 

Of course they are not the only critters to threaten my little Eden, but they are the most difficult to contain. When Louis lent me his infrared camera last year three invasives were caught on film: Roxy our cat, the resident possum and a RAT. The video files are too large to download here, but here is Roxy occupying a wicking bed that has just been planted (more about wicking when I do a blog on water saving technologies and techniques).

You have probably wondered about the rather ugly structures that surround my raised beds in the vegetable garden. Not to mention the netting that in the past would often spoil a good photo. 

When I developed the veg garden and built the raised beds we were visited frequently by raccoons, as well as skunk and possums and squirrels, cats and chickens, some of which critters would get into the beds and create havoc

Some would eat the produce but on the whole they seemed more interested in digging up the grubs growing in the compost rich soil – they were just as happy with what they found in the pathways as in the beds. Not so chickens and cats and raccoons. So I concocted these rather ugly structures over which I would lay netting (until the plants grew too tall). Basically, it’s plumbing tubes and elbows. It would have been a good idea to paint the starkness of the white plastic, as I saw done in the water-wise garden so that the structures merge more into the landscape. In recent years I’ve stopped laying the netting. My dream is, if say by some miraculous means my next book made a bit of money, to build the kind of enclosure that Nan has – protecting her whole veg garden, so that you can walk in, and so I think can butterflies and other pollinators fly in. Though what about rats, I wonder. They devour produce and can weasel their way through any barricade. Rats rats rats – they gnaw at my fruit, they gnaw at my dreams. 

The chickens had a small run attached to their house and so we would let them out during the day to freely range and create havoc. They were deliriously happy

tossing the compost about

sneakily purloining tomatoes

and pulling up tender plants in the veg garden. So the structures kept them out, but still they were in heaven, churning up the white bed, and scattering mulch all over the backyard.

Eventually Matthew built a lovely run along the side fence, to extend el palacio de las princesas. My old beloved cat Elvis is buried in there and his spirit watches over the gallinas, just as he himself watched over them when they were young

“where did they come from? Whose land is this? … you have to admit, though, more tasty looking than rats …”

Rat cake, rat sorbet and strawberry tart with rats in it – these are some of the delicacies offered in a gruesomely hilarious Monty Python sketch. See if you can detect the rats in any of these salads we’ve been making to keep cool.

I first saw this salad – combining sweet, sour, spicy and herbal flavors – made by the Senegalese chef, Pierre Thiam on Milk Street TV. Mango and avocado with cherry tomatoes make a stunning combination, marinated and tossed in Rof, a mixture of parsley, scallions, chilies and garlic. I got the layering confused here, so you can’t really see the avocado. But believe me, it is a wonder to behold, and to to taste

celery, fennel, radish, apple, celery leaves

smashed cucumber

and here comes that tromboncini again

Mulling maliciously over the nuances of rat sorbet I muse as well on the question of whose land this is. Who has rights to the fruits of the land? Why should humans and domesticated animals be accorded greater respect and a bigger bounty than the feral and urban-wild creatures that roam far and wide and no doubt know the landscape better than any of us? I’ve been imagining how this land once was, before the Spaniards came, who lived here, who roamed and cultivated the land. Also, what will it become? If I die soon and J chooses to move, can I ensure that a like-minded person will buy this garden-with-a-house-attached, that they will keep alive the trees and nurture chickens and understand how grey water works and how water moves through the soil? Then I catch myself: What preposterous pretension. Once gone you have no say, why try and control the future, let it be, let it be whatever it is in other hands. And yet, and yet. History, the history of land, the association – not necessarily ownership – between people and creatures and land and place, this matters. And though we cannot change the past we can try to better understand it and thereby wiggle the future. 

I know the Cuyamaca Indians lived in this region, and some still do. I do not, however, know the no-doubt gristly details of how their land (of which my land, my garden, is now a part) was appropriated. I attend occasional workshops or lectures on Cuyamaca medicinal plants, for instance, but to my shame I do not know which particular group lived around what is now the city of San Diego. And about the rest of the U.S. I’m as ignorant as most of the population about the Native American heritage, and the land that was stolen from the various First Nations.

A few years ago Jeffrey and I drove to Marfa and stopped overnight in the town of Wilcox so that we could visit the Chiricahua National Monument, a spectacularly mountainous area composed of pinnacle-like rock formations. We knew a little about the Chiricahua Apache Indians, but not much. I’m reading at the moment Valeria Luiselli’s Lost Children Archive, a marvelously intricate novel in which one of the characters is researching the Apache Nation. I’m provoked, now, to read more. To visit the Chiricahua mountains again, with greater respect for the history of the land.

The town of Wilcox now faces different sorts of battles, battles over water. There is only ground water in the region, and the water is running out. This is primarily because of mega agricultural corporations which have moved in and can afford to sink bigger and deeper wells than locals in the town and small farmers. Now only the aquifer remains, but for how long?

While there is no simple causal link between The Apache wars and the Water Battles of today, there are nevertheless threads that criss cross and shape the environmental landscape in knotted ways.

It has always rather shocked me the indifference shown by North Americans to their settler colonial history. On tours there is seldom a formal acknowledgement made of the original inhabitants and custodians of the land. This is now pro-forma in countries like Australia, New Zealand and Canada. Of course one could, and I know some people do, append to their signature on emails and articles and posts a statement saying they honor the original Owners of the land they are on. Something stops me from doing this. I’m not entirely sure what. Perhaps it is because of a sense that it has to be more than gestural and an individual declaration of good will, it needs to arise out of a collective engagement with the past, and with the surviving communities. We need to confront the thorny truths, we need as a nation (or even as a state, or a county to start with) to make reparations, to acknowledge sovereignty, to acknowledge the genocide. Perhaps, though, I am being horribly fastidious. Anything that raises consciousness is going part of the way. I could add a line or two to my garden placard that says This is a Certified Habitat Friendly Garden, that would say something like: This Garden is made on land taken from the Cuyamaca Indians. But let’s face it, the Garden placard is somewhat fraudulent: all you have to do to get one is fill in a form asserting what a good person you are and how you respect the habitat, and hand over $20. And so too, good liberal sentiments, are often fraudulent, motivated more by wish fulfillment rather than active engagement.

Strawberry tart with rats in it – that is a definite yard-to-table possibility. But first I have to gorge on all the foods that will be verboten in a few days when the low potassium diet, dictated by the new drug regime, kicks in. Tomatoes, glorious tomatoes that fall out of the sky and into our laps, is on the danger list. And so an itching began, uncharacteristically, for a robust meaty tomato sauce with pasta.

I crumbled hot Italian sausages, producing a good fond, added fennel and fennel seeds to the usual sofrito, upended the remains of a bottle of red wine, and when it was cooked down stirred in a bit of tomato paste and loads of fresh tomatoes, a few bay leaves and a stalk of rosemary picked from the garden. Let it cook down slowly into a darkly unctuous sauce. It was deeply satisfying and I don’t believe I will feel the itch again – for at least a year.

But the best meal of the week did not come from our garden or kitchen. My gardening friend Connie, who lives close by but whom i haven’t seen since the lock-down, came across a cache of vidalia onions – enough for two quiches! So we got one. Caramelized onion laid over the most flaky buttery pastry, and topped with goats cheese and roasted garlic. I have made a lot of quiches in my time, but never one this glorious.

Look. Imagine the taste. Say no more.

8 thoughts on ““Are the Locusts Going to Come Next?” Friday, July 24, 2020

  1. Rat quotes for you, Les. Hard to find simple ones. Rats must really be annoying from the amount of quotes! The rats then get annoyed about the quotes…and go out on a grape bender?

    It is better to own 10% of an elephant than 100% of a rat.
    — Arthur Mutambara
    The same rain that drowns the rat will grow the hay.
    — Amy Grant
    Squirrels are just rats with good publicity
    — Garrison Wynn
    Cheese crumbs spread before a pair of copulating rats will distract the female but not the male.
    — Alfred Kinsey
    You dirty, double-crossing rat.
    — James Cagney. (couldn’t resist the only one I knew!)

  2. Hi Lesley. The Kumeyaay inhabited this region–and some tribes are still around. Not now, but someday, maybe take the very good free tour the National Park Service rangers give twice a day at Old Town Historic State Park–lots of info about the Kumeyaay, lots of it tragic.
    My attempt to eat your photos failed. Sob.
    Sending you love.

    • thank you Eleanor – yes I will take that tour, have heard other good things about it. In the meantime setting out to read more…
      will be in touchxxx

  3. Yes, rats: here in London they are fearless and stopped me visiting my allotment for a while due to the “boo! “ factor as they ran across the paths or disappeared into the compost bin when I opened the lid. I partially solved this by placing the bin on paving stones and somehow the worms still get in.
    Beer traps help with the slugs( I presume they die happy) or thrown ruthlessly into salt water bowls. Chickens would be wonderful but our foxes would eat them all.
    We cohabit the space in a somewhat combative fashion. Squirrels eat most of the hazelnuts and parakeets and other birds eat the cherries and other fruits, mice the seeds etc etc.
    But often there’s still enough produce for all and we can listen to the birdsong while gardening usually in the company of a robin.

  4. Oh Fiona, you remind me that gardening by its very nature is “somewhat combative.” – even in a big crowded city like London. If you ever have photos from yr allotment would love to see them

  5. Thanks Lesley, I am happy to send you some photos as requested but which is the best email address to send them on?

    It’s easier for me to send via email if ok.

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