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Seven Habits of Highly Effective Groundhogs

May 3, 2010 | by Melissa Groman, LCSW

Life lessons from a weary gardener.

Here in my backyard, we are entering our fifth season of battle. I am an avid backyard gardener who built a raised garden bed, filled it with fresh soil and began to work the land. For many years our efforts yielded luscious vegetables, summer fruit and the precious experience of renewal, growth and reward. We watered, we weeded, we talked to the vines. And of course, we picked and plucked and proclaimed proudly at the Shabbos table, “These are fresh from our garden!”

All this glee ended abruptly five years ago, when I wandered out back one bright May morning to find stunted shoots, trampled vines and sheared off plants. I knew it had to be them -- groundhogs. They live under my shed. They scurry across the yard to their vacation home under my neighbor’s deck. They wiggle around the neighborhood and are just happy as all get out. And they dine in my garden.

With forgiveness and hope, I put up a small fence and replanted. Determined to use humane, non-violent solutions, I bought environmentally safe critter repellents. Pepper spray, fox urine (I do not want to know how they collect this). I shpritzed and soaked my little piece of earth. This seemed to work. For about three days.

I called the trapper. One hundred bucks a hog. Not in the budget that year.

The next year, I traveled to the farmer’s market, where I chatted with one of the farmers. “Do you have groundhogs?”

“Oh yes, persistent little fellows!”

“What do you do?” I asked, gazing in camaraderie at her benevolent face.

“Well," she said, “we have a Havahart Trap.”

“I thought trapping might be the answer. Then you free them somewhere far away?”

“No, sweetheart,” said my earth mama heroine. “My husband takes them back behind the barn and shoots them.”

I was heartbroken. Our family went on high alert. If a groundhog was spotted close to the garden, we threw open doors and yelled like Paul Revere. Even the baby shouted, “shoo, gownd-og.”

Year Three. We called the trapper again. He promised me he would not shoot them. He would set them free where they can graze happily and live out their days in peace. As the trapper took the groundhogs in their comfy Havahart cages off to their new home (I imagine fields of wheat and barley), I was filled with the joy of doing the mitzvah of not causing harm to animals. Oh the rightness of it all!

Five hundred dollars and five weeks later, staring up at me from right in the middle of my garden, eating a newly emerging organic Rosa Bianca purple eggplant, was a groundhog. I thought he was saying to me, as he licked his lips, “Miss me?”

Year Four. I was desperate. I decided that I might, after all, be capable of murder. In my defense, I put bricks in their holes to block their paths (they dug new ones). I planted smelly marigolds to repel them (they ate those). I tied bright billowing ribbons around, got a scarecrow and left lettuce on the other side of the yard. They liked that, actually.

In the end, I couldn't bring myself to try poison. Besides, groundhogs apparently don’t eat poison; they know better.

But there is an upside in all of this – I've learned a few things from my little brown nemeses:

  1. Be persistent. If you really want to get somewhere, keep at it. If you can’t go over, go under. If your path gets blocked, dig another. You don’t always have to see your way through to the other side in order to take the first step.
  2. You really can go home again. Remember where your home is and with whom. If you are lost or alone, its possible to find your way back no matter how far you are taken, or how far you have strayed. Familiarity is amongst our greatest comforts.
  3. Take cover when you are scared. There is no nobility in staying in situations that don’t seem right. If you are being yelled at, its okay to run, scurry, or hide. We don’t have to engage in debate or argue our point. We can get out of harm’s way and come back when things are calmer.
  4. Yelling is not a solution. It accomplishes nothing. It helps no one to feel better, and does not deter future invasions, solve problems or bring relief. It creates only terror for everyone in the vicinity, including the yeller.
  5. Have more than one source of nourishment. No one person can give us everything we need.
  6. Refuse to be poisoned. For us humans, I think this means politely ignoring toxic critical words; when we encounter negativity we don’t have to ingest it.
  7. Have faith. Of course I cannot profess to know if groundhogs have faith (they are just groundhogs after all), but they do seem to know that they will survive somehow and get what they need.

So at year five of Mommy’s Groundhog Problem, as I look wistfully at my old raised garden bed, I am thinking that the Torah tells us that God created all creatures for a purpose. I don’t profess, either, to know what the groundhog’s purpose is, but I will tell you this: they have gotten me thinking a lot about resiliency.

I may yet have to accept the things I cannot change, but for now, I am off to Home Depot to buy a seven-foot tall fence, that I can lay with an L shape at the bottom (said to deter digging). I will put flexible fencing at the top (said to deter climbing), and I will plant again!

I just know somehow this will be my year.


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