Last night I tromped down the hill with a hammer, six wooden stakes, and a spool of fishing line to do battle with deer. But it’s not what you think. As far as I know there are no vampire deer in the neighborhood. No, our deer are the usual docile, graceful, and enormously frustrating sort. Frustrating because I’m a wannabe gardener, and they seem to think I’m doing all this work for them.
I planted a pumpkin patch down in the lower part of the yard, just past the young willow tree. I’ve never had much luck with pumpkins, so this year I went all-out. My kind neighbor brought his tractor down the hill and turned the ground, revealing darker soil than further up where I plant my corn. When it rains a lot (well, when it used to rain a lot) I can’t even mow this spot for fear of getting stuck in all that soggy grass–which is why I planted the thirsty willow tree there last year. I’m guessing all that moisture and runoff has been feeding this little section of the yard for a hundred years. Now, by golly, that soil was going to feed my pumpkins.
I bought a hundred feet of water hose and ran it all the way to the patch, raised six mounds of dirt, ringed them each with a little moat, and planted three seeds per mound. After a week or two of watering, the seedlings broke through the soil, and there was much rejoicing at the Warren. That was weeks ago, and now the pumpkin vines have all but exploded with leaves as big as platters, bright yellow flowers, and twenty-foot vines. It’s a bona fide pumpkin patch.
And that’s when the rabbits came. Then the deer. Now, I’m partial to rabbits, as the name of the property (not to mention this website) attests. But I have from time to time, when they’ve eaten my carrots or my baby watermelons or my squash, craved a rabbit sandwich. Still, we have an outside cat who seems to keep them at bay, so I’m usually happy to see bunnies in the grass. But the deer—those impervious deer, with their “innocent” eyes and their “gentle” demeanor—don’t give a hoot about cats. And they know they can outrun Moondog’s maddest sprint. It’s not unusual to see deer on or around our property, so I knew it was a matter of time before they sniffed out my pumpkins.
One morning last week I was coasting down the gravel drive when I saw her: a doe, knee-deep in pumpkin vines, munching away at those supple leaves. I slammed on the brakes and screamed at her. She stared me down and tore another leaf from the vine. I seethed as it slowly disappeared into her maw. I threw the car into park and stomped across the yard, trying to think of a curse that the deer would understand. She chewed, casually defiant, until I got about fifteen feet away, then with two silent leaps she vanished into the woods. I inspected my precious pumpkins and saw five or six lonely, leafless, budless stems, potential jack-o-lanterns who never got a chance to shine.
That’s what led me to yesterday’s expedition with the wooden stakes and the fishing line. I wish I could say I was making a booby trap. I’d like nothing more than to walk out one morning and see that sinister doe caught in a net and hanging from a tree like C3P0 and the gang on Endor. No, I was making an invisible fence. I hammered six stakes into the ground, then strung the fishing line around the patch several times. Supposedly the deer can’t see the line and it freaks them out, or at least that’s what someone told me on Facebook. I’ll have to let you know how it goes.
The point is this: strangely, I love that fence. It’s not even a real fence—it’s more like a spider web, really. But when I got to the porch and turned to see those six simple stakes in the ground, the setting sun glinting on the fishing line, and the weeping willow a few feet away, something in my heart woke up. What a few weeks ago was just another spot in the yard, an alcove of grass surrounded by a sweep of honeylocust, hackberry, and juniper, became something new. In a way, it became newly mine. I claimed it, marked it out, enclosed it in that fishing line, and now it’s not just another swath of grass. Now it’s another place to visit on my nightly walk around the property.
Planting the willow tree last year was the first step; it adorned a blank canvas of lawn. Then my neighbor tilled it, and Jamie and I enjoyed watching the seeds sprout and the vines creep. And it was nice, too, when the plants were established and flourishing. I asked my neighbors, “Hey, did you notice the pumpkin patch?” Until I pointed it out, they hadn’t. But something changed yesterday when I staked that fence and strung the line. I was telling the deer and the rabbits and the neighbors and myself that it was more than just a random congregation of plants; it was a garden. It was protected, and tended to, and had purpose. Out of this wildness, order; out of this vastness, place. God made the world, and in it, he made a garden.
A river flowed out of Eden to water the garden, and there it divided and became four rivers. The name of the first is the Pishon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold. And the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is the Gihon. It is the one that flowed around the whole land of Cush. And the name of the third river is the Tigris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it. (Genesis 2)
Yesterday, right here in Nashville, I understood something about God’s love for his people. I chose, out of my whole property, one nook to claim for pumpkins, and that act made the whole place more beautiful. I subdued the earth, and she became more lovely for it. I imagine the rest of the property, the part that grows wild as it will, looks at that little, protected tangle of pumpkins with longing—a longing not to be constricted, but to be cared for; a longing not to be enslaved, but beloved.
Then, of course, I think of the Israelites. From all the peoples of the earth, God chose Abraham and made out of his descendants a garden—a garden with boundaries. God gave them his law not to punish, but to protect and provide. He put up a fence and set his affection on them, that all creation would see and rejoice. My little perfunctory fence isn’t just there to keep the deer out (or to keep the pumpkins in, for that matter). Now I know it’s also there to establish. It’s there to make the whole place more beautiful, to the delight of the owner of the homestead. As it says in Jeremiah 30:22, “You shall be my pumpkins, and I will be your gardener.” Or something like that.