When I first noticed that some newly planted cone flowers (Echinacea purpurea ‘Pow Wow Berry’) were chewed down to the nub I suspected that a groundhog had paid us a visit. About a week after I found the damage I finally saw the culprit and indeed it was a groundhog. The biggest, fattest groundhog I have ever seen, and having grown up around farmland in rural Pennsylvania that is saying something.
The corpulent bastard waddled his way across the rocks and decided that brunch would be two other cone flowers I had just planted. I banged on the window and off he scurried (insofar as his size allowed for scurrying).
I immediately thought about how easily remedied this would be if I were still back home in Perkiomenville, PA. One option would be to trap and relocate him, but this is against the law in Marblehead. The less charitable option from back home would have been a .22, also a big no-no around here. I started considering using my bow from the second story window.
As I quietly grumbled my daughter whose attention was grabbed by my window banging and groundhog cursing observed “well daddy, a habitat is for everyone, even groundhogs. He belongs here too.” At six years old Elsie is not only wise beyond her years but is also often wise beyond my years.
Elsie reminded me of why we decided to restore the back yard habitat to begin with and in doing so reminded me of Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic.”
“we abuse land because we regard it as a commodity belonging to us. When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect” (Leopold, 1949, p. viii).
So I must sheepishly admit my preoccupation with our tiny slice of land as commodity, a thing that belongs to me and only me—well, given the price of plants at my local nursery perhaps I can be forgiven? Leopold’s and Elsie’s points are well taken: why engage in this undertaking if I am not willing to share not only with my friends and neighbors but also with the occasional obese rodent? What sense does it make to invite the birds that I love only to exclude other creatures simply because they have the audacity to eat things other than what I have allotted as “their share.”
On days when I am feeling more optimistic and less cynical about humanity I look back at the history of Western ethics and like to conceive of it as an exercise in moral evolution. That is to say that as we move forward through time we increasingly see in the “other” not someone or something alien but rather our brethren with whom we share the same moral considerability. This is what Leoplold is trying to capture, and for him the progressive dissolution of otherness and the ensuing moral embrace of that which had once been alien to us must include wider biotic communities.
“All ethics so far evolved” writes Leopold “rest upon a single premise: that the individual is a member of a community of interdependent parts. The land ethic simply enlarges the boundaries of the community to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land” (Leopold, 1949, p. 203).
I do consider myself to be a staunch environmentalist but I am by no means an animal rights activist; lord knows I have done my fair share of hunting and fishing and I understand the role of predator and prey. But to destroy a groundhog because he shares my admiration for Echinacea purpurea? That is just selfishness and conceit.
We want make room for our furry friend but don’t want to be completely resigned to nothing but plant stubs. I still want to see some cone flowers grow and provide joy to bees and butterflies. So, Elsie and I have come up with two solutions. The first one is her idea which is that we will plant tender perennials near the hole under the fence where Mr. Groundhog makes his entrance and exit so that he won’t have to venture far into the garden to find a tasty snack. A groundhog garden so to speak. The second solution has been some chicken wire cloches I picked up from Gardner’s Supply to help protect some of the more vulnerable groundhog delicacies.
If this were a vegetable garden (rather than a habitat garden) that I relied upon to feed my family, I would perhaps have a different solution. If I were a farmer protecting his crops I may be forced into more dramatic remedies. But that is not our situation, and there is enough chaos and death in the world without me bringing it into my garden.
So, Mr. Groundhog, enjoy the buffet and as you dine please be sure to give thanks to one very kind hearted six-year-old called Elsie who reminded me that you belong here too.
Leopold, A. (1949) A Sand County Almanac and Sketches Here and There,
New York: Oxford University Press