Thursday, August 28, 2008
Western Legends #1
It’s August & the grasshoppers erupt from every plant as you walk down the garden path. They ping against the corrugated tin siding on the shop, they crawl over the leaves of the wilted flowers, they make their way toward the basil & peppers & tomatillos—because this is the time of year when the garden’s a vegetable garden, & not so much for flowers. But mostly for grasshoppers.
Grasshoppers are ubiquitous here— if you walk in the tall grass past the stile or the wooden gates, the grass rustles with their motion. They’re not frenzied, just intent. They love the tall pasture grass, & the one llama & one alpaca can’t keep the pasture grazed… the grasshoppers like the mowed & watered lawn less—their natural habitat is the wilted yellow pasture….
The praying mantis lurk in the lawn—you scarcely see them, because they hunt grasshoppers by not moving at all. Last year, Eberle had a pet praying mantis that lived for weeks on our porch, & she being a gardener to the core was delighted at the carnage the praying mantis could inflict on grasshoppers….& she’d also sally forth in the morning, scissors in hand because grasshoppers are sluggish in the cooler morning air…. the scourge, Nemesis the gardener swooping down on the grasshopper hordes….
It’s more harsh on top of the mesa than at the base where we live; the south face of the mesa drains through our property, so we actually have water & trees, which means shade & a lawn that keeps the grasshoppers somewhat at bay. When we go to visit our friends on top of the mesa, the grasshoppers swarm the car—they erupt out of the bitterbrush & launch themselves off the gravel road; they crawl on the windshield & get stuck in the wipers when you turn the wipers on to dislodge them. When our friend & long-time artistic collaborator Judy Anderson used to live on the mesa, she tells how the grasshoppers would eat the screen from the screen windows & the clothes off her daughters’ Barbies. Some of the newcomers move up on the mesa & plant a vegetable garden, & one day in July, or August at the latest, wake up to see that the grasshoppers have eaten every leaf….Back in the early days, we raised guinea hens because one thing guinea hens do well is eat grasshoppers; & Eberle would drive her flock before her, & the guineas would work their way through the garden eating grasshoppers at a furious rate. True, you sacrificed some strawberries & pie cherries to the guineas, but all in all, they did what we’d dreamed of when we raised them from chicks under a heat lamp in our old house—they defended the garden.
Problem is, as efficiently as the guinea hens ate grasshoppers, practically every other wild critter ate the guinea hens—foxes, coyotes, owls, skunks, weasels, hawks, etc. Although the guineas could be pretty fierce (being birds, after all, which makes them fierce by definition)—I once saw two guinea roosters face off with a raccoon at twilight—they also had a bad habit of roosting in trees, where they’re mostly defenseless at twilight & in the early morning….
But Eberle thinks, & she may be right, that the grasshopper population right in our own corner of the world has never really built back up to the old plague proportions since the guinea hen days. But as you walk down the garden path, the grasshoppers ricocheting off your jeans & bursting out of the blown poppies, you wonder, & you get a feel for the real old west….