It felt like I was tucking in little sentries, white tips pointed south to watch the winter sun laze onward.  In the morning, after tilling the bed whose eggplants Hanni had torn free and spreading handfuls of lime over the ready beds, I set out to plant garlic for the first time in my life.  We had a little patch on Bell Street, which I weeded and thinned here and there (and feasted on come harvest time), but I was never part of the sowing.  I’d asked Stu–last year’s garden coordinator who is still around for another program– for his methods, and I read Solomon’s blurb about the task in Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades, but when it came time to actually plant, I was alone.

I gathered a few stakes and lines to mark the rows, a sledgehammer, a triangular hoe, and the boxes of hardnecks we’d graded earlier this week.  I also measured the width of my hand.  Exactly four inches: perfect.  Wrestling with the stakes and lines proved successful but completely unnecessary in the end.  I dragged the hoe four times across the wide bed, and then a second time to make sure the cloves could sit deep enough to be protected from frosts and, perhaps in this mild valley, snow.  Well, if I stuck a clove so just its tip poked up from the trench, then covered it so the surface was flush again, it lay deep as somewhere between my first and second knuckles.  That’s about an inch, right?

Waiting to be tucked in

The Italian Late Hardneck only got me through a third of the row.  It’s got the biggest cloves I’ve ever seen apart from Elephant Garlic, so I went inside to glean more seed from the last piddly pile of heads.  That got us half a row, which, by some combination of nutrient exchange, alchemy, and good luck, will become almost 250 heads of garlic early next summer.  Then count the Chesnook (another hardneck variety with magenta skin and slimmer cloves), Nootka Rose (a warm softneck that I swear has been contaminated with other varieties), Italian Early Softneck (yet to be planted once we bid adieu to a tomato row), and a whole row of “generic softneck” we’ve lost track of, I’m hoping for a solid 2000 heads next July.

But wait, how much control do I really have over what this land does and does not produce?  A handful of lime?  A sturdy pat over the surface of those unassuming, deceivingly brown garlic beds?  The ground could freeze solid for a week or two and wipe out almost everything that’s planted outside.  Would the garlic survive?  Well, based on my talks with mid-westerners who see the first shoots of their garlic poke out from a coat of fresh snow, I’d guess it’s safe.  Until it’s time to make another decision– When To Harvest The Garlic– I’m ready to watch those beds in wonder.

On a side note: I bludgeoned a blind baby mouse to death today.  There was a long build-up during which one of its siblings crawled out of the bottom of the compost pile I was turning, frantically pawing the hot soil, dodging pill bugs and red worms in its lost wanderings.  I paused for a few minutes to consider the gravity of the situation.  Home destroyed, mama missing in action, blind and in shock, its tiny eyelids exposed to light for the first time.  It was so cute, and hopelessly pathetic.  I picked it up by the tail and placed it gingerly in the corner, hoping its home was really just behind the 3-bin system and it would crawl off happy and no worse for wear.  I continued digging, greedy for the richest, blackest earth that sat low in the pile.  After a few more pitchfork loads, though, another mouse emerged from the center of the pile, followed by another… and another!  I picked them up by the tails, one by one, and toppled them in the corner to lay stunned atop one another.  As I was about to dive in for another load (oh how the plants will love this stuff!), my chest sank.  Another baby crawled to the surface, its scalp partially ripped off, glistening pink under an eerie overcast sky.  I had considered killing the others, but felt relieved to avoid any god-like decisions.  Just put them off to the side and let nature take its course, right?  Well, this last mouse’s head was glaring back at me: You’ve already ruined me.  I think about five seconds passed between its emergence and first contact with my pitchfork tine.  Was it the first or fourth hit that killed it?

My mind immediately sailed away to a day in summer when I was about ten.  I was at my Grandma and Grandpa’s house in Ohio, and my grandpa was talking about a skunk that was shacking up in one of the basement window holes.  He said he was going to kill it with a shovel, and I remember feeling outraged and sick at the thought of such an act.  To bludgeon a poor helpless little animal with a shovel?!?  I couldn’t wrap my head around it.  It seemed cruel and unusual, perhaps even bordering on malicious.  I fussed and cried and stormed off to feel sorry and confused, and decidedly appalled at my grandfather.

The ideals of young girls are difficult, if not even unwise, to uphold.  I’m in no place to judge my grandpa’s prudence, and I’ve no claim to Right or Wrong.  But there’s something awfully poignant about the decisions he and I made.  We are not in control of the animals that choose to make their homes near us, nor do we have claim to their lives.  We may love them, and see their beauty and fragility, and wish to God they’d landed in another neighborhood, but at a certain point their lives and our goals clash irreconcilably.  We create environments that are unsuitable for them and then “put them out of their misery” when they choose to inhabit those environments, for better or worse.  I can’t say.  And I can’t say whether or not those other tiny mice will survive.  I left them huddling in the corner, catching their breath under rotting grass blades.  I won’t know if they ever grow up to scurry through the cucumber patch.  The older I get, the easier it is to sit with that, not knowing.

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