In The Desert
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The Slimy Dawn of an Assault Gardner
Written by Dave Taylor
Photographs by Dave Taylor
When Organic Gardening Gets Real
I sip at my first mug of coffee of the day. It will be my only cup for this morn, for this is the weekend. There is killing to be done. With anticipation I prepare for the hunt; camouflaged BDU pants, old green sweater, beat up garden boots. I am ready.
I once wore gloves; garden, leather, surgical gloves. Now I go barehanded. My stomach no longer turns with the greasy feel of my prey. I have girded my stomach, my mind, my soul for the slaughter to come.
As I exit the house, I grab my bucket, a five-gallon plastic pail that has served me well. I know its exact weight, so that I can quickly calculate the level of success I have enjoyed that day.
I will start in the garden, work up to the house, into the front yard, then back to the garden, and the domicile of my cohorts, allies in this killing frenzy I celebrate. It would be quicker if I started in the front yard
and worked down to the garden and the chicken coop, but there is a method, a rhythm to the hunt.
In the garden, I turn on the flashlight, for though false dawn has broken the gloom, it is still not enough to see my prey. If it were bright enough, they would long be hidden in their craven lairs, hiding from the light.
And the likes of me.
At first I see nothing. This is the way. They have the ideal camouflage, developed over centuries. With an adjustment of my sight, and the hardening of my heart, I now see them.
When the Spaniards came to the New World, they brought horses, which escaped into the wild lands of this vast continent and became the stuff of legends as they flourished. When the British settlers came to stay, they brought the European honeybee, so sublime in their feral proliferation that it is hard to imagine a Spring without them.
The French brought snails.
Helix hortensis, the common Brown Garden Snail of North America is, in fact, the descendent of the Escargot of Gaelic cuisine, Helix pomatia, brought here by some demented Frog entrepreneur.
I see them in my garden, I see them in my ice plant, I see them in my nightmares, and I recite my battle cry: Mercy is a sign of weakness.
Barehanded I begin to pluck them from my eggplant, watermelon, cantaloupe, and peppers. In the past I could fill this bucket with just the snails in my garden, never mind the front and back yards. Back then I would plant my garden early in the year, taking advantage of the mild winters of Southern California, and by the next morning, everything I had planted would be gone, save taunting little stubs of green covered with tell-tale slime.
My blood runs cold.
The small snails with thin, light colored shells crack easily. The darker shelled larger mollusks, require some effort to shatter their defensive shells. Sometimes there are shells so thick that I have to lean them against something hard, a board or metal fence post, and when they collapse it is sudden and sharp and the snail's gore splatters in all directions, over everything.
I sneer with delight.
After years of making war, on wreaking my vengeance upon this slimy sticky enemy, I have actually dented their number. No longer does my organic garden disappear before my watering eyes, no longer do the French curse fatten their protein rich meat upon the leaves, vines and fruit of my labors.
True, I also have made hot caps from the plastic gallon jugs my son's juice comes in. I leave them on the plants until they have enough growth to survive the brutal onslaught of the feral beast cast upon our land.
Yet in the end, it is the hunt that keeps them from crawling up the slick side of the clear plastic, defeating the thin copper wire I have wrapped around each cap top, and slithering inside to do their damnedest to steal homemade preservative and pesticide-free butternut squash baby food from the mouths of my newborn progeny.
With renewed vigor I fall upon my prey, my garden nemesis, catching, cracking, crushing.
The bucket fills, but still I continue my assault. Inside the bucket, there is a liquid hissing noise, for the enemy is not dead. Even now, with smashed shells, smaller ones start climbing up the plastic sides seeking their paced escape. I wait until they are close to the top, and then flick them back down to the bottom with the snap of a finger.
By now I have made my way out of the garden. I have climbed up the hill through the ice plant and fruit trees to the back yard, and then the front. I am not quite the heavy-handed hunter here as I am in the garden. Here I only wish to thin the herd, to keep the pressures of population from forcing more of these oily pests from migrating down the hill. Once I start down into the garden, though, I redouble my vigorous pursuit. In the twenty minutes that I've been gone, a whole new phalanx of snails and slugs have moved in to replace their cronies.
If the mad Gaul who released this vermin on our continent intended to cultivate in some a taste for escargot, perhaps he has succeeded. Here in San Diego County, where the nights are lit by detonating meth labs, the full force of the law fell heavily upon scofflaws who had the audacity to trespass upon the sacred soil of an avocado grove. It's a felony to steal avocados in San Diego County. Much to the chagrin of the forces of justice, the undocumented migrants weren't after the over-priced fruit, but the snails eating the leaves and bark of the grove's trees. It seems that these illicit serfs from down south, rich in culture and Hepatitis C, have developed a taste for free food. They purge the snails with corn meal, then saute' them in butter and wild garlic, gathered along the small creeks that flow under scrub oak, fed by the runoff of thousands of septic tanks.
But I digress
The sun has risen. My poultry comrades stir and gather close together in anticipation, their small eyes glint with eagerness. True, they are too stupid to remember from last week why. Still, they sense something good is coming.
I weigh the bucket of captured mollusks. Five pounds. Grimly I smirk. In the beginning, I didn't keep count, then I counted them one at a time. I lost count too easily, maybe once reaching a thousand snails in one day, maybe not. Now I weigh them.
I open the gate to the chicken run. Within are my loyal brethren, my fellow carnivores. There are Black Australorps, that lay a handsome large brown egg. There is one white-egg laying Pearl Leghorn, all white itself, with a bright red comb, feather-legged Light Brahmas that also lay a handsome brown egg, and then there are the Araucanas, a unique breed from Chile that lays a large green egg.
There are those who would have you believe the Araucana egg is an aqua blue, reminiscent of a robin's egg. I tell you it is green.
I pour a scoop of chicken scratch into the bucket. The snails hiss their oily liquid noise, like a dozen little boys passing gas. Few if any of the snails are dead, merely prepped for what is about to come.
Let it begin.
I toss the contents of the bucket into the run. The feeding frenzy that ensues is a cross between a Roman orgy and the games at the Coliseum. The chickens stab savagely at the writhing meat before them, tearing, rending, tossing tender tufts of food into the air. They devour the escargot. At first they will not eat a snail without a broken shell, but before the fever has ended, they will have eaten everything, shell and all. The scoop of scratch was not to entice the chickens to this fit of gourmet fury, but to get them to eat something other than the snails. Even as the massacre is playing out, the snails swallow the corn whole, and when the chickens eat the snails, they eat the scratch as well.
Che said, "Let your enemy be your quartermaster." I nod approvingly at this thought. They eat my garden, they feed my chickens. Thus is the circle of life.
I do not expect, nor care, whether others understand. An acquaintance that practices some form of Hinduism proclaimed, and I quote, "Boy, is your karma shot."
So be it. So Be It.
It is done. In less than fifteen minutes the snails are gone. The Pearl Leghorn wipes its beak in the dirt to mop away the slime.
Their eggs, besides being more prolific, will have harder shells. The opaque membrane just under the shell, something you don't even see on a commercial egg, will be only a little thinner than wallet leather. The whites will be firm like hard jelly, and the yolk will be a firm wet gold. The taste is buttery, potent, more flavorful than any egg you'll ever eat.
The sun shines down on my face. The day of hunting is over, the carnage, though good, is done. Before I can touch anything with my hands, I must wash them with soap and hot water. When done washing my hands, I must wash the bar of soap and the faucets of the sink. My bloodlust is sated for the moment. I wait for the morrow.
Life is good.