too many words by laura lemay

The Mutton War

(warning, long)

The war has gone on for so long that we almost cannot remember a time in which we were at peace. We start awake at night at the slightest noise, ready to charge outside shouting with guns drawn, only to find we are hurling our fury at shadows, and there is nothing there. Sometimes we awaken in the morning to find they have silently raided us in the night and left nothing but rubble and torn ground in their wake.

We have greater resources, but they have more numbers, and they are relentless. They have worn us down over the years, our rampaging enemy with the floppy ears and the big, round, soft eyes.

* * *

At first I thought the mule deer in the yard were harmless, charming, even. For the first winter after we moved in I watched them from the window as they grazed, pastorally, at the edge of the lawn. With big eyes and ears and huge soft black noses they looked adorable, and when startled they leaped gracefully away into the brush, tails raised in the air like flags. I had a Disney cartoon running 24 hours a day in my backyard, and I couldn’t be happier.

One of the group of deer that lingered around the house was smaller than the others, probably a fawn from that year, and I named him Edward. Edward was frequently in a group with a larger doe, and she became Eleanor. In truth, since it was winter, none of the deer had antlers so I couldn’t tell whether Eleanor was Edward or vice versa, and since all deer look essentially alike eventually all big deer became Eleanor and all small deer became Edward. Eric thought this was very funny. “Look!” he’d say, calling me over to laugh at me. “There’s another Edward on the lawn!”

Eric didn’t think much of my ungulate fan club. He had studied wildlife biology in college, and had been a hunter for a few years before becoming a vegetarian. Deer, he explained to me, were stupider than dirt, and they were completely infested with fleas and ticks. The ticks carry lyme disease, and the fleas carry plague. Deer are prone to “mad deer disease.” (“You’re making that up,” I said. “I AM NOT,” he insisted. “Google it.” I did, and he’s right. Deer get a wasting disease caused by the same sort of prions that cause Mad Cow.) Even having the deer in the yard probably meant that we were all going to die a horrible death of some kind of painful hemorrhagic fever. On the other hand, Eric admitted, if all of modern civilization were to collapse in the Y2K armageddon and zombie masses roamed the earth, we would be OK at least for a little while because we could shoot and eat the deer.

Eric’s cheery optimism did not change my mind; I still thought the deer were awesome. All that first winter I watched them stroll pastorally through the yard. And then that spring I planted some roses in the garden beds next to the house and Edward or Eleanor strolled pastorally up to the house and ate them. Gobbled them right down to the hard bare branches. And suddenly I wasn’t quite so in love with the deer.

For years when I lived in apartments I had been cutting out pictures from magazines of sprawling cottage gardens, of big lush messy beds of old-fashioned flowers in white and pink and lavender and blue. Cottage gardens reminded me of my grandmother’s house on Cape Cod, of lazy summer afternoons, of watching honeybees wander lazily over the flowers, of brushing sand off of my feet after a day on the beach. I had been daydreaming of a cottage garden for years, and now that I had my big country house I wanted my garden. I wanted roses and lilacs and lavender; I wanted bees and hummingbirds and summer. But Edward and Eleanor were thwarting all my plans. It seemed like no matter what I planted Edward and Eleanor swept in, usually at night, and ate the new plants right down to the ground. If they didn’t eat the whole plant they just nibbled it really well to make sure it wasn’t good to eat, or they pulled it up and left it to die on the dirt. If I wanted my cottage garden, I needed solutions, and I needed them fast.

* * *

“I have deer eating my garden,” I said to the thin, bespectacled man with the ponytail who worked at the garden center. He reached out and touched my arm. “I’m so sorry,” he said, as if I had just told him I had cervical cancer. He led me to the section of the store labelled “Pests.” They did not sell pests in Pests. Along the wall were stacked an enormously impressive variety of commercial deer repellants with descriptive and similar names (“Deer-Out,” “Deer-Go,” “Deer-X,” “Deer-Rid,” “Deer-Be-Gone,”). My garden guy, however, suggested a small bottle of coyote pee, which cost $15. “Works like a charm,” he said.

“How do they get the coyote to pee in the bottle?” I asked.

My garden guy gave me a tired look. “Everyone makes that joke,” he said.

I applied the coyote pee as directed, and I could hear Edward and Eleanor laughing at me, just before they ate my plants. Coyotes, on the other hand, started coming by and wondering what the hell was going on. Was there a party, and they hadn’t been invited?

I went back to the garden center and asked for something stronger. My garden guy offered me a $25 deer repellant that was absolutely a sure thing. “Works like a charm,” my garden guy said. “Make sure you dilute it.” Confident, I mixed up the brown smelly goo per the instructions and sprayed an entire garden bed with it. Every leaf on every plant in the bed shrivelled up and died within two days. I suppose killing all the plants could be considered a form of deer repellant, but that wasn’t precisely the result I was looking for.

It took some time for my beds to recover from that experience, but after the garden and the deer came back this time I decided to resort to less commercial and less expensive solutions. A Google search for “deer repellant” gave me a variety of things to try to keep the deer away from my plants, many of them disgusting, but none of them cost me more than a buck or two (pun not intended). I tried Irish Spring soap, human hair, garlic, mustard, lemons, blood meal, dried milk, and hot pepper. I put dishes of used kitty litter all over the garden. I had Eric pee on my plants (“What? You want me to do what?”). Nothing. I considered growing rocks in the garden instead of plants.

And then I discovered rotten eggs. Based on an suggestion in an internet forum I put two eggs in a blender with a little dish soap and some water, filled up a spray bottle and left it out in the sun for a few days. This was a terrifically effective repellant, not just for deer, but also for everything else. I made the mistake of spraying it on the garden on a windy day, and Eric made me sleep on the couch for two days until the smell wore off. But it worked. It absolutely worked. With rotten egg all over the plants the deer left them alone. For almost a whole season the garden was perfect.

Rotten eggs are a perfect solution for overcoming deer hunger and curiosity, but they suffer from one major flaw: they do not cure laziness in the gardener. The egg repellant would work for a week or so, and then the effect would wear off, randomly. After a few days I couldn’t tell whether it was still working — I couldn’t smell it, even though the deer still could. It would also wash off if there was the slightest bit of rain or fog, and once it was gone, the marauding deer would take all my plants again. To keep the repellant effect going I had to mix up a new batch and have it ready to go every week.

I would like to claim that my gardening habits allow for that kind of strict attention to detail, but they don’t. As much as I like having a garden, and as much as I like puttering around in the garden, there are whole weeks where I forget that plants need things like water. A deer solution that requires constant maintenance is too complicated for me.

* * *

The most obvious solution to the deer problem was to shoot the deer. But despite the damage they were doing to my flowers I still did actually like the deer. I liked having the deer around, and I liked watching them graze in groups at the edges of the yard. I didn’t want the deer to die, or even to suffer serious injury. I just wanted to keep them out of the garden.

Our neighbor Roberta next door told us that she kept the deer out of her fruit trees by paying her son to shoot rocks at them with a slingshot. This mostly taught the deer to be afraid of her son, which only worked when he was actually around, and became entirely ineffective when her son went away to college. But the slingshot gave Eric the idea to buy a paintball gun. Paintballs, the theory went, wouldn’t hurt the deer like a real gun or even an air rifle would, but they would sting a lot. And we could shoot the deer from a far enough distance away that they might not associate the sting with us.

Paintball guns, it turns out, are really expensive, if you care about things like accuracy, firing speed and muzzle velocity. The best paintball guns operate with C02 cartridges, can shoot a paint ball at 200 miles per hour and are fully automatic — pull the trigger and get a continuous stream of paintpball pellets, as many as 60 balls a second. Since we were not interested in re-enacting Saving Private Ryan in the backyard with deer and paint, we aimed for something that was simpler and cheaper. One simple gun that would fire one simple paintball.

“Let’s get this one,” Eric said, showing me his computer. On the screen was an online store selling the SplatMatic ThunderSplat paintball shotgun. I was momentarily speechless.

“Is that real?” I asked. “Is it really called that?”

The SplatMatic ThunderSplat paintball shotgun was a simple spring-loaded paint ball gun. You cocked it like a pump action shotgun, and it fired one paintball at a time. It was just what we wanted. We ordered one and a big jar of multicolored paintballs.

When Eric got the Splatmatic ThunderSplat paintball shotgun he went out on the porch to try it out. I went out to watch. There were no deer in sight. Boof, he shot a paintball at a tree, which sailed at very slow speed some feet off to the right of the tree. “Hmmm,” said Eric.

It took some practice to get the Splatmatic ThunderSplat paintball shotgun to shoot where it was aimed. The paintballs had a habit of wandering off slowly in all directions, anywhere except where they had actually been aimed. After a few more experiments shooting at trees Eric got good enough to where the margin of error was only a few feet to either side. “Well, maybe I can hit a deer if they’re the size of a barn,” he commented, grumbling.

A few days later we had opportunity to try. “There’s a deer on the lawn,” I announced one weekend afternoon, and Eric leapt up from the couch and grabbed the Splatmatic ThunderSplat paintball shotgun from its spot behind the kitchen table. I watched from the window as he carefully crept outside onto the porch, crouched down on his haunches, and cocked the gun. Boof, a blue paintball sailed out from the shotgun, arced slowly through the air, and fell in the grass about two feet short of the deer. The deer watched it coming, looked curiously at the spot where it had landed, and then moved over and sniffed it.

Eric moved over a bit, cocked the gun again, and aimed more carefully. Boof, the paintball smacked the deer right on the butt, and bounced off into the grass right near the previous paintball. The deer twitched one ear and looked mildly startled. Perhaps it was coming down with mad deer disease.

Eric stood up and brandished the shotgun and stuck his arms in the air with a yell that sounded like “BLEAAGH!” That worked — the deer turned and darted off down the hill. Eric came back inside. “Maybe we should get a slingshot,” I said. “Maybe,” Eric replied.

* * *

The second most obvious solution to the deer in the garden problem is to put up a fence. Fence out the deer, and the problem immediately goes away. And, in fact, this is the solution I used for my vegetable garden, which is enclosed in a high fence at one side of the yard. Deer have never touched that garden. But the big yard around the house with my flowers in it is open to the lawn and to the woods and to the fields.

Fencing the entire yard and the flower garden would require not only a lot of fence, but it would also block out all the rest of the wildlife I liked to watch from the kitchen windows. Part of living in the mountains was letting the mountains in. I liked having the deer around; I just didn’t want them in the garden beds. A big fence was out.

I did try putting lightweight netting over the entire garden bed, which is a fine solution if you want your garden to look like it is into light bondage. The netting made the garden difficult to work in, but it did keep Edward and Eleanor out, at least until they figured out that they could grab the netting in their teeth and drag it right off the plants, leaving a vomit-like pile of black shaggy plastic on the lawn, tangled up with twigs and leaves and bits of plant. “I thought you said deer were stupid.” I asked Eric. “Maybe our deer went to college,” Eric replied.

* * *

Utimately, I resorted to the solution of “deer-proof gardening.” Rather than stubbornly planting all the beautiful old fashioned cottage garden plants from my books and articles, plants which the deer all seemed to love to eat, I would plant things the deer didn’t want to eat at all. Poisonous plants, stinky plants, hairy plants, and plants that simply didn’t taste good. I felt some despair at this solution because it meant having to give in to the deer, to admit that I couldn’t grow exactly what I wanted to grow in my own garden. It felt like admitting defeat. But if I couldn’t have my cottage garden, at least I could have some garden, and that was better than no garden at all.

I found a list of “deer-resistant plants” on the internet and worked from that. Gone were the roses and hollyhocks, hostas, tulips and daylilies. In were lavender, iris, lots of sages, foxglove, herbs of all kinds. Sometimes plants on the list didn’t work at all. I planted a penstemon on the list and the deer ate it the first night. “Maybe the deer didn’t read the list,” Eric said. I planted shasta diasies — my neighbor Roberta had a whole bed of them in her front yard — and the deer ate them. I planted a hydrangea which grew for four years and gave me glorious huge blue puffy flowers every year. And then in the fifth year the deer ate it right down to the ground. (I reconsidered my “no shooting” rule after that incident.)

But slowly, over time, and with experimentation, my garden started to become bigger and less appealing to the deer. Slowly, over time, I learned the plants the deer would and would not eat. Slowly, over time, I built a garden that wasn’t a cottage garden, not like the ones I had always dreamed of, but it was my garden, and it worked with my house and my yard and my schedule and my wildlife.

* * *

Even after I figured out deer-proof gardening, and we had convinced the deer that the paintball gun was at least a marginal threat, the deer still came around, as if to taunt us. One summer they took to sleeping under the porch. In the front yard, due to a quirk of landscaping, we have a small bridge that extends from the porch onto a hill with trees on it. Under the bridge it is dark and cool and on hot afternoons especially the deer took to creeping underneath it and going to sleep. Having deer nesting under the house was a continual surprise to everyone involved. We would unsuspectingly open the front door and step onto the bridge and suddenly with a huge banging and clattering deer would shoot out in all directions. Go outside, and have an instant heart attack, each and every time.

Eric was especially affronted by the deer sleeping under the porch. “Deer are WILD ANIMALS,” he said. “They are not supposed to be this tame.” For him, the deer sleeping under the porch not only represented the utter failure of the paintballs in frightening the deer away from the house, but also an escalation in the war. Now the deer were not only hanging out nearby. Now they were setting up camp. It was like fighting an infestation of very large adorable cockroaches. If we didn’t put a stop to it right away, soon we might be finding deer under the couch or peering back at us from inside the refrigerator. We would turn on the lights in the middle of the night and surprise huge herds of deer, which would scurry away and hide under the bed. Something had to be done.

One day we came home from town and Eric suddenly stopped midway up the road, short of the house, and got out of the truck. “What?” I asked.

“There’s a deer sleeping under the bridge,” he said. “I’m going to teach it a lesson so it doesn’t come back.”

I watched from inside the truck as Eric crept up the driveway, crouched down so the deer wouldn’t see him. He slunk as quietly as he could around the rock wall at the side of the hill, over to within yards of the bridge, and then jumped up, stuck his arms in the air with a yell that sounded like “BLEAAGH!” There was a BANG as the deer came to its feet and knocked up against the low ceiling, and then squirted out from under the bridge and took off up the hill toward the garage. Eric leapt up onto the wall to chase after it, and then stopped. Then he walked up through the trees in the direction the deer had run. Then he stopped walking and put his hands over his mouth.

Something bad had just happened. I turned off the truck, pulled the keys out of the ignition and got out and ran up the driveway toward Eric. He put out his arm to keep me away. “What?” I asked. “What happened?”

“I think I killed it,” he said. “It ran up the bank and fell back down again. I think it broke its neck.”

I walked further up to where I could see the deer, lying there in the road just short of the steep bank next to the garage. It was still twitching a little, its eyes rolled up, its neck twisted. I got kind of a sick feeling. This wasn’t supposed to happen. We were just supposed to scare the deer away, not kill it.

If we were better country people we would have taken this as a blessing: free food, dropped right into our lap, and we didn’t even have to waste any ammunition to get it. We would have hung up the deer and skinned it and cleaned it and popped it into the freezer and eaten well for months. But Eric is a vegetarian and I wouldn’t know how to clean a deer if it had instructions painted on it (“cut at dotted lines”). As angry as I was about my hydrangeas, and as much as Eric had joked about his Y2K food source, this wasn’t supposed to be a war with actual casualties.

“What do you want to do?” I asked Eric.

“I don’t know,” he said. “I don’t know. I guess I’ll call fish and game and try to explain to them that I scared a deer to death.”

But then the deer on the ground beside us thrashed, once, and its whole body shuddered. Alive! It’s alive! I thought. The deer untwisted itself, raised its head and looked around. Eric and I backed away to give it space, and as we watched from some distance the deer eventually got up, looked around for a while, and then trotted off into the woods. Other than a slightly unsteady list, it seemed to be just fine. After some conferring we decided that after falling on the bank it must have just been stunned. We didn’t kill it after all. We just harassed it badly.

That particular deer never darkened the space under the bridge again, and he apparently told all his friends, because no other deer ever showed up under the porch, either. All the deer kept their distance from the house and from the porch for at least a week, before returning to the usual habit of grazing through the yard and nibbling on all my plants that were not hairy, stinky, or poisonous. Eric reloaded his paintball gun, and the war resumed as usual.

In recent years, however, we have found a new weapon in our war against the deer, although it would be more accurate to say that the weapon has found us. Our new weapon is a newly resident mountain lion. We haven’t seen the mountain lion, but we’ve see paw prints on the driveway, six inches wide. Since the mountain lion moseyed into town there are many fewer Edwards and Eleanors in the yard, and those that remain are much more skittish. There are no deer sleeping under the porch. There are no deer nibbling on my garden. The paintball gun is gathering dust. The weapon is so effective that recently I’ve even been considering planting roses again. I’ve been thinking that maybe I can have my cottage garden after all. The tide of the war has been turned. Now we have to cross our fingers and hope that the cure isn’t worse than the disease, and that we don’t come out of the house some day to find a mountain lion under the porch waiting for us.