(Green Witch Column, Sagewoman Issue # 79)

I’ve been stalked by a mountain lion. I’ve been stared down by a mother bear, not sure why until her cub scrambled out of the tree next to me. I’ve listened to coyotes howl the kill in the desert night.

That or they were having a serious kegger… Sometimes, with coyotes, it’s hard to tell.

I love predators: wild abandon, sharp tooth, silent paw. I love predators, not just because I love the way a mountain lion flicks her tail when she is waiting. I love a predator because, as with any good dominatrix, a strong top means a happy, healthy bottom: A strong top predator means a healthy wild.

I had reason to think about this in a new way last fall. A teenage mountain lion made her way down to Seattle. Apparently, all the good barstools were taken where she came from. Cougars are the most territorial carnivore on this continent. Each one spends five out of seven days doing nothing more than patrolling the borders of his or her 150 square miles of property. So this young female came down the coastal railroad and set up camp in one of our great big beautiful parks…and then started patrolling the neighborhoods. This was right about the time that I was planning to enroll the Fox in round two of Itty Bitty Camp, a fabulous mom and toddler nature camp at the self-same park. And this was exactly the same time that a cougar attacked a five-year-old boy who was hiking right next to his mom in the northeastern part of our state. The cat seized the boy’s head in her jaws. The mom beat him off with a water bottle.

We passed on Itty Bitty Camp.

I didn’t say loving predators was simple.

Still, I do. I want to live close to the wild that they mean. For better or worse, there aren’t any big predators in my city neighborhood, but I have some dreams… Songbirds. Frogs. I’ve heard there are foxes down the way. So I’m gardening. Not for flowers, though I have many. Not for fruits, though last year’s cherries were sweet. I’m gardening for predators.

Now, let me be clear about what I have to work with. My front yard is about fifteen feet deep and thirty feet wide. When we moved in six years ago, it was a wildlife desert, which is to say nothing but a lawn. So I had to start small. You see, this is Grandmother Gaia’s house. And Grandma’s house is a pyramid scheme. It starts from the ground, each layer building on the health of the one below it. You make a big layer of prey and then you get a little bitty layer of predator. The prey animals, like rabbits and oh, say, aphids, are built to breed with speed. They make lots and lots of babies. Predators make very few babies, but each one eats lots and lots of prey animals. When everyone is in the house, they keep each other in balance. The foxes take care of the rabbits and the ladybugs take care of the aphids and everything works.

Mess with Grandma’s system and you get problems.

Look, I’m not saying let’s all go hold hands with grizzly bears. I quit Itty Bitty Camp, right? But listen, My Dear. There are ways to be on Grandmother’s side, no matter where you live.

Have you figured out where I am going with this yet? Aphids were your first clue:

Make peace with bugs.

Arggh! Not that. Yes, Little Red Riding Hood. That.

This is how it works. Bugs are Grandmother Gaia’s first row of legos in the wild house that she is always trying to build for us. The house that is the wild, that gives us our seasonal rhythms, our Beltane and Halloween, our strength and magic. It is a complex and wonderful place. Bugs are the foundation. And, like most foundations, they disappear once the upper floors are in place.

But if you don’t have them, you don’t have a house.

 

Look, I know what I am up against. Maybe you hate bugs. Maybe you wad spiders up in tp and flush them, kind of enjoying the way their legs crunch. I get it. I know what it is like to lose your lettuce to hordes of evil snails. Even worse, my Woodstock hyacinths, at the threshold of spring, when it has been so cold and so grey for so long and all I am looking forward to is a whiff of that sweetest perfume. When I find those hyacinth buds, chewed down to bald nubs… Well, it made me want to go buy a 40 of malt liquor. But I’d only drink half. The other half is for the snails.

You drown them in beer. It is not a good death for the snail. At that moment, I don’t care. I used to fool myself, say that it was like giving them a final party before they go. But it’s easier for me than what I used to do. Easier than hunting them at night,  reaching under the fence rail and feeling the ththpt! as their suction releases, then filling black Hefty bags full  and calling myself the angel of death as I stomped on the crunchy, squishy contents of the bag. It was utterly revolting but also satisfying in a sick way.

See? I’ve got no problem with killing bugs – although I have since discovered a better way to make the world safe for my hyacinths. However, I do need to say that I have a problem with eliminating the whole food chain, which is what pesticides do. I know it is a lot cleaner than stomping on snails, which is not for the faint of heart. But is soulless. It kills more than just the bugs. It breaks Grandma.

And, anyway, it doesn’t work because when you wipe out everybody, the prey animals, aphids or rabbits, always come back a lot faster than the predators. And during the lag, your roses stand about as much chance as a six-pack in a frat house.

Instead, be good to your predators and you’ll never have to fight the aphids again. Plus, you’ll feel what I feel, every day, when I walk out my front door. My yard is a tapestry of the wild. I’m talking climbing roses and mossy flagstone paths. An arch hung with yellow lantern clematis flowers, a pond bordered with ferns and wild strawberries.

All of it, built for predators.

All of it, full of Grandmother Gaia’s wild wisdom, living in balance, beautiful.

All of it, unbelievably easy to maintain because Grandma is doing most of the work.

 

It’s been six years since I started my predator gardening. I’ve got some, now, which tells me what my heart already knows: My wild lives. I watched a hawk take a wren, mid-flight over my pond. I saw a Western Tanager, the red and yellow and black Lady Gaga of migrating songbirds. I have fruits and flowers and a plattoon of ladybugs and lacewings making my gardening life easy. But you know what really got my Grandma geek on?

Carnivorous ground beetles.

I’m not kidding. I saw a pair of ground beetles making it in my front yard a few weeks ago and I just about lost my mind. The lady beetle had a beige wafer protruding form her hind end, encasing the male’s usual. This wafer thing was huge and it was glistening, if you’ll pardon the word. (Not to overshare, but Grandma, if that was her clit, in my next life I want to be a lady carnivorous ground beetle.)

This is good for two reasons:

First, ground beetles hunt snails. They are the cougars of the ground and their heads are specially evolved to get inside a snail’s shell and kill the little f*#@ers.

Which means that my snail stomping days are over.

Second, ground beetles are a very good sign that Grandma’s foundation is strong. When I see a carnivorous ground beetle shopping for baby booties, I know that everything underneath her, all that wild is saying “Yes! I’m here and I’m thriving.” I can see it in the beetle and I can feel it, when I put my hands in the soil, when I hear the sound of rain striking leaf and flower, when I watch the wrens carry hopeful sticks in their lusty little beaks. I can feel it when I walk out my front door through a swath of wild that stands between me and the crazy world out there. A wild that is only that is only fifteen feet deep, but is like a circle cast around my home that says “Grandma Lives Here.” That says, “Grandma. My what big teeth you have!”

 

Ritual Resources

{C}1.     First of all, you need a totem. What is your ultimate predator? Frogs? Bluebirds? Learn about who is in your neighborhood, or who should be. Draw or buy or cut out a picture of your ideal top… predator, I mean. Put your predator on your altar. Learn about what it likes, offer a home and ask for assistance. You may be surprised at how soon she shows up.

{C}2.     Second, no strychnine in grandma’s tea. Herbicides and pesticides take a blowtorch to Grandma’s house. You want a strong, self-regulating wild and it can’t happen around Round-Up and Sevin.

{C}3.     Grow candy. Many predator bugs need nectar as well as prey and there are certain flowers that will help the ladybugs and lacewings of your world thrive. They are also eye candy for you. The sunflower family is one of the best, including zinnias, cosmos and marigolds. Choose single petaled varieties, the fancy ones sometimes don’t work for bugs.  Other winners: dill, cilantro, fennel, all kinds of peas, pincushion flowers and pinks. You’ll get best results if you have something flowering as many months of the year as possible, rather than one big bloom in August.

{C}4.     Get lazy. Bugs need cover to make it through the winter. Many gardeners think that “cleaning” the garden helps keep pests down, and you should clean up any diseased plant material. But leave some seedheads and stalks of your perennials for the ladybugs to live in over the winter. Rock piles or logs also help.

{C}5.     Mulch. It makes the garden look neat and unified, keeps down weeds, and also helps predators like ground beetles get a leg up by building soil health. If you are starting out, use compost. Three to four inches between fall and spring will do wonders for Grandma. This year, I was too cheap to buy compost and my worms weren’t done with their work, so I begged bags of leaves from neighbors with big trees and spread them around. But then, I am a freak that way.

{C}6.     Check out National Wildlife Federation’s Backyard Wildlife program, which is an awesome resource.

{C}7.     Get a copy of Russell Link’s book “Landscaping for Wildlife in the Pacific Northwest,” even if you don’t live here. This is the bible for rebuilding Grandma’s house, has lists of helpful flowers and where they grow, photos of beneficial insects and also interesting chapters on attracting butterflies, hummingbirds and songbirds. (Just in case you want more than just bugs…)

{C}8.     Finally, take a long view. The predator-prey balance takes a little time to set up. If you are starting from scratch like I did, those prey populations are going to build up for a while before your local ladybugs realize there’s a party going on. But never fear: prey populations are to predators as unregulated derivatives are to Goldman Sachs. The predators will figure out that this is their chance to get fat. In the meanwhile, you’ll have to tolerate some eating. When you see those lacey (okay, shredded) leaves that say “Caterpillars were here,” take a deep breath. Have a conversation with your totem predator. Ask Grandma for help. And if they are eating something you really love, use a scalpel instead of a blowtorch. Row covers will protect your Broccoli from cabbage moths, and little boys are very good at picking caterpillars by hand. Soon enough you’ll do what I did two days ago: look out at your favorite climbing yellow rose and see it encrusted with the first aphids of the season. Wait a day. See the first lacewing. Wait another day: see that 80% of the aphids are gone, the rest are going and the rose is fine. And I never lifted a finger.