Down to earth — all creatures

(Originally published July 22, 2015 in East Bay / South Coast Life newspapers.)

In the last couple of weeks a friend and then a neighbor (also a friend) mentioned seeing a snake in their garden as if that was an unusual and freaky occurrence. I have another friend, a professional gardener who refuses to work near rock walls or any other place where a snake or two might hide. I’m not so squeamish—spiders are the nightmare that makes the adrenaline kick me in the sternum and contract my facial muscles in a yeek!—and I’ve known since day one that whole families of garter snakes live in the garden-topped rock wall by the driveway. I’m thrilled to bits that they’re in there.

A common garter snake made an appearance on top of my driveway wall this week as if on cue.
A common garter snake made an appearance on top of my driveway wall this week as if on cue.

We humans (as well as many other critters) are hardwired to be terrified of snakes. One theory I read about recently suggests that we owe our keen eyesight, our depth perception and ability to see so many colors, to snakes. Evidently the survival of our species has depended, at least in part, upon being able to spot a venomous snake and run like hell before it strikes. So I can’t fault and would never mock my phobic friends’ reaction to seeing snakes in their gardens. But despite appearances, none of our local snakes are death-dealing*. Not to us. They do, however, eat other creepy crawlies we might not be thrilled to share our gardens with. Such as voles, slugs, snails, beetles, grubs, and probably spiders too.

Not that spiders are bad to have in the garden by any means. They’re at least as good as snakes at controlling pest populations and ever since learning that, I have adhered to the superstition against killing them and have been a lot less afraid of them too. I no longer levitate backwards from the twitchy jumping spiders that live in my mailbox. I’d rather not put my face into spiders’ webs but do so on a daily basis spring through November without hyperventilating, and can work relatively comfortably within five feet of the giant yellow and black orb weavers that like to position their webs mid-border. I even tolerate daddy-longlegs and whatever other cobweb spiders call my house home and am grateful for the work they do at least until I start feeling like a lousy housekeeper.

It’s easy to appreciate the creatures that have an obvious helper roll in our gardens or a link in our favorite wildlife’s food chain. If not for the caterpillars that feast on our oak trees, bronze fennel, and milkweed we wouldn’t have the songbirds that feed them by the thousands to their young, or butterflies in our gardens. Snails might leave trails on the patio or eat holes in the hosta but their shells provide birds with the calcium they need to make eggshells. The more we learn about how important the bees, native and otherwise, are for pollinating the flowers that become our food, the less we mind having to put shoes on before walking through the clover.

But there are some whose existence begs the question, “Why on Earth?” No doubt I’d want to take up hunting if deer grazed my garden. Every summer I send my chef to the farmers market after the woodchuck eats all my vegetable starts to nubs. Like most gardeners I hope to avoid tick-born diseases, mosquito bites, and wasp stings. Although our ecosystem is undoubtedly out of whack—broken in the case of deer overpopulation (we have ourselves and generations of ancestors to blame), even these guys have a place in the order of it.

Mosquitos and ticks are a link in the food chain and the bacteria they unwittingly harbor are designed to keep certain populations under control. Wasps too are generally predatory and help with the balance of things, and join our beloved bees in pollination duties. What we humans suffer from these so-called pests is collateral damage. We don’t have to like it. But the more we learn about Mother Nature’s children hard at work in our gardens and beyond, the more fascinated and less fearful and territorial we’re bound to be.

*A copperhead made the local news two days after this essay was published. 

Do you willingly/happily share your garden with all creatures great and small? Anything give you the heebies?