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A thousand little critters

Chubby, our first monarch caterpillar

I could not have predicted I’d fall in love with gardening the way I have here. Knowing very little when we got here, I ordered three times as many seedlings as we needed for our first planting and ended up ripping out half the arugula and beans because they went to flower before we could eat them all. But I’m now confident enough, thanks to the internet and tips from my in-laws, that I planted most of our recent crops from seed. Watching the carrots pop up in neat little rows, and marvelling at how gigantic the leaves of a zucchini plant can get, makes me feel like a child again, awed by the world’s cycles of birth and decay.

I was pulling cucumbers off our vine last week when the broad black and orange wings of a butterfly flapped open beside me. “The monarchs are here!” I shouted to Isaac across the yard. I’d been waiting for them to arrive. They come every year just after Christmas, drawn to the swan plants Isaac’s mom has planted all around the veggie garden. On previous visits, I had watched their striped caterpillars nibble on leaves inside my mother-in-law’s house, where she keeps them safe from the many predators in the yard (wasps, birds). Watching them morph into their future winged selves was something I couldn’t wait to do in our own kitchen this year. So far we have two – Chubby (the big one) and Tiny (the small one). But there are several more eggs on the branch we have in a vase inside. I told our 3-year-old he could name the next one.

The monarchs are just one of a thousand little critters we find ourselves existing alongside now that it’s summer. Having lived only in the Pacific Northwest and then San Francisco, I’m not used to sharing my space with so many other living things. By 8am each morning, the forest and garden are abuzz with the activity of summer’s helpers and pests. The first time a cicada started up on our deck one morning Isaac remarked, “It’s summer now!”

releasing a bird that flew into our kitchen today

Thank god for fly paper

With windows flung open all day to cool the house, there’s no keeping the flies out. Fly papers swing like streamers over our kitchen island, quickly coated with fruit flies, horse flies, and house flies. When we first arrived, I shooed away the spiders. But now I welcome their webs in every corner of the house, hoping each day they’ll help us out with the flies or the mosquitos, who seem to love our 3-year-old. We have slept better since I got us mosquito nets for all our beds, though sometimes our kiddo kicks them open. He has woken up several mornings with more than a dozen bites on his face alone, having been ravaged in the night by the one or two mozzies we failed to squash before bedtime. It was so bad last week that a friend asked if he had chicken pox.

Then there are the sand flies. These teeny, almost unnoticeable, black flies evolved in New Zealand to feed on the feet of the country’s only native animals – birds. Their bite is ferocious, leaving a bloody dot that itches to high heaven. I’d rather have ten mosquito bites than one sand fly bite, truly.

While we love the honeybees who buzz around the flowering lavender and hydrangeas, wasps are less welcome. “Another pest of summertime,” Isaac said as we pulled down two wasp nests from the side of our living room. Later, a mason wasp flew into the house and disappeared into a crack in the door jamb. I’d seen these black buzzers disappearing into teeny cracks in the wall or around windows, where they noisily build nests of mud, fill them with spiders they’ve caught and paralysed (a snack for their larvae), then lay eggs. They’ll nest in the folds of curtains, or as I learned, inside a jacket you haven’t worn for a few weeks. I pulled my winter coat off the hook and a collection of curled up spiders fell into a pile at my feet. I smooshed the barely-alive arachnids out of pity, and washed the jacket. We go to sleep listening to buzzing in the walls of our old house – the sound of mason wasps paralysing their prey and laying eggs.

Once upon a time I would have had a very difficult time living with so much insect life in my midst. But having children reminds me that all our fears and aversions are learned. My kids love to watch a flurry of ants devouring a watermelon rind they left on the deck or spiders tickling webs into existence in the corner of their rooms. I’ve taught them to leave bees alone, and not to pick up slugs (but worms are okay!), and slowly we’re all learning how to live together in this place.

Our toddler with a worm he befriended

Can you spot the bee?

But I’ll never be able to live peacefully with the rats, who chewed through the engine of our car this week, destroying electrical wiring and biting their way into the car. It’s a never-ending battle to try and fight off any of these creatures who outnumber us here on this patch of land, but sometimes it’s worth waging it. We’ve caught three rats since the car incident, and I’m hoping for more tonight. I feel bad each time I drop one into the bucket we drown them in. It’s hard for me to kill a mammal. But it’s even harder to find a car mechanic on the island who can re-wire the automatic windows in our car.

And plus, if there is one thing I’ve learned from spending so much time in the garden, it’s that nearly every living thing is both nurturer and murderer. Including me, it seems.

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