While the cat’s away …
Following a short spring-vacation trip to Florida with my son, I drop him off to spend the rest of the school break with his mother and return home. It’s a Thursday evening, and after setting the luggage down, I head outside with the dog. He makes a beeline for my pile, and I follow. I’ve missed them both. My pile is more than a pet hobby. It reconnects me to my home, my backyard, my life.
From afar, I see that the front of my pile is a shambles; a deep gash carved from the sloping face. The pitch fork leans haphazardly against the log wall. My pile has been ransacked.
Walking around the backside to return the pitchfork to its customary spot propping up the back fence, I find more troubling evidence: At the base of the logs that form the back corner of the heap, a conical slope of crumbly leaf mold extends from the crack between the two logs, just below a neat round hole about two inches wide that disappears into the darkness. Worse, at the base of the tailings is a tumbled nugget of horse manure, which I know I buried deep in the center of my pile a month ago. It’s an unmistakable sign that a small burrowing animal has discovered the bounty of food buried deep within my pile. And that the interloper is not only industrious but discerning.
The hole seems too narrow to be formed by a possum or skunk; too large for a chipmunk, mouse or vole; too deep for a squirrel. It’s been years since I’ve had to wonder and worry about sharing my pile with a rodent. Now this. Rats!
On a ledge of matted leaves near the top of my pile, I spot another bore hole, noticeable from the slivers of crinkly white paper scattered downslope. A few peels of potato skin are casually flicked aside. I can imagine the banquet of fresh to rotting food that an enterprising varmint would find within the warm, damp matrix of leaves that is my pile. Shelter, too, though from the dog’s eager nosing around the perimeter of the nearby tool shed, I suspect that whatever’s feasting on my pile also has a safe house of a burrow in the deep bed of trap rock the shed sits on. And that tells me where there’s one rat, there’s probably more. Double rats!
The mystery about what happened to the front of my pile is solved when the neighborhood kid I’d asked to look after the dog comes by to collect his pay. He thanks me for the bills I fork over and excitedly tells me about the worms that he and some buddies dug up before going fishing for bluegill and small bass in a nearby pond.
While it’s only natural to feel territorial about the backyard compost heap I tend to throughout the year, today’s a reminder that I share my pile with others; some with two feet, some with four, most with many more or none at all. I’m happy that my pile is a playground for boyhood pleasures, and a productive bait shop at that.
I don’t have much of my own kitchen scraps to contribute, but the neighbor’s compost bucket is full and there’s a half-full bag of shredded paper from the office that I’d stashed in the tool shed before leaving town. I also gather a bucket-full of precocious spring weeds from an amble across the yard to clean up after the dog. I like hand-weeding dandelions and such before they go to seed. They’re easy to spot among the still-shrubby grass, and culling them short-circuits more widespread infestations. Their leaves and cloddy tap roots make especially nutritious additions to my pile. If I could train backyard critters to like dandelion salads, I’d be all set.
Starting at the varmint’s entrance in the corner, I carve out a trench midway up the back side of my pile, heaping forkfuls of sodden leaves onto the top.
The trail quickly grows cold, and I give up on the rash idea of rotting out the furry little rodent with the pitchfork. My pile’s too dense for that, and I’m sure the rat has tunneled every which way through this newfound midden.
Once the hole along the back is about the size of a foot locker, I load in layers of shredded paper, kitchen scraps, some wind-blown leaves from the yard and the clutch of early-spring weeds, then cover it all with foot-thick trimmings of dried matted leaves from the rear flank, fashioning a new horizontal ledge along the backside.
Moving around to the front side, I tidy up the kids’ fishing expeditions for the worms and finish by skimming a row of leaves from along the bottom edge to return my pile to its customary shape.
I borrow the Hav-a-Heart rodent cage from my neighbor and bait it with a slather of peanut butter. I place the trap on the ledge of leaves along the back side of my pile and set one opening facing the corner hole. I can’t imagine why my new lodger would scamper into the wire cage while he has a smorgasbord of kitchen scraps to uncover, but we’ll see.
Rain is in the forecast, so I finish by poking the undisturbed sections of my pile with the length of rebar. After a few thrusts, its tip begins to smoke with hot vapors. A poke down through the center section where I last inserted kitchen scraps and the manure releases a faint whiff of rotted egg. The parrying with the rebar should give my pile a few much needed gulps of fresh air and allow any rain that falls to percolate down through its outer skin. If I’ve happened to spear a small varmint of a squatter in the process, then that’s just his tough luck. It goes with the territory.