Saturday, August 20, 2011

Doing Battle

Accounts of confrontation between man and beast are legendary. There's Ahab in "Moby Dick" and Chief Martin Brody in "Jaws." Bill Murray has an epic battle with a gopher in in "Caddyshack." Even politicians have gotten in on the act: Jimmy Carter was attacked by a "killer rabbit," while Sarah Palin bested a caribou.

Me, I have a chipmunk.

Yes, a chipmunk. Those little stripped ground squirrels that move like rats on speed. Out here where the deer and the antelope play, we have oodles of the little fellas running around the yard. Usually we see them emerging or disappearing into one of the countless holes they've dug around the garden, gathering up nuts or seeds or chasing each other across the lawn. They're cute, they're cuddly... that is, until it becomes me vs. them.

In our case, we had finally decided to reset our front walk. Made of flagstones, countless cycles of freeze and thaw had turned it from a pathway into a minefield. One stone heaved this way, another that, others balanced like covers on a tiger pit, ready to flip over and swallow you up if you stepped on an edge. It got so we were reluctant to let anyone come to the front door, lest they twist an ankle and wind up in the hospital.

So we hired a couple of guys to fix it up. They spent two days picking up each piece, laying the jigsaw puzzle out on the lawn, then adding a smooth sand base and replacing the stones. Finally they filled all the seams with stone dust, making a flat, stable and attractive runway that took you from the driveway to the front door. All well and good.

But the next morning when I looked out, I noticed that some of the seams at the end were dustless and hollow. I assumed the guys working had just missed them. I grabbed a shovel and trundled out to the woods to find some leftover stone dust they had dumped there, then came back and filled them in. A few hours later I looked out and saw the same thing. Strange I thought; perhaps a small sinkhole existed. I repeated the process again, wondering what was going on. Then a chance glance an hour later showed the cause: a busy little chipmunk with feet firmly planted on either side of the inch and a half slot was digging madly. As I opened the door to go out, he disappeared down the rabbit hole he had created. The battle was on.

I first tried filling the slot with some rocks, then dust. Soon enough that was dug out. I swapped some stones around, moving the biggest slot to another spot. I looked out to see him at the bottom of the now narrower opening on his back, tail sticking up through the crack, paws clawing madly at the stone. I won, I thought. But not so fast. It took a little longer, but he soon found the bigger slot I had created a foot away, and commenced excavation there. Finally I removed a bunch of the flag stones and stuffed some plastic gutter mesh into his tunnels, then reset and refilled all. As of this writing, it's been a week, and no sign of my tormentor.

It calls to mind the writer Calvin Trillin, who tells the story about one of his favorite attractions in New York City for out-of-town guests, the Tic-Tac-Toe playing chicken in Chinatown. You put a quarter in the slot, a light goes on and the chicken plays the game to win a pellet of food: "Nearly all the people I take down there have precisely the same response," writes Trillin. "After looking the situation over, they say, 'But the chicken gets to go first.'" His response? ‘'But she's a chicken. You're a human being. Surely there should be some advantage in that." Unfortunately, it doesn't end there: "I'm embarrassed to say that some think for moment and then say, ‘But the chicken plays every day. I haven't played in years.'"

Likewise with my chipmunk. Yes, I bested him. Yes, our walk is now fixed. Yes, I made it animal proof. But it was hardly a fair fight. After all, he's a chipmunk, and I am a grown man: it feels a little like a beat up on a kid. I confess I come down every morning and look out to find no digging, and I feel both satisfaction and sadness. I actually feel bad I messed up his hard work. And so he and his ilk are back to being cute and cuddly. But if I see a pile of dust again... well, I'll go Navy SEAL on his ass in a New York minute.


Marc Wollin of Bedford hates to do yard work. His column appears regularly in The Record-Review, the Scarsdale Inquirer and online at

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