The blue jays swoop in, imperious. They land on whatever part of the bushes they like and scatter the competition.
The mockingbird is more circumspect. I see him across the street, sizing up his opportunity. He takes off, flying below the level of the fence top, then arches up and over the row of pickets, landing on the ground beneath the bushes. The robins skitter on the periphery; they’ll come in for good when the coast is clear. A stray cardinal pays a visit.
Their target: our blueberries.
That was the scene outside our kitchen window this summer. And it was delightful. It also was vexing. Because by the last week of July, we had no blueberries, none that were ripe, anyway. The birds were getting them before we did. And they were ruthlessly efficient.
Finally, as one day gave way to twilight, I trudged out with a bunch of 6-foot garden stakes, some wood and yards of netting, and erected a cage. And trampled all over my inclination to share.
Let’s back up for a moment. When we first planted those blueberry bushes a decade ago, we left them unprotected. After several years, as they increased in size and their bounty grew, word spread and the birds started coming. So I erected the first version of my netted fortress. But this year, convinced that the bushes had flourished to such an extent that there would be plenty for all — thousands of berries, we told ourselves — we happily left them uncovered. Share and share alike.
And all indeed was well. For a while.
As a rule, I don’t like being at war with the rest of nature. It was here long before us humans, and unless we really muck it up, it will be here long after. I prefer to live with nature, not battle it.
We share space with bees and wasps in our rows of raspberries. Without them, we’d have no crops. So we move slowly and with respect as we pick.
Italian wall lizards scoot around and spiders spin webs. Both eat bugs. We let ’em be. It’s life-cycle stuff and everything has its role.
We do play some defense, such as when we put overripe blackberries out on fenceposts, easy pickings for whoever wants them and a decoy to protect the plants. And the blackberries do disappear. Someone likes them. I thought we had an understanding.
And then the blueberries.
They’re part of a cycle, too, and it’s one you want to finish. You prune, you water, you tend, you reap the benefits. A harvest interrupted is sheer frustration.
The net wasn’t foolproof. Birds kept finding a way in. We’d look for a likely route in and seal it off. Still, they came. And most were unable to get out without our assistance. One day, a female Baltimore oriole got trapped. We never knew we had any in the neighborhood.
The blueberry season ended a couple weeks ago. And the front line shifted to the other end of the yard, where squirrels were attacking our tomatoes. Now, we’ve had tomatoes for years and never been besieged like this. I exaggerate not one whit when I say they’ve taken well more than 100 of our larger ones; we’ve had a dozen or so.
I have a theory. We lost a mighty oak in a rainstorm six years ago that had enough acorns to keep a whole gang of squirrels happy. We never knew where our gang went, but I wonder whether, in the rush among homeowners to take down their tallest trees in the aftermath of Sandy and Irene, the oaks were the ones that went. And now the squirrels need a new food source.
Whatever the reason, they’re stealing one of life’s great joys — juicy summer tomatoes.
We tried sprinkling cayenne pepper on the ground and, when that ran out, red pepper flakes. I’ve chased them along the top of the fence, making threatening guttural noises. Nothing deters them.
I get it. They’re hungry. So am I.
I want to share. Really. But now it’s war.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.