I wore a Davy Crockett coonskin hat as a kid and played in the neighborhood woods, singing “King of the Wild Frontier.” Davy Crockett, the song tells us, was born on a mountaintop in Tennessee: “Raised in the woods, so he knew ev’ry tree. Kilt him a bar when he was only three.”
My family moved from an apartment to the “wild frontier” (the Louisville suburbs) when I was four.
I had catching up to do.
There were no bears
There were no deer or coyotes, either. Just free-range (unleashed) neighborhood dogs shitting everywhere. Mom read me the riot act whenever I walked into the house without taking off my shoes.
Dogs seldom roam freely in Louisville anymore, but the wild frontier, sometimes fraught with overhunting—buffalo for instance— and loss of habitat, has grown in some ways.
Deer are a problem
There are too many. It’s breeding time. Bucks chase does, and there is an unavoidable uptick in roadkill and auto body shop repairs in late autumn. Another consequence of the natural order: bucks are rutting trees. Hunting reduces roadkill, car insurance claims, and rutting (rubbing).
I don’t mind when horny bucks rub their fuzzy antlers on the bark of a sacrificial hackberry, but a line was crossed this fall when one buck, maybe two, nailed a pair of Magnolia grandiflora ‘Kay Parris’— a lovely, smaller hybrid between ‘Little Gem’ and ‘Bracken’s Brown Beauty.’
Rutting is not always a death sentence, but recovery may take a few years. I’ve put protective guards on a precious two dozen or so trees nearby to prevent the bark from being stripped, but I can’t guard a young plantation of hundreds of young wild oaks. Bucks begin scraping bark in earnest, on whatever suits them, in November. I wish they’d pick on box elders (Acer negundo) for a change. The “rut” wraps up in mid-December as the breeding winds down.
Possums on the half shell
Meanwhile, armadillos have moved north from Tennessee to the Land Between the Lakes, in Western Kentucky, and are on a slow, march toward Salvisa. They called Kentucky home before being pushed south ahead of glaciation during the Pleistocene epoch that ended nearly 12,000 years ago. These “possums on the half shell” root around for soil bugs like pigs and are in a race to see if they can make a mess of our garden during my own epoch.
Feral pigs are closer
Feral pigs are even more damaging rooters than armadillos. They have bigger appetites, as well—grubs, worms, frogs, turtles, and wild turkey eggs. Wild pigs are abundant down the Kentucky River around Lockport in Henry County. Hunters can’t keep ahead of multiple litters per year. “Wild pigs are one of the most destructive invasive species on the planet,” Teri Brunjes, biologist for the Kentucky Department of Wildlife, told Lexington’s (KY) Herald-Leader. Remote controlled trapping with cell cameras has proved more effective. “We don’t have to be onsite to close the door,” Brunjes said.
Coyotes, exotic creatures of my cowboy westerns-on-television youth, crossed the frozen Mississippi River during back-to-back bitter cold winters of 1977 and 1978. Near Salvisa, coyotes killed five goats and left a 700-pound cow with teeth marks on either side of its neck this year. Jamie Dockery, on the Oregon Ferry Road, told me a single donkey can bond with a herd and offer protection, but he learned the hard way—three donkeys tend to look only after one another.
Jamie also lost a few caged guineas to a great horned owl. “Hated that,” he said, “but also love my great horned owls. If you don’t build an impenetrable fortress, your poultry (and anything else vulnerable) will die. Not if but when.”
Sowing acorns requires a Devil’s Island penal colony lock-down approach. One year I sowed dozens of swamp white oak acorns in a ground bed draped with protective hardware cloth. It kept the squirrels out, but chipmunks tunneled underneath. Maybe a moat next time.
Rabbits mow down tender leaves of beets, spinach and lettuce, and a bunny once girdled the bottom of a 24” sapling grown from seeds off a massive Gingko in Louisville’s Cave Hill Cemetery. I cut the little tree close to the ground, and it came back—slowly. The Gingko has a protective cage now.
Raccoons love my tomatoes and pawpaws. The Mennonite boys next door occasionally hunt raccoons at night on our place.
I won’t let them touch possums. They are our homegrown tick vacuum cleaners. Our farm is not smothered with ticks.
Black bears have been spotted nearby.
Arthur Logan shared a trail camera photo of a mountain lion near Lockport, KY.
Buffaloes were hunted out of existence in Kentucky by 1810. The four lane Highway 127, that runs through Salvisa, was once thought to be a buffalo trace that the sacred icon of Native Americans followed south from Ohio. They grazed on once extensive native stands of bamboo. River cane is far from abundant now. I planted 20 small pots of Arundinaria gigantea as a token to buffaloes if they ever return to graze. My botanist friend, Julian Campbell, grew plants from Kentucky wild-collected seeds.
(I recommend the latest Ken Burns PBS documentary. “The American Buffalo” is rich in history, heartache and hope.)
Another hunting and growing season has come to an end
I can’t wait for spring.
There is more time now to think about what to plant next year. I keep a growing list of seeds and plants that I covet. The carnivorous pitcher plant, Sarracenia‘Bug Bat’ jumps off the page for our teensy-weensy (18” diameter) bog garden. I am thinking wishfully, but impossibly, that the pitcher plant will eat the dreaded lanternfly. It has been spotted near Sparta in northern Kentucky and should reach Salvisa well before armadillos.
Our frontier—real and insubstantial—reminds me of Dr. Doolittle’s animal menagerie. I played Doolittle’s Chee-Chee the monkey in Miss Goodwin’s first grade play, while otherwise focused after school on roaming freely in the neighborhood woods with friends and a pack of dogs.
My oversized imagination runs wild with armadillos, feral pigs, wild turkeys, black bears, mountain lions, and buffaloes that join deer, raccoons, groundhogs, great horned owls, squirrels, chipmunks, possums, rabbits, and moles. They either deserve, or someday might claim, a piece of our 47 acres.
Unleashed in the morning, Rufus catches a scent. The little guy stands on his hind legs, like a mountain goat, and barks toward the rising sun. Rufus thinks he is the King. It’s pretense. His short legs can’t keep up with galloping deer. They are not afraid of Rufus. Nor is anything else in the animal kingdom.
Rufus pokes his head in groundhog holes, but the tunneling rodents outwit him every time.
He’s a scaredy cat, not a ferocious hunter. Rufus is good company in the garden and seldom rambunctious.
Occasionally he catches a mole, rarely a rabbit.