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In January, we moved into a new home in Tesuque, New Mexico. At that time we were in the midst of the biggest snowfall in recent memory, and so our yard remained a mystery, hidden beneath a couple feet of white snow. As the thaws came, we discovered that our yard was something of a construction zone: the earth was mounded up in branching lines, evidence of a subterranean highway system of impressive scope.

We've never seen the makers of these tunnels or the holes that lead down into them, but we feel they are voles. (For those interested in etymology, vole comes from a Scandinavian word for field or meadow; they were originally called vole mice, but are nowadays just voles.)

I love to have a garden wherever I live, and I already had great plans for our beautiful little spot here in Tesuque. But it was now clear I was not the only one with plans, and our burrowers certainly had the earlier claim.

Karen and I are both committed to a no-harm policy when it comes to other living creatures. We believe in coexistence; sometimes that means a slight change in what our animal cohabitors may do and where they may do it, or what we may do and where we nay do it, but we wouldn't be exterminating our burrowers or banishing them with nasty repellents.

Before turning the earth in the spring, I performed a garden blessing ritual, marking the perimeter of our yard with lavender buds, and setting my intentions, for all the animal inhabitants of the place to understand: the yard was going to be busier than it had been in the past. There would be some disruption - some digging, lots of new plants, a bit of a change in dampness, and some rearrangement of rocks and things. I welcomed everyone to stay, and let them know we meant them no harm, but also let them know that the field next door might provide conditions more like what they had been accustomed to.

From that start early this spring, a beautiful garden took shape. We've been enjoying our flowering plants, and eating peas, squash, tomatoes, peppers, and herbs of all sorts. Scarcely seen in the spring, the burrowers returned in force as the earth grew dry in the long days of late summer. Now that autumn is here, their earthworks are everywhere once again. But the inteteresting fact of the matter is that they have done little harm (if any at all) to our plans and enjoyment of the garden. They don't seem to find the vegetables and flowers I grow very appetizing. (We've left the native grasses to go to seed, which I think looks a lot more like "harvest time" to your average vole.) Truth be told, I'm rather appreciative of the soil aeration work they are doing!

The birds here have shown a little more interest in the garden plants than the rodents have. We are blessed with dozens of fascinating and colorful species here, including many we've not yet identified. They've made a small avian city of the old trees that line our back fence, and feast on the insects, which seem to have no difficulty keeping ahead of them. The birds, you see, keep the garden plants insect-free, but they can be so vigorous at the task that the plants get an unexpected pruning into the bargain.

There were certainly a few things that didn't work out too well this year: climbing vines were either pruned by birds or made too slow a start to do what we had hoped; some sunflowers were planted where it was too dry and shady for them to thrive, onions likewise. But for the most part, things grew well, and we learned what to change next year. The best thing about gardening here this year, however, was the experience of coexistence. I've never gardened in any spot so dense and rich with animal life as this. Every little corner or patch of ground is burrowed under, crawled upon, swooped onto, or buzzed around.

For us, at least, the "competition model" of gardening in the presence of wildlife holds no appeal and serves no purpose. We can afford to share some of our earth, and some of the food we grow upon it. The earth is bountiful; there is enough for us all to be happy here. Sure, the birds may nip some flower buds, the voles may open holes uncomfortably close to the roots of the squash vine, and some appealing species of flowering plant may decide it doesn't like the locale or the company, but that give-and-take need not be a source of frustration; it's what makes gardening an adventure instead of an assembly line.

As the air cools now and the garden anticipates winter rest, I can't help thinking this year's success and satisfaction illustrates a basic karmic lesson: we human beings can be flexible, gentle, and adaptive in the ways we interact with our places and with other creatures. We needn't become rigid in our plans; we can leave room for those who were here first to continue their routine and coexist with us. When we do this, we do not make ourselves a threat, and nature's creatures are comfortable adapting to us and giving us some slack. In time, it is not such a difficult thing to find an agreeable equilibrium where everyone finds what they need.

In the Garden is a regular feature of Starweaver's Gems from Earth and Sky

Copyright © 2007 Tom Waters