The following story by Drew was first published in Hobby Farms magazine in July 2015.
My parents were quietly reading in their favorite chairs when I, their nine-year-old son, approached with a question. “May I start a vegetable garden in the backyard?” They looked at each other in wonder. Neither one of them had any interest in gardening. “Ah … well … sure,” my dad answered. After awhile, curiosity brought Mom and Dad out to the backyard. There I was manfully laboring away with a shovel longer than myself. What joy I felt when my crops started showing up on the family dinner table. Soon I also caught fish for the dinner table. My life dream became to have a little farm with a pond to raise vegetables, fruit, and fish.
Due to circumstances and finances, my fiftieth birthday passed while my wife and I were living in an apartment in a city. “It’s now or never,” I told Kit, who had grown up in the country. Together we found 23 acres near Arkansas’ Ouachita National Forest. A house on the property was a candidate for the bulldozer. Nobody would have moved a family into that house. The land itself was completely overgrown with briers and invasive species. Although this place had been a farm once, I’ll bet that farmer had used mules to plough. But, the old farm also had some rich brown dirt and a beautiful pond, deep and spring-fed, of about an acre.
Immediately we started camping out and repairing the house. DIY books and building supply stores became our best friends. Only after six months, we were able to move in our furniture. Five years later people wouldn’t believe what a wreck the house had been. The land we started reclaiming a foot at a time, rooting out privets and honeysuckle by hand. Eventually we would raise enough quality fruit and vegetables to sell at a local growers market.
Optimizing the pond ecosystem was our biggest triumph. Now nearly every type of wildlife visits our pond. Wild waterfowl contribute by organically fertilizing the water. Once I chased away a bald eagle trying for a Canada goose dinner. We manage the pond carefully for fishing and allow children to do the catching. Kids big enough to securely hold a rod almost always catch a ten to twenty pound catfish. Sometimes two kids hold the rod together. Plenty of bluegills entertain the smaller children. Everybody enjoys feeding huge bass tame enough to eat from our hands.
A pond can also bring anguish to a wildlife lover’s heart. A creek runs through our property about 25 yards from the pond. Beavers try damming the creek, but floods always wash them out. They like our pond better anyway. The destructive rodents aren’t cute like the ones depicted in cartoons. They dig tunnels and left unchecked can pierce pond dams. And beavers have a decided taste for non-native trees. “What are the odds?” I thought, as I planted a birch tree among hundreds of native trees. Pretty good, it turned out. The next morning the birch was a six-inch stump. Beavers then cut down Kit’s weeping willows. During a flood, one treaded water to gnaw down my cypress tree above an anti-beaver wrapping. Our peach tree, although next to the back door, didn’t have a chance.
In desperation, we built a 400-foot welded wire fence between the pond and creek. But a determined beaver will actually bite through the wire. Sadly, this wildlife lover had to use a gun to send a few of the worst beavers to the big pond in the sky. There I can only imagine that God himself wonders why He made beavers.
There is a pond pest worse than beavers. That is a river otter. Unlike beavers, otters ARE cute. Early one morning Kit and I marveled as one sat eating a bluegill like a hotdog. In that instant, the otter rolled into the water and surfaced with one of my pet bass clutched to its chest. The bass was too big for the otter to get its arms around. That otter loved our pond and started slaughtering the pond-confined fish. It liked to drag fish onto our small pier to play with them. Bass and catfish died there with hardly a bite taken. Many people advised us to shoot the otter. A few volunteered to shoot it for us. But I just couldn’t harm an otter.
So I purchased a big live trap and put in a $30 slab of fresh fish. As I was anchoring the trap so that the otter couldn’t drown when caught, suddenly it was sitting on the pier with me! There and back in the water, the otter fussed at me like a squirrel for invading its territory. With a net, I might have scooped it up. After that, the otter certainly wasn’t going into any trap. However, the trap did catch a rather humorless raccoon. After the raccoon enjoyed the $30 fish, I let it go with a warning.
Eventually, human brain size outwitted the otter. While it was playing in the creek, I went over every inch of the fence and carefully plugged every beaver-made gap. Beavers can bite through wire, but otters can’t. Blocked from the pond, the otter then meandered on up the creek to cause trouble somewhere else.
Reclaiming a house and farm is the hardest work I have ever done. Yet this farm is the fulfillment of a lifelong dream. Not even a few pond pests can spoil our joy. And, in truth, the pests have also given us memories, which make the experience even richer.