Saturday, April 18, 2009


I am looking at a mystery in my backyard. Actually, I suppose, there are many mysteries there, a recent one being a sinkhole that sank while we were out of state visiting family. Came home to find a gaping, perfectly circular maw of a sinkhole five feet in diameter and nine feet deep. Ridiculous. Surreal. Took nearly six and a half cubic yards of dirt and gravel (scavenged from various sources) to fill, scores of tedious wheelbarrow trips from the pile of fill in the driveway through the garage to the backyard. The sinkhole captured the imagination of my wife, who considered it a gift with limitless possibilities. That the Universe sent it to us was obvious—the only question was, what are we to do with it? An effortlessly acquired rainwater cistern? A root cellar for potatoes that we should now cultivate? The beginnings of a hot tub? As I started emptying wheelbarrow loads of fill into the hole, my wife bit her lip and rose above the death of a vision.

The mystery I am looking at now is nothing so exotic. Our back fence is a ramshackle affair of veneer-thin strips of wood woven, basket-like, among vertical one-by-twos spaced two feet apart. Most winters a strong east wind blows down a section, and a repair is tricky because there is scarcely any portion of the fence that is not punky and squishy. It is rotten to the core. I have a plan to replace the fence—I’ve even prepped my supply of 218 boards for sealing. Then I’ll think about actually using the sealed boards to create a new fence. Until then, the issue is Keep The Existing Fence Together At All Costs Until I’m Ready To Replace It. So over the last several years the fence has acquired the look of a hillbilly’s overalls. Patches galore, at all angles, plywood patches with which I desperately try to tie a decrepit section of fence with a (rare) sound length of post or stringer.

A two-by-six-foot section along the bottom of the fence, however, refused to be so patched. So a year ago I simply leaned a half sheet of plywood over it. The current tenants of the adjoining property have no dog, so my fix hardly had to be hound-proof.

Yet every morning the plywood is tipped back into my yard, stopped only by a pole of a raspberry vine that runs parallel to the fence, a foot or two away from it. And every day I tip the plywood back over the hole, and the next morning—well, you know.

Hence the mystery. Well, I suppose the who isn’t a mystery. It’s got to be the urban raccoons or possums I’ve seen on occasion, nocturnally foraging in our compost pile, or merely using our yard or trees as their interstate freeway to a better feeding destination Beyond The Fence. The mystery, maybe, lies closer to this: what does it look like when our continent’s only native marsupial, night after night, undoes what I do? Or if a raccoon (another American native), what grasping, pawish intelligence systematically dismantles my barrier?

I read that a hundred years ago, a scientist recorded that raccoons were able to unlock nearly all of 13 complex locks in less than 10 tries, “and had no problems repeating the action when the locks were rearranged or turned upside down.” Fenwick Ave. raccoons scoff at the Plywood Leaned On Fence ploy. Among raccoon youth, my fence constitutes Introduction to Barrier Removal, nothing more.

Still, until I sit up late in the backyard with a flashlight and actually see the beasties at it, each morning the back-tilted plywood mocks me, and renews the mystery.