Valley of the Voles

The Valley of the Voles, the soap opera of the garden, if you will. A frivolous post, but next week I will return with an interview by author T. Eric Bakutis.

For Mother’s Day two years ago my husband bought me this lovely arch for our patio. We planted clematis and the plants — white and purple flowers — grew in beauty and stature. It was everything I ever wanted.



Last year, for Mother’s Day, my husband built a planter to the right of the arch. We put in roses of sharon and hyacinth and talked about strawberry plants. In building the planter, my husband made the planter level with the existing patio, joining on the bottom with the mulch in the bed that creeps around the west side. There was a slight gap between the bottom of the planter and the ground. In little beastie language this means “Come on in” or “Open door policy” as translated by my friend Nancy. Against all intention, we’d designed an attractive rodent condominium. The renters came.

I thought we had a mole. Instead, we had voles.

Mole:  A solitary animal that digs tunnels in your yard and eats grubs.

Vole: A rodent cousin to a mouse. 155 different species. They have litter after litter. If you have an outside cat, you might have been gifted a dead one.

They run paths through your grass until they reach bare dirt. From above, it looks like a labyrinth extending through your yard. I caught my first glimpses of dark gray skittering down the trails, the trails that ended/began at one corner of the planter, but I wasn’t ANGRY. Live and let live.

Then they ate my clematis. The green shoots above ground were chomped off. I dug up what was left.

Here is the root ball. You can see there were about 100 individual roots. Three were left.

The eaten clematis

The eaten clematis

After examination, I followed the underground tunnel back the planter and collapsed the tunnel, backfilling with my gloved hands. I replanted the clematis.

By now I’d seen at least two voles. They liked to do their morning labyrinth run at the same time I came down to check my hyacinths after putting kids on the bus. One was gray and slinky and the other was fat and brown like a gerbil. They appeared to be friends. Maybe more than friends, if the gerbil was pregnant.

I read up about voles. How, if you don’t have a dog or cat, you can buy fox, coyote, or dog urine on Ebay and hunting websites. Huh. What’s to stop someone from peeing into a container and selling it as ‘predator urine.’ Seriously. And how was I supposed to spread it around.  No.  This was not a feasible plan.  I was, however, willing to give my neighbor’s dog a lot of water to drink and let her run around my yard. Conclusion: No discernable vole exodus.

But, at least my hyacinths were blooming. Three purple flowers of miniature bells all in a row, strong and fecund in their second year of blooming.

And then this.

They dragged it down into their hidden lair.

They dragged it down into their hidden lair.

Not okay, voles.  This is NOT OKAY. Again, I dug up their tunnel, tracing the litter of hyacinth bells and little bits of green. They’d pulled the whole thing down, leaving only that one green leave behind.

The next day the second hyacinth was pulled down into a hole. Not even a leaf left behind.

My husband stepped in. “This is enough,” he said. He brought home mouse traps, baited them with peanut butter, but the ants ate it all up.

He pulled up the third, and last, hyacinth. The tunnel was evident underneath. They’d been working on it. I imagined the little rodents in prison white and black stripes. Maybe taking turns, one popping up for a smoke break, before tunneling again. We put the hyacinth leaves in a mouse trap and laid it across their labyrinth paths. The trap sprung, but didn’t catch anything.

My husband went shopping again. He came home with two things: mouse poison and CLEMATIS LEAVES.

The voles had misinterpreted my tunnel collapsing behavior. I was saying, “Move on.”  They thought I meant move to the other corner of the planter. New trails appeared in the grass on that end.

My husband and I set the clematis leaves in the traps. We caught a vole. We set out the poison near the gap.  It was nibbled.

We set out another trap with clematis leaves.

Leaves plucked from somone else's clematis plant and kept on ice because that's how our voles like it.

Leaves plucked from somone else’s clematis plant and kept on ice because that’s how our voles like it.

In the morning, I saw a vole wandering in circles.  My husband shoveled it. I did not take a picture. Two gray voles dead, but nothing doing with the fat brown one. I’d started calling him/her Gus.  Worried that Gus couldn’t get to the poison (it was inside a plastic container), my husband removed the top.  More poison nibbled.

Then, in checking the mousetrap, we found it deconstructed all over the lawn.  Our guess is that a vole (Gus?) was caught in trap and a hawk flew down and picked up the whole thing, then dropped it and it flew into pieces across the yard.

Finally the traps sat there with shriveled clematis leaves. No more poison nibbled. We threw away the traps and the poison. Last weekend — Mother’s Day — we dug up the mulch and top layer of soil, dumping it on a tarp. Didn’t see any voles. Didn’t find any lair. We mixed around the soil, took out the end plants, put the end plants back in, put the top layer and then the mulch back on. We planted grape vines on either side of the arch. Voles are not supposed to like grapes vines.

Digging up the vole tunnels, looking for the hidden lair (which we never found).

Digging up the vole tunnels, looking for the hidden lair (which we never found)

Clematis transplanted to front yard, hopefully to climb up the lamp post on the right and cover with flowers.

Clematis transplanted to front yard, hopefully to climb up the lamp post on the right and cover with flowers.

If I had been faster to post this, that would be the end of the saga about voles. But, after Mother’s Day I went down to the patio. Laying at the bottom of the stairs with no visible wounds?  A dead vole.



Baltimore Riots

Baltimore has been in the news because of Freddie Gray’s death. Because of the rioters who burned down the CVS. Because of decades of simmering anger.

There are other places to read, comprehensively, about why the riots happened and what should be done and whether the National Guard was called in too soon or too late. Plenty of sources for finger pointing and blaming.

I don’t know that I have anything to add.

I love Baltimore. Pivotal moments in my life are intertwined with this city.

I was born in Baltimore. Two of my children were born at Mercy Hospital. My first ‘real’ job (a company check rather than a personal check from, say, a babysitting job) was at the Maryland Science Center right in the Inner Harbor. I’d drive down on Friday afternoons, right after school, excitement building as I went ‘into the city’ while everyone else was on the other side of 95 driving away. After work, at night, I’d stand on the roof and look out over everything (until someone called the police about ‘a jumper’ and I was reprimanded). Then I crouched on the roof to survey and wonder.

Before grad school I lived over by Morgan State — a white face floating in a solidly black neighborhood. That was the same year that I taught 9th grade English at Catonsville Alternative School. It was, I believe, good to experience these things together.

My husband and I had our first date at Pazza Luna in Locust Point, a gourmet restaurant operating inside a row home.

After marrying, I moved in with my husband to a 1200 square foot home in Federal Hill. My husband rehabbed the inside in his spare time, ripping out the stairs and rebuilding them when he got home from work around 11 pm. (Sorry, neighbors).

We moved to the ‘burbs, but soon we were back, driving down Pulaski Highway to Hopkins. I’d do that drive countless times over the next three years. I still make that trek every 3 months. Here’s a picture from our first window (before the new Children’s Center). The cupola is, to me, civilization. It is within the chapters of my novel about Baltimore burning because of that.

Hopkins view from room 833.

Hopkins view from room 833.

So when I began writing, again, it seemed natural that the critique group would be down in Baltimore. Parallel parking and walking past liquor stores, Natty Boh neon, Ravens logos.

I love Baltimore. Rioting is wrong. Destructive. Painful. I don’t condone the looting and the throwing and the burning.


I also do not condone slapping a quick Bandaid on Baltimore and trying to shove this problem under the rug. It’s out. National news. International even. Decades of history erupted in poisonous lava. While our sore is open, I invite our leaders, our citizens, our neighbors, to clean it out. Make changes. Create good from this angry outburst. Address the root of the problem, beyond the temper tantrum.


Got that summertime, summertime sadness…

THE CHILDREN ARE BACK IN SCHOOL.  It’s very quiet here; I’m not sure why I’m shouting.

I have two critique groups coming up so I need to start working, but it’s hard to start.  For me, writing is like exercise.  I feel so much better.  I’m happy when I do it.  I like a routine.  And when that routine has been hijinked by summer vacation, by twelve weeks of NOT writing (or exercising) then I procrastinate.  I Google whether my orchid needs to be replanted if I want it to bloom again (I do), check Twitter to see what’s up (the usual), root around in the fridge and eat the last of the shrimp and cashew leftovers from the weekend for a mid-morning snack.

I’m going to start editing.  Seriously.  I have editorial comments.  I have line notes.  I’ll start at the beginning.  Or maybe in the middle of the novel.  Just dive in.  Although it IS almost time for lunch.  Maybe I should start after…

In the meantime, feel free to check out some pictures from our summertime travels.  All six of us (2 adults, four children) piled into a 30-foot RV and headed west for 50 days.  It was not always a breeze, but we snapped some cool photos.



Bewildering Stories

My story “Two Sides of a Triangle” is now available in Issue 548 of Bewildering Stories.  Follow the link and let me know what you think.

I’m grateful for the magazine editor’s suggestions and my friend Amanda Hart Miller’s critique of the story.

Four days into NaNoWriMo and I’m WAYYYY behind, but tomorrow is a writing day…


I’ve just updated my Stories Tab because I’ve had some wonderful news lately.  I’ve had short stories accepted by Bewildering Stories, by Abyss and Apex Magazine, and my story “Tamaki and the Fox” — set in the same Post-Firestorm world as my novel — has been named as a finalist in the Baltimore Science Fiction Society Amateur Contest 2013.  I just submitted a story to a magazine that might be the first chapter of a sequel to my novel.

Then, today, I received the e-mail that knocked me out.  An agent wants to read my full manuscript.  I’m not even putting that in all caps because I can’t quite believe it.  Don’t get me wrong.  I realize this is a baby step.  But, I’ve NEVER GOTTEN HERE BEFORE.  And, I’m so thankful.   Seriously, this feels like a miracle to me, like God gave me a wink (and some super-duper readers to help me).

My friend Amber gave me a book titled one thousand gifts by Ann Voskamp.  It’s been changing my life.  Normally I’m a fast reader, but this is taking me months to read because I’m trying to grow through her words, to look with fresh eyes on my daily life.  If you haven’t read this book, I challenge you to do it.

I don’t need fresh eyes to be thankful for this request for my novel.  To be thankful to my critique group and my friends who spend time reading my drafts.  To Isabel who catches caterpillars with my twins so that I can send off more query letters.  To my husband who goes to work every day so I can write — especially through the years that nothing happened.

I don’t know that this is it, but I’m thankful to experience this joy and hope.




A Face in the Crowd

Miracles aren’t painless. Sometimes I think we get confused by magic wands and wishes that come from nothing.  We look away from the sacrifice.  The payment. But that truth is in the old stories.  Tyr, from Norse mythology, cutting off his hand to feed the wolf.  The Little Mermaid giving up her tail.   It’s in the Bible too. The boy in the New Testament giving up his lunch of bread and fish.  Jesus Christ, the ultimate sacrifice, dying for the sins of the world.

When young Josh Aversano was struck and killed by a van last year, my church was shocked.  Memories spilled out of us, memories of the handsome, joking boy about to leave for the Marines.  During the service we saw pictures of the happy family, but we couldn’t see how good can come from a child, a son, a brother dying.

And then Randy and Gwen made a choice to match their son’s story to a story that started fifteen years before…and that combination made medical history.  Impossible to predict how many people will be helped because of this pioneering technology.  Ann Curry reports on the ‘most extensive face transplant’ a year later.

I don’t need to tell you how brave Randy and Gwen are.  About their faith.  Their love.  Honor them by  listening.

Have tissues.



Planet Aid for Earth Day

My husband very generously bought me a session with a personal stylist for Christmas.  It was ridiculously fun — like being on the show “What Not to Wear” and I felt very special and beautiful.  Minus the weird part in the ladies’ dressing room where the fitting lady made me get down on my knees to show her the plank position because she wanted to know how my stomach was so flat after four kids…I digress.  Needless to say, I returned home with a great deal of new clothing.

I’ve maintained my closet’s ‘weight’ by the rule “One thing comes in and one thing goes out.”  I also turn around my hangers once a year.  I turn them back around when I’ve worn the item.  That way, after a year, I can easily see which items I didn’t wear and weed them out.

But, I’d never had a shopping trip like this one before.  I had to really overhaul my closet, and fast.  For the children, I make a pile of nicer or special items to give to friends and then the rest of gently used clothing can be dropped off at Goodwill or picked up by Purple Heart.

But, outside the swim school, I saw this giant yellow box with the word PLANET AID.

They accept clothing and shoes and you don’t have to pre-sort the clothing.  In fact, the clothing doesn’t have to be gently used because they will sort the clothing into ‘reuse’ as clothing and ‘recycle’ — as professional cleaning rags and other textile materials made from old ripped t-shirts and jeans.

So, NO CLOTHING EVER NEEDS TO GO IN THE TRASH CAN OR LANDFILL AGAIN.  Do you get that?  Isn’t that amazing?  I’m wowed by this concept.  You can read all about it on their website, but our used clothing is making a change internationally, not only in reducing trash, but by improving the lives of other people.

Then, I read this fact:   Right now, only 15% of textiles are actually being reused or recycled.  My excitement balloon deflated just a little bit.

It’s daunting.  It’s hard.  But, we are the people that can make a difference by filling those yellow boxes.  By doing the right thing.  By sending our shoes over to people we don’t know.  Today is Earth Day.  I watched “Captain Planet and the Planeteers” all morning with my twins.  We can do this.  We can.  The flying blue-green Captain said we could.