I had to look up “back 40” to make sure I really knew what it meant before I used it, having only a vague understanding of the phrase. It comes from the Public Land Survey System and means a quarter of a quarter, or—you guessed it—40 acres. Coincidentally, the first surveys using the PLSS were done in eastern Ohio, not far from Pigspittle. But I digress.
In truth, I can’t claim the land behind our house as our back 40. We don’t own it (the Davidians do) and it probably doesn’t come close to 40 acres. But the windows on the back of our house look out onto it and so I claim at least some imaginary ownership on the land. It’s mostly a meadow and is home to deer, stray cats and dogs, voles, mice, birds, rabbits and whistlepigs (aka groundhogs).
I have a love/hate relationship with the deer. On the one hand, I grew up in the suburbs and never saw deer in our backyard so spying a whole herd of them in our yard at night now makes me happy. On the other hand, they eat my phlox and loosestrife and make a mess of the birch trees during the rutting season. (I like that Wikipedia capitalizes The Rut, as if it were a holiday.) I’ve put up sticks covered in anti-deer goo all over the garden.
The whistlepigs, however, are another story. Over the past two summers, my husband and I have watched, through a pair of binoculars in the kitchen, litters grow up under the Davidian’s shed. It’s easy to love a destructive little animal from a distance, especially if it isn’t destroying your yard. The whistlepigs have been respectful of our property, edging close to the border but never crossing it, keeping themselves fed on the Davidians’ rich broadleaf grass. We’ve ascribed all kinds of human motivations to them—the return of Junior in the spring, for example, signaled that Momma was getting ready to have a litter and Junior arrived in time to help out—or, alternatively, dropped out of school and moved back home to be the slacker he knew he was.
I had my heart wrenched last summer when a stray black Lab mutt that had camped out, like a vagrant, under the maple tree in the middle of the meadow decided to eat one of the whistlepig pups. I stood in the kitchen and watched, just long enough to see the emaciated dog thrashing the pup like a chew toy. I felt awful watching it, but it was too late to intervene. The dog continued to sit under the maple tree for a few more days and some neighbors brought him water and food. And then he disappeared.
And then there was Stinky, the baby skunk that curled itself up under our lilac bush one evening. He had sprayed the front yard earlier so we didn’t want to get close, not knowing at the time that skunks only have so much scent to spray. He was covered in flies but my husband, who is the type of person who will tell you that something is sleeping when in reality it’s dead, was confident Stinky would get up and walk away as soon as we left. We found him the next morning, two feet beyond his previous spot under the bush, with what seemed to me like cartoon x’s over his eyes.
During the summer, the trees along the back edge of the meadow kindly block the view of Shangri La, the whiskey tango apartment complex. In the winter, we’re not so lucky and have to see and hear the Shangri Laians who scream at their TVs and their kids and their pets…OK, I don’t really know if that is true. But they do scream like banshees during OSU games.
The word “whistlepig” makes me giggle every time.
I like to imagine Mr. Haney from Green Acres saying whistlepig. Makes it even funnier.