Wednesday, August 8, 2007

The Night of the Long Hoe

Bill Staines may well have affirmed that “all God’s creatures got a place in the choir” yet it is tempting to think that there are a few of them whose sweet harmonies would not be missed in a laryngitis epidemic. Snakes and wasps and flies that buzz around your bedroom just after you’ve turned off the light – these are animals that would benefit humankind greatly by becoming extinct, according to this otherwise quite greenish observer.
However there is one other candidate for mass genocide that lends itself far more easily to extermination, as events in my back garden recently proved. Yes, it is the gardener’s old friend, good old gastropoda pulmonata, or the slug to you and me.
It is difficult to see what is the point of a slug. It never tries to be constructive or provide some service. It doesn’t make a good pet and will not fetch a stick when commanded. Rather it’s sole purpose appears to be to sneak out at night and turn your marigolds into lace curtains. They have a voracious appetite and a single slug has been known to turn twelve acres of Amazon rain forest into a bowling green within twenty four hours.
However, they are idiosyncratic diners and will not touch the dandelions , clover and thistles that infest your lawn and cost nothing, but are attracted to the more expensive plants to be found in your local garden centre.
Yes, this particular gastropod – literally stomach-foot – is part of the subsection known as “pests.” They might claim to have had a bad press, that they are merely cute little snails without the shell, but that is more to do with our bizarre tolerance of the snail, than prejudice against his homeless brother.
Stomach-foot – and I have been doing a bit of research on this blight on the suburban landscape – apparently enjoys cool, damp summers and mild, wet winters. With such criteria, Ireland is of course one of his favourite holiday destinations. They are hermaphrodites and a single slug can produce as many as 300 offspring in his / her lifetime, which equates to 90,000 grandchildren and 27 million great-grandchildren. This naturally can cause problems when they all come around to visit.
As many gardeners are aware, there are many different varieties of slugs. The smallest is the field slug – a thin and emaciated albino slug that appears to have an anorexia problem. Then there is the garden slug, who is small and black. The garden slug is not to be confused with the black slug, who is much larger and can be any colour from white, through red, orange and grey to black (a sublime example of sluggish nomenclature). Then there is the yellow slug, which, surprisingly, is luminous yellow, the netted slug, the great grey slug and the keel slug, which is my own personal favourite.
The keel slug is the fattish olive coloured one with the rather fetching orange trim. If you should touch him with an implement, he immediately tries to curl up in a ball like a hedgehog, not realising of course that he’s just as squishable curled up as stretched out.
They say that animals adapt to their surroundings. This is not particularly true of birds who, if we are to believe everything we hear on “Mooney Goes Wild on One,” face a constant struggle to gather enough food each day to feed themselves and their ravenous offspring. If however, they did not insist on skidaddling back off to the nest the moment that the sun approached the horizon, they would be in for a gastronomic treat.
For at dusk, the slugs emerge from under their rocks and bushes and claim the gardens for themselves. While the birds are snoring away up in their nests, dreaming of juicy worms, the slugs just below are swarming all over the place, making rude hand gestures up at them.
I passed by our kitchen window the other evening on my way to the wheelie bin to deposit an empty pizza box, that my son had managed to carry as far as the back door, when suddenly, I glanced over at the lawn. Or rather, the place where the lawn should have been. Even in the half-light, it had evidently become alive, a mass of slithering, rubbery shapes, not too dissimilar to the snake-pit that Harrison Ford got thrown into in “Raiders of the Lost Ark.”
As it says in one of those Andrew Lloyd Webber musicals, this was my chance, this was my moment. A reluctant, as opposed to a keen, gardener, nevertheless, it made my blood boil to see good plants, expensively purchased, chewed to ribbons by the little blighters. I uttered a manic and half-crazed Dick Dastardly laugh, and made my way to the shed.
Unlike moles, there are many ways to kill a slug. A gardener will always tell you there is only one way to kill a mole. The problem is that this method differs with every gardener that you speak to. With slugs, there is no such problem.
You can sprinkle salt on them, which apparently shrivels them up till they die of thirst. You can sprinkle the ground with slug pellets, or slug powder, or set little traps for them, or shoot them or electrocute them. Some swear by alcohol and pour good beer all over their plants to get the slugs so hammered that they start challenging starlings to fights the next morning. My grandfather, in the days before hygiene was invented, used to pick them up and nip them between forefinger and thumb. I daresay biting them in two would be equally as effective.
For myself, I’m not quite such a subtle person. Normally, I like to raise the back end of a spade high above my head before bringing it smashing down upon the unsuspecting gastropod, despatching it in a nanosecond to that great cabbage-leaf in the sky. But with the great quantities of slugs revelling on my lawn, I felt that perhaps it was time to call in The Hoe.
Now I am one of the few people I know who actually owns a hoe. Well, I found one in a skip several years ago, so I reckon I can now claim ownership. Thing is, I’ve seen them hanging up in garden centres, but I’ve no idea what they are for. They’re no good for digging with, that I can tell you. The only thing I’ve ever used it for, and which I reckon must be its sole use, is for killing slugs with.
There is a certain art in murdering slugs with a hoe. You hold the hoe poised above the victim like a guillotine, and then bring it down sharply. The perfect strike will bisect the slithery aristocrat cleanly, there will be a second of shock and then the blood starts pouring out of either end. Sometimes the blood is black, sometimes yellow, sometimes clear, any colour of the rainbow in fact and there seems to be no correlation between outer pigmentation and blood type.
And so I set to work. The hoe rose and fell and the silent screams went echoing up into the twilight. Ten, twenty, thirty, a hundred, all had come racing out from beneath fuchsia and hebe in expectation of a night on the town, and suddenly found that their worst nightmares had been realised. I was deux ex machina, the righteous man, armed with a second-hand hoe, slaying the weak and iniquitous, delivering vengeance in a series of short, sharp jabs. It was the Night of the Long Hoe, as it will doubtless be described in sluggish folklore history, and within ten minutes, two hundred corpses lay strewn in a putrefying mess all over the lawn.
And I looked down and saw that it was good.

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