Castles in Clay

Charley is the best weatherman, though we rarely see him because he usually hides out in the culvert beneath our driveway. You might assume that he is hiding because he doesn’t want to hear complaints about his forecasting, but we assure you, nothing could be further from the truth. Charley is a highly reliable weatherman. In any case, his hideout is probably safer than standing on a beach with a microphone during a hurricane.

An old castle

An old castle

We could add that looking out the window gives us a pretty complete weather report, but we all know this is a last resort. What Charley is really good at is communicating weather trends. This is valuable information for gardeners. It helps us figure out excuses for why the garden may not be up to snuff.

To be honest, we have never actually spent any time with Charley. He is too fidgety, and we are usually not quick enough to catch the gray streak that precedes his dive into hiding. We know he is around only when we hear a loud, echoey kerplunk deep inside the culvert.

An elegant tower near the house. Note spitballs.

An elegant tower near the house. Note spitballs.

Charley’s castles are what give him away. For Charley is not just a weatherman. He is a builder of note and an impressive digger of tunnels. He has true renaissance talents.

We find his castles all along our brick path, smack dab in the middle of daylilies, mounding up rudbeckias, pushing out spring-blooming phlox. How much of these he eats in the course of construction we can’t imagine. (For the record, Charley is a vegan, except when he can get his claws on some unlucky morsel of meat.)

The black hole underneath our walkway

The black hole underneath our walkway

Sometimes Charley is such an enthusiastic digger/builder that bricks disappear, collapsing into murky tunnels. We shudder to think of the collateral damage to subterranean life.

For all his trespassing and dining, we can’t help but respect Charley’s handiwork, all done, it seems, in dead of night. Mounds of silky smooth moist clay piled up with an opening at the top an inch or so in diameter magically appear.

Lookin' mighty tasty. Picture cropped from an old Golden Guide to Pondlife

Lookin’ mighty tasty. Picture cropped from an old Golden Guide to Pondlife

Sometimes Charley gets creative and his castles are decorated with spitball-bricks – maybe they really are spitballs, the spoils spit out from his tunneling.

By now you have probably figured out that Charley is our resident crayfish, or crawfish, or crawdad, as you like, depending on your geography. And by now you are probably thinking that we are starry-eyed crayfish groupies. We are not, though we do enjoy Charley’s relative, the lobster, but in a different way.

What we especially admire about Charley are his talents for spotting weather trends. It works like this. If we have a rainy spell and the ground is mucky, Charley takes to higher ground and builds next to our front door. Gentle steady rainfalls that keep the ground moist but not muddy send him down the path to lower ground.

Into the ditch!

Into the ditch!

Sunny and clear? He’s building on the slope to the ditch. Hazy, hot and humid for days, no rain in sight? His handiwork shows up in the ditch. Punxsutawney Phil has nothing on Crayfish Charley.

Now, to our excuses about the condition of the garden. All legitimate, all based on Charley’s endless construction. Castles near the house: too rainy to weed. Castles on the slope: too hot and sunny to stay out long enough to deadhead. Castles in the ditch: too dry to keep up with watering. . . You get the drift.

Not exactly the holes we'd want for plants. Technically speaking, Charley is a chimney crayfish. The castles are mini-slag piles. Picture from Golden Guide to Pond Life

Not exactly the holes we’d want for plants. Technically speaking, Charley is a chimney crayfish. The castles are mini-slag piles. Picture from Golden Guide to Pond Life

For a while we thought of taking advantage of Charley’s digging talents. Particularly when the clay would suck our shovel in and we’d have to wrestle with it and it would come out covered with globs of muck. We doubt that Charley is ever covered with muck.

What an ephiphany that was! A weatherman digging holes for us. What a disappointment when we came to our senses! That just won’t work, we said. No weatherman would want to dig holes for a living; he’d always be diving away from us. And besides, how would we ever pay him?

Bob filling the black hole and refitting bricks to the path.

Bob filling the black hole and refitting bricks to the path.

So we bumbled along. When we added sand to clay in some spots, Charley turned his antennae up at the resulting concrete. When we poured potting soil into planting holes that turned into clay soup bowls after heavy rains, Charley disappeared. Didn’t want to be an ingredient for crawfish stew, I guess. He kept clear of our raised beds, too. Probably too messy with composty bits, or maybe too well drained for his tastes.

Charley's immediate response to the repair

Charley’s immediate response to the repair

Summer of 2010 we thought we’d lost him. It was so hot and dry. We’d watch those rain clouds skip right over us to the next county. We figured Charley would head for the ditch, but the mud was so dry it cracked. Nothing there except some broken-down hovels. Had Charley found an air-conditioned motel somewhere? Had we lost our favorite weatherman to drought?

In early spring we found our answer. We were clearing a tangle of old iris fans, hibiscus sticks, grass plumes, and aster/ironweed seed heads from the lowest, wettest spot on our property. We call it our ditch garden. We planted it a long time ago to catch the muddy run-off that comes racing down the block after a heavy storm. Some people might call it a rain garden, but ours is not that fancy. Anyway, Charley had never shown any interest in this garden that offered a smorgasbord of greens to please his palate.

Part of the "village" poking out of the weeds in spring

Part of the “village” poking out of the weeds in spring

What we discovered as we cleared was an entire village of crayfish castles. Some elegant, some worn, some freshly minted, some saggy. Charley’s? Family and friends’? One out-sized mound camouflaged with emerging aster leaves caught our eye. Hmm-m, we thought. Could this be an earthen pub where Charley and friends gather for a pint during off hours? Or maybe it’s a school for future weather forecasters.

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