Amal’s Back



by Guest Essayist Ed Cullen.  Ed’s a commentator on National Public Radio’s "All Things
Considered" and feature writer and columnist for the Baton
Rouge Advocate. This essay is fr
om a published collection called Letter in a Woodpile. Listen to more of Ed’s essays on the NPR site.

Amal, the night visitor, is

Amal. That’s what I’ve taken to
calling the armadillo that visits my garden on cool fall nights. Amal is looking
not for a miracle but for grubs that glow enticingly in the light of the street
lamp next to my front yard garden.

tank of an animal, this throwback to a time when an armadillo’s biggest threat
was not car tires but any animal able to flip it and eat it, comes around a few
nights after I’ve turned the dirt to plant mustard seed and transplant red sail

don’t know where Amal lives, but I suspect under a neighbor’s shed, beneath
houses that are on piers and, possibly, the drainage culvert that runs beside my
garden. I do know this: Amal has the timing of a U.S. Navy seal on a mission of

This armadillo is clever, though his
head, so tiny compared to the rest of him, doesn’t seem large enough to hold a
long thought. Amal doesn’t dig in undisturbed ground. He roots in the ground
that I’ve busted, pulverized with a hoe, fluffed with a garden fork and
decorated with tender plants.

He’s after the grubs. Make no
mistake. In the morning, when I approach the garden with a steaming cup of
coffee and the hope born of sunrise, I find a garden that looks like it’s been
churned by an outboard motor’s propeller. In Amal’s wake, my red sail leaf
lettuce lies atop the ground like debris floating behind a party

What’s this that greets my morning
eyes? Has gravity been turned off during the night? Has a playful neighbor on
his third Old Flugie thought to play a prank? No, surely, it’s an animal but
what animal has been so careful in its destruction, so thoughtful in its

A cat? Doubtful. Cats never work long enough at a stretch to cause so much turned
earth. A dog? Hardly. If this were the work of a dog, there’d be a single trough
of a hole with a nearby hill of dirt.

The first time Amal came, I replanted
the uprooted vegetables the morning of discovery and was lying in bed the next
night wondering what had been in the garden and if it would return. Then,
outside the window I heard the slow shuffling of the armadillo, like a
Depression-era hobo, noisily shoving aside empty plastic plant pots, rolls of
chicken wire and the summer’s tomato stakes.

have a neighbor who does more damage in my garden than Amal. This guy has a
knack for stepping on everything between the entrance to the garden and the
basil he craves. I garden so that the interloper could harvest
herbs for that night’s dinner without flattening everything in his path.

By comparison, Amal is considerate.
He doesn’t eat the lettuce. He lifts and separates it from the dirt in search of
grubs. Usually, it’s not hard to replant the lettuce or the parsley or the green
onions. Sometimes, after one visit, Amal doesn’t return. He knows the thoroughly
worked plot has yielded its grubs.

I’ve tried spreading blood meal and
red pepper. The last time, I swear I heard Amal yell, “Aieee, laissez le bon
temps roulet” (Let the good times roll) as he rolled out of

That’s the thing about gardening in
South Louisiana. Everybody likes his food spicy.


  1. I feel the same way about the opossums and skunks that regularly go through our yard — the fewer June beetle grubs, the better.

    Even starlings look beautiful when they pull grubs out of the ground to feed their chicks in spring.

  2. That was interesting – I had no idea that armadillos frequented the States. I had always associated them with South and Central America. Quite an attractive creature too, I like the ears.
    I find whatever animals come to the garden interesting, although apart from cats, I haven’t had much damage. We add bears to the mix up here especially if food on the peaks is poor. They are mainly searching for fruit-laden trees and accessible garbage.

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