Ecological Succession In One Woman's Home by Tracy Washburn
"I didn't have a chance to check out the place with Janna before she left," Bonnie said, searching for the right key on the ring. She unlocked the door. I followed her to the kitchen and watched as she opened the oven and ran her finger along its floor.
"She didn't clean this," Bonnie said, showing me her sooty finger. "I suppose I'll deduct it from her deposit."
I didn't feel picky, though. I had been searching for an apartment for three weeks and was relieved to find this one.
"It's good enough as far as I'm concerned," I said. "I don't mind."
"Well, it's up to you. Janna will thank you. But let's take a look at the rest of the place."
A glance had been enough to convince me the cabin was close to perfect, but I followed Bonnie anyway. She opened the refrigerator below the counter. Empty and clean. We climbed the ladder to the loft. Bright light streamed in from the wall of windows. I imagined laying my futon along the opposite wall and I decided to stack my jeans and shirts on the shelves jutting from the wall to my left. I noticed a spider spinning its web underneath the top shelf. Yuck. The beast would have to go. I'd take care of it first thing.
Bonnie peered through the door into the storage attic. "I suppose it's okay," she pronounced.
We climbed back down.
"I'll get your keys and that'll be that," Bonnie said, and then added effusively, "Welcome to your new home. I hope you'll be happy here."
She gave me a bear hug and went back inside her house. I sat a few minutes on the bar stool at the kitchen counter and looked out the windows. I imagined being in the woods. Trees, giant ferns, bamboo, and trumpet vines obscured the neighboring houses.
The cabin had transformed itself from its more humble beginnings. It used to be Bonnie's garage. The evidence, a wall edged on its left side with hinges, was in the living room. Turn the knob on the wall and apply a firm hip check, and the wall shudders and shrieks as it opens onto the driveway.
The place was a far cry from the apartments I had been living in. I was moving out of one which, by comparison, was sterile and expensive and without personality. The requisite linoleum lined its kitchen and bathroom floors and brown carpets stretched over each inch of flooring in the remaining rooms which were separated by thin plaster walls.
As I began to stack my jeans on the shelves, I saw the spider again, and I spied, as well, several others suspended below the same shelf.
"Gee, she really didn't clean this place," I thought. "I may as well give it a good once-over before I unpack."
I grabbed a roll of paper towels and a bottle of 409 All Purpose Spray from a box. I sprayed the webs and wiped them away, working from left to right along the shelves. I discovered spiders in the corners of the room, and I sprayed them, too. I moved from web to web along the window sills, along ledges, and wherever there was a crevice. In each of these places lived a spider. I exterminated the unborn as I sprayed the egg sacs glued with silky threads on the walls. It wasn't long before the trail of spiders led me downstairs.
Bonnie saw me through the windows.
"Is it really dirty?" she asked.
"Oh, no, it's just that there are gobs of spiders."
I pointed to one on the window next to her. Bonnie peered at the arthropod in the middle of its web. Legs like fine hairs sprouted from its almost translucent body.
"I think it's pretty," she said. "It's so delicate."
I approached it with a wadded towel. Thump!
"I got it." I said.
Soon I realized why the spiders, which repopulated my cabin within a few days, enjoyed living there. Armies of food--fine black ants--constantly marched in. Rain brought them in droves, but ants penetrated the cabin when the ground outside was parched, as well. They filed through holes and cracks to find the occasional bits of food on my countertops and kitchen floor. Similar bands, directed at something I couldn't determine, drew lines along the straw mats covering the living room floor. Ants found something on my bathroom tiles, as well. The spiders took advantage of the gravy trains and spun webs along the routes. In Henry VIII style, the spiders gorged. I found ant bodies, sucked dry and entombed in a wrapping of spider silk, dropped in piles below their webs.
The slugs were equally gluttonous, though a little less conspicuous. They ate at night while I slept. I first noticed them when I flicked on the kitchen lights for a glass of water. A four-inch-long olive green slug oozed mucous on my kitchen floor. I rushed to examine it, bending down to get a good look. As I raised myself to reflect on the newest discovery of infestation, I caught sight of another slug on the edge of my counter top. Another night I awoke to find two of these tongues licking the sweet and sour sauce from a bowl in the sink. I picked them up with a wad of paper toweling and flung them outside. In the morning I traced their movements--they had left spiraling shiny trails of dried mucous on the cupboards, the floor, the counters and the walls. I count myself lucky that I never stepped on a slug directly, but I once had the sick experience of stubbing my shoe on one, rolling it in front of me on the floor.
The spiders, in particular, sent me into cleaning frenzies. After a few months of spraying and wiping and still making no impression on them, I upped the ante. Victory, I realized, would be satisfyingly simple if only I had good suction. The day I conceived that brilliant idea I bought a vacuum cleaner outfitted with a long tube attachment; for ten minutes each morning I pointed the tube along the ceilings where I detected delicate spindly bodies prancing or dangling. With the assistance of this higher power, life would simplify, and I would once again be in control of my home.
But nature would not let it be so. The elements from outside seeped in without restraint. Rain leaked through the roof, especially at the corners of the skylights. The rain soaked the wooden paneling and encouraged dry rot. When the wet areas dried, the warped wood splintered under a dusting of mold. Rain trickled into my living room wall furnace, as well. The flames crackled and hissed as water drizzled inside the metal casing to the bottom, where it dripped onto the straw floor mat. The moist mat in time turned black and hatched a fuzz of fungus.
Rain sent termites scurrying up the wooden post which ran vertically through my kitchen counter. There in a crack the termites made their home, a brown crust of packed termite excrement the size and shape of a quarter. I broke open the crust, and termites--some white and soft bodied, but the rest brown and shiny--fell onto my counter top. I was horrified, sure the cabin would collapse as the termites ate the wood and transformed it into a delicate crusty maze.
My home was decaying. Like a fallen tree on the forest floor, it offered a home and nutrients to animals, plants and insects. Although I paid Bonnie $650 a month, the money only bought me the privilege of passing in and out the front door, not the exclusive right to live there. Ecological succession had taken possession of my new home, bringing with it a host of unwelcome roommates.
I decided to do something about it. I called Bonnie over and cracked open the casing of the termites' house before her eyes. The wriggling bodies spattered my counter top.
"Oh, there aren't that many," Bonnie said. "We've had them here before." She pointed to small cut-outs in the wooden paneling where exterminators had dropped chemicals ten years earlier. "Anyway, this kind of termite only eats the very surface of wood, it doesn't bore inside."
I didn't argue. I felt numb. The termites added just one more chore to my daily maintenance routine. Each day I checked the post for new crusty homes, and I cracked them off and sprayed the inhabitants with 409. Bonnie tried to buoy me with a remedy she brought back from her house. Oven cleaner. She sprayed the insects and left me with the canister. So the termites stayed, but I regularly sprayed them, hoping they would decide to infest some other place far, far away.
If I'd owned the place, I would have sealed every crack, re-shingled the roof, re-caulked the bathroom tiles, exterminated the termites. I wouldn't let in anything from the outside without invitation. My instincts are to eliminate that which tempts decay, such as the termites, an ivy bed full of wandering, sucking, penetrating vines next to the cabin, or standing water behind the kitchen sink. It's not that I'm a fastidious housekeeper. On the contrary, I often very happily live in a sea of my own clutter. I'm comfortable when I control the mess, when the house I leave in the morning is the same one to which I return at night. But I could see that these invaders planned to turn my cabin into a pile of dust while I was away at work or watching movies with friends.
I inherited the urge to seal and exterminate from my father. He claims he doesn't enjoy house or yard work, but my sharpest memories of childhood involve him doing just that--fussing around our humble grounds. He picked the macaroni bits and lettuce from the kitchen sink trap, weeded the yard on his hands and knees, caulked the bathroom tiles, removed from high on a ladder the rotting leaves in the gutters along our roof, and swept the grit from our hardwood floors. He's a philosophy professor by day, but he more often describes himself as a floors and drains man. My Aunt Bobbie, his sister-in-law, less charitably refers to him as Tidy Paws. But my father's instincts to clean, seal and repair go well beyond tidiness. Attempts toward preservation and permanence lie at their root.
Each of his activities in the house is an attempt to delay the inevitable--the rot of one structure that gives birth to new ones. When I called him yesterday, he told me he'd spent the past few days painting a sealant on the wooden fence surrounding the yard. "I just don't want it to rot," he said. Other residents of South Bend, Indiana, where he and my mother live, have taken his vision of permanence to new heights. My father has long admired one man in particular, a resident of Greenlawn Avenue, because he had the prescience to landscape his yard in Astroturf. The other two notable visionaries live in houses made of plastic--plastic roof shingles, plastic tile siding, plastic walls. The plastic tiling fades, but it doesn't rot.
Bonnie was genetically devoid of these traits. This was clear from the way she designed her house. In her bathroom, for example, she planted an ivy bed behind her sink. The water that splashed while she washed her hands fed the tentacles growing from the trench at the back of the counter. My first visit to her bathroom brought shock. I couldn't believe someone would choose to plant ivy outside, let alone inside. It may be attractive, but it will rot the Douglas Fir framing of the house.
For two years I battled the bugs as I occupied the hollow of this decaying tree I called home. But the local raccoons let me know I shouldn't bother--the place really belonged to them. They made regular night visits to the roof. One night from my loft I watched a raccoon inch its thick body along the tall wooden fence that ended at the corner of my cabin. With effort, it heaved itself the extra foot and a half up onto my sloping roof and then thumped up the slow incline, dragging its tail along the curled asphalt shingles. It sniffed and rooted through the piles of decaying leaves. It navigated around the two Plexiglas bubbles that were my kitchen and dining room skylights and then peered into the flat Plexiglas sheet that was the roof of my bathroom.
It saw me, too. The loft windows framed me and my cats as we stared out. The raccoon noticed Alfy and Bella, who by then had made big puffy tails, curved their backs high in the air, and opened their mouths wide with hissing. The raccoon approached the windows, came nose to nose with my cats and stared at them with it's expressionless face. It sniffed at the windows, rising up on hind legs to give us a view of its furry stomach. I tried to show Alfy and Bella my allegiance by bolstering their aggressive posturing with some of my own. I waved my fists in the air and growled like a bear. Seemingly bored, the raccoon ambled away, but not before dropping a pile of poop at the edge of the skylight above my kitchen.
Although the raccoons usually traveled alone, one night they traveled in a pair to deliver the final offensive blow. As I ate dinner with a friend, each sitting on a bar stool at the kitchen counter, I heard the scuffling and dragging that meant a raccoon was overhead. The first raccoon peered inside as it passed over the convex skylight. The second one followed, but stopped longer to examine us, looking us in the eyes. After his pause, and while still looking at us, he mooned us, pressing his anus flush against the Plexiglas. Then he moved on, lumbering to the Plexiglas roof of my bathroom where he released a stream of urine.
I'd never before felt like an invader in my own home, and I fantasized returning to a home that could really be mine--the sterile apartments of my past. I decided to leave this cabin to nature. The forces of ecological succession were tugging at it and would surely pull it down. I could see it clearly. In my movie of the cabin's collapse, the place heaved and boiled with microbial life. The loft which jutted high above the roof collapsed into the cabin, and then the entire cabin flattened as a carpet of fungi finished breaking down the wood. A family of raccoons rooted through the detritus of shingles and parched, dusty timber. Grasses took root and a sapling sprouted and matured, providing shelter for a nest of birds.