Monday, July 06, 2009

THIS OLD HOUSE: Low-balling the Status Quo

When I was a little kid walking to school -- maybe five blocks headed east along a side street, turn and two blocks north -- I was nosy about the people who lived along there and the way they lived. It felt like visiting a foreign country or going outside the gates of a compound. I was particularly interested in the dogs. One very modest house had a barking dog and I was determined to make friends with it, sending it into spasms so violent that the old man owner came out and yelled at me: “Go away, little girl! Leave my dog alone!” Another household had a fish pond with a big turtle in it and a bouncing noisy collie just like Lassie. The lady who lived there was kinder, but her message was the same. “Go away!”

Then one morning I found a dead cat in a yard and regarded it for a long time. On the way home it was gone and I couldn’t imagine how it had left since it was dead. I didn’t know people remove dead animals.

One of the most interesting houses was very small, almost buried in lilacs and other brush, which in Portland doesn’t need much encouragement. Someone, I assumed an old woman, threw out breadcrumbs and the place was swarming with English sparrows, all chiming their small songs until they amounted to a chorus. My earliest reading was Grimm and Anderson so the world was filtered through them and probably that wasn’t a bad fit for the neighborhood, since it consisted mostly of older northern European immigrants. I assumed the old woman was a witch and that if I’d have been a mermaid she could have arranged for me to trade my fishy tail for legs. I was a little young for that.

Now my house is rapidly becoming that sort of witch’s hovel in spite of the climate challenge. The poplars are certainly intent on reforesting this lot. I haven’t dug and planted anywhere near what I had intended, but try to keep alive what is already present. Peonies, grape hyacinth, little pink wild roses, and a rising tide of wild geranium that plans on taking over everything. The daisies, which are officially a weed, are coming along in their wake and the two mingle in a very pleasant way. I don’t really have the heart to try to root them all out.

The grass is very tall in back, which pleases my eye but no one else’s, and is threatening the minor lilies I planted. In front the daffies did well this spring but the daylilies seem to be lagging a bit. Every time I try to root out the grass in that front border, the ants swarm up my arms, so I stop. In fact, the ants ate my Explorer rose from Canada. I’d been using peanut hulls for mulch and they took it as an invitation.

Now I’ve scattered another set of ant killing “motels” out there in hopes that it will make a difference. But should I remove the peanut hulls? I originally got off to a bad start by using bark mulch AKA bark munch. There is a metropolis of “sidewalk ants” in the obvious place and I’m tempted to take a sledge hammer to the cement in order to get rid of them. One of our town commissioners remarked that our dipsy-doodle sidewalks (the few that can be described as sidewalks) are worse than just a common dirt path.

The “ecology” of the front yard is partly controlled by the wind from the NW all winter, which keeps building up the parking strip and that corner of the lot with road sand, loose and groovy for ants. There was a scraggly tree on the parking strip which I persuaded the PP&L wire-clearers to cut down. The guy did it, but his arms were covered with ants by the time he got through, which made him very indignant. They must have run right up his chainsaw blade! The roots of that tree are somehow harboring ants.

Trees control the shadiness of this yard all the way around except in back where a garden ought to go, except that so far I’ve not had the will power, the energy level, the cash or the drive to dig up the ground and get it working. This year even the bathtubs didn’t get planted properly. Both my buildings in the back, the double garage/workshop and the little “bunk house,” are move-ins from the reconstruction of Swift Dam after the ‘64 flood, quickly built by Scottie Zion’s brother and meant to be temporary. The frames of them are good, but they need new exteriors and that will take money. As I get older, they’ll take more money because I can do less of it myself.

Actually, I had visions of a sort of “cute” little cottage compound with embellishments of all sorts, but now I’m thinking that it’s not such a good thing to attract attention. Some of the houses here are so decorated with “cute” stuff that I don’t know how they get their lawns mowed -- I just know they do it. All the time. Now I’m thinking that the branches I’ve collected to make frames and trellises are better off sawn up for firewood. In Browning by now they’d have walked off like that dead cat.

The cotoneasters that the birds planted and I let grow under the poplars where the robins sleep are doing very well and I like the way they look with a “path” of stepping stones coming between them. Much of my early effort was about those cement squares, a dollar each, which are no longer on the market. I keep meaning to make a mold and cast more. Shouldn’t be that hard. I thought at first I’d write quotes into them with a nail when they were still soft, but see above. . . it would be an invitation to people to come into the yard.

In the long grass is the evidence of my appreciators and residents: cat nests. Squibbie and Caspar, the big mostly white cat from across the street, are the chief nest makers since Crackers likes my lap or the bed the best. Every now and then I turn on the sprinkler and a cat leaps up and tears off. I’ve thought of making some cement cat sculptures to put in the borders, but so far the ones I’ve made in clay have looked more like, well, dead cats than sleeping cats. Maybe glass eyes, looking up?

The Inkydink cats, Siamese twins, across the street seem to have moved to the country where the family is building a new house -- of logs, they say. I’m not the only one with romantic ideas about how a house should look.

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