In Marilynne Robinson’s beloved book entitled “Housekeeping,” which is about NOT housekeeping, there is a sequence telling how the aunt and the niece most like her begin to drift away from the house while the outdoors begins to drift in the left-open door: piles of leaves scurrying over the rugs, birds and small mammals and bugs finding niches. All it takes for a house to go feral is to stop pushing back against the surroundings, even in a small town. So my yard tries to become a thicket and my water tries to escape the pipe and spiders spin webs across the dirty windows that nevertheless admit enough light to attract bugs to beat against them. My cousin remarked that coming to visit here was like camping out -- and that’s when the electricity was working.
The yard has appreciated my non-intervention. Most notably, I stopped mowing the cotoneasters that the robins planted under the poplars. This was a big success -- they are a lovely red right now -- but I worry a little that they might compete with the poplars enough to kill them. This was a wet year so I hardly watered. The poplars were already traumatized by an exceedingly cold winter. The poplars are volunteers and were never really watered much, so their roots spread out just under the surface, sometimes rising up in knees that make mowing with a regular push mower -- which is what I’d expected to do -- a punishing series of jolts to the shoulders. So I use a weed whip. It’s not much of a yard anyway -- not big.
Leo, the backhoe operator, blames the roots of the poplars as well as the medieval practice of lead water piping for the recent break. It was under the sidewalk, a half-inch split that -- once uncovered -- created a little stream. A Jack Russell dog came rushing through, stopped for a drink, then ran on.
The first sign was a small clear pool next to the sidewalk. It had rained. That was last Thursday. On Friday it was clearly spreading so I went down to the town shop to find Roger, the other town worker. (His specialty is the grader.) We decided it wasn’t destroying anything so we could justify letting it go over the weekend. In fact, it was Tuesday, today, when “we” dug with the backhoe. Down four or five feet we got cautious. Roger went down in the hole with his shovel to “flake off” the walls -- the pipe was offset a little over a foot. We agreed that any time one “opens” the ground, what is exposed is an adventure, but this was only a small variation.
The lead piping was right next to equally medieval “oznaburg” sewer pipe, which is merely molded paper soaked in tar. It was damaged as part of the excavating, so a section of that was replaced with pretty blue PVC, the connections made with big rubber collars just like the ones on automobile hoses. Leo made the first cut in the ground about 9AM and by noon the pipes were ready to go again. In the afternoon he came back to pack in sand and gravel. Now to let it settle. The sidewalk concrete could not be saved.
In the meantime when I went down to the cellar hole to see if there were water, a second leak hit me in the back of the neck, oozing through the kitchen floor and then down my spine, and there was no pipe anywhere near! I went for another consult with Roger and a plumber recommend, then came back to find a small lake in front of the kitchen sink. Was the leak inside the sink unit, which is an all-in-one Thirties metal monster? I cleared out everything under the sink, then went to move my reserve water buckets and noticed that one was down to one-fourth. Picked it up to move it -- there was the leak. In the bottom of the bucket. Problem solved.
The cats walked through, shaking each foot delicately when they waded the water. Crackers was HIGHLY suspicious of the gaggle of bottles and jugs and kept a close eye on them as she passed, then couldn’t repress a two-foot-high hop in the air when she was safe again.
A guest came knocking to tell me about the leak before we dug. She has built a proper house just down the street -- in fact, she’s not quite in yet. She is 78 and didn’t want to sit down, or set her purse down, though I cleared off the cat-hairy blanket on the company chair. She remarked, rather tartly, “If you took down those pictures, you could put another bookcase there.” Three walls of the front room are floor-to-ceiling bookcases. I explained carefully that one of the reasons I bought this house was the long walls for bookshelves. She did NOT ask whether I had read them all, which is a point in her favor.
My kitchen didn’t make a good impression. I only wash dishes when I have to and I replaced the cabinets with open shelves. By the back door there is a stack of stuff waiting to go out. I haven’t washed my big window this season. Maybe not last. She didn’t go into my writing room or my bedroom. Good thing. The stacks of filing sorted into shallow cardboard cat-food cases (just the right size!) are getting high again. She’s a reader and she uses the library. She is not a writer or a book keeper.
Her brother lives across the alley from her in a house that has no lawn: just a gravel approach in the French manner. It’s a very square house, very regular. I’ve never been in it.
Given a choice, I would not live here. I love the house, though I want to make changes, but I would live in a one-room cabin with a creek for water, a windmill for electricity, and wood for heat. I inch towards that as much as I can, but I’m getting old. Still, if my neighbor -- who is really quite vigorous and alert -- is as dynamic as she is at 78, why can’t I squeeze out another ten years here? Then I’ll look for a clean white cube of a room somewhere with a bed, a table, a chair and a good strong light. And start another book.
In the bathroom there was an earwig. On the wall there was a moth. On the ceiling was a spider. My ecosystem must be hospitable to wild things. I track in mud. I hate to close the windows for the winter.