It’s more or less springlike now, pending yet another cruel and absurd outbreak of The Eternal Winter of 2017-18. Here in my absurd forest dwelling, spring means that we are emerging, pallid and blinking, to plant new trees and azaleas, to try with ludicrous and doomed vanity to restore some mowable grass to the gross bald dog-trampled clay slope that does not quite pass for our lawn, to hang bird feeders and potted pansies off the eaves of our house. We are not the only ones emerging. We are joined by my hated foes, the carpenter bees.
God, how I despise the carpenter bees! These are big fat shithead bees the size of grapes, with shiny black asses and crappy attitudes; they bore deep tunnels into the wood exterior of my silly log house and lay their damned and accursed eggs in there. This is their project all spring and summer, and hovering around their holes, buzzing like outboard boat motors, and menacing anyone who comes near their holes, and thumping heavily off the glass windows of my house with a weird, arrhythmic, and somehow revoltingly meaty fip... fipfip... fip... fi-fipfip sound that makes me clench my jaw involuntarily. Their carpentry methods are diabolical: They make L-shaped tunnels, with a hard 90-degree turn an inch or two into the wood, but their awful offspring do not exit by the same route, preferring instead to bore their way straight out, turning an L into a C and doing ghastly damage to the place where I fucking live. When the new ones mate and begin looking for a place to lay new eggs, they return to the old tunnel and make it deeper.
You can see where this ends up. Killing these motherfuckers is an iterative, awful, hopeless-seeming, and absolutely necessary task. There are always more, and either they or my house must be destroyed. I am not impartial in this conflict.
They don’t eat the wood, only crunch it into dust, so the borates or whatever other poisons you can just spray over the whole stupid house, that saturate the wood and can kill off old-house wood boring beetles en masse, do nothing to the carpenter bees. The way to kill them is to find the perfectly round-shaped openings of their tunnels, blast poison into them one by one, and seal them shut. You can find the tunnels by looking for where there are big fat disgusting carpenter bees buzzing around, or by looking for sawdust, which will accumulate beneath the work of carpenter bees. Sawdust. Sawdust that used to be the structure of my home. Damn the carpenter bees! Damn every one of them to hell.
Here is the thing, though. Hateful and evil as they are, carpenter bees are only some of the woodland nemeses I have made in the 15 months or so since my family and I fled off to the forest like a bunch of weirdos. They’re not even the worst. A thing I have come to understand in all these hours of bearded woodsy hermitage is this: To live in a place like this is not to commune with nature, as fools and visitors might think, but as best you can to fend it off, always, unendingly. I have so many enemies now! They are all around. By God I shall defeat them all or be crushed and killed by a tide of awful, hideous, wriggling life.
Anyway, I make my poor coworkers listen to my anti-nature rants far too often, so that eventually Barry Petchesky invited me to rank my enemies in nature. So I did, from least hated to most hated. Here’s that.
My wife spotted a coyote the size of a damn Labrador the other day, strolling through the woods outside the window of our house. It was quite a moment, as coyotes mostly are nocturnal. Generally coyotes are cool, always around but rarely visible. I am not mad at this coyote for stalking my patch of forest, filling its belly with vile rodents or fruitlessly chasing the alarmingly huge family of deer that spends its days roaming the woods uphill of the house. The charm wears off around 1:00 a.m. every fucking night, when the coyote decides it’s time to fill the forest with its intolerable shrieking bark, waking every dog in a two-mile radius, including all four of mine, at least one or two of whom will decide the thing to do is to have a barking contest.
Not cool, coyote.
Stasis is a fantasy. Even if you do nothing, all you are doing is leaving space for a lot of other somethings to happen. There are many ways to learn this lesson; moving to the forest is one that comes with what feels like an inordinate number of snake encounters. Allow the fallen autumn leaves to accumulate for a week or two and you have built a snake habitat. Pile chopped firewood over on the far side of the driveway, instead of stacking it neatly on a raised platform, and you have built a snake habitat. Basically a snake habitat is literally any place that isn’t bare earth; snakes are meticulous auditors of your diligence.
Like coyotes, snakes feast on vile rodents, and that makes them mostly okay in my book, except for when I find one hissing and slithering among the coils of my garden hose. That’s less okay.
Autumn leaves are very pretty when they are hanging from a tree. They are extraordinarily pretty when they are hanging from hundreds of trees, like in an old mostly deciduous forest of the sort where I live. When they are accumulating in endless drifts on every square inch on ground you can see in literally every direction and the only way to prevent your puny forest homestead from becoming a giant teeming rat-and-snake habitat is to remove basically all of them, they are a horror, an overwhelming and suffocating presence, a source of dread.
I have a battery-powered electric leaf blower; it uses a pair of enormous rechargeable 56-volt batteries that, between them, can power the blower for up to an hour on a moderate setting. I went through four recharges in one marathon leaf-blowing session a little over a month ago; blasting away on the blower’s highest setting, all I accomplished was moving one bottomless leaf-drift from one part of my driveway to another part of my driveway. It was not even the biggest or deepest or most problematic leaf-drift I could see when I turned in a circle. This was part of no less than the fourth leaf cleanup we’d undertaken since last October.
We have “hard water.” This is water with minerals in it. If we pump this water through our home’s plumbing without treating it first, our pipes will gradually fill with hard mineral deposits. Eventually water will have no room to move through the pipes. Therefore we have to have a water softening appliance in our basement, and I have to buy huge heavy bags of special rock salt and lug them downstairs to the basement and dump them into the water softener every couple of months. Because otherwise my home’s plumbing will be destroyed by mineral water.
Not long after we moved in, we discovered that the old water softener had stopped functioning. The several hundred pounds worth of weird football-shaped salt-lumps the previous homeowner had left in the big salt tank had all stuck together and formed one giant block of salt, which was bad for reasons. I had to break up that giant block of salt with a metal fucking broom handle, stab-stab-stab, for hours, and scoop it out of the tank and into one trash bag after another, just to find out what was wrong with the machine. And then we had to replace the machine anyway. Death to all minerals. Who needs them!
Hey, do you like squeezing the sweet nectar out of honeysuckle flowers? Fun, isn’t it? You enliven a summertime stroll through the woods by finding honeysuckle to enjoy, and it’s great. You know what else you can do? You can go to hell.
An oak tree, just as an example of a good and benign plant, survives by reaching upward and downward: Upward with its branches, to reach sunlight; downward with its roots, to reach steady groundwater. Honeysuckle, by contrast, is an evil hell-bush; it grows uncontrollably in crazy and disgusting arcing sprays, downward and outward, not reaching for sunlight but splattering its hideous twining branches all over any nearby plants and shrouding them in killing darkness; it survives by destroying everything around it and replacing it with awful tangled brambles. Every spring it blooms before everything else and, with uncontested access to the sun, explodes across the land like a wild forest fire. Chop it down to a stump and it just spews out new branches, like a resistant strain of some hideous pathogen.
A honeysuckle bush peeled the fucking gutter off the side of my garage last spring in its hurry to devour all life. I hacked it back to nothing with heavy-duty loppers; a year later, it’s as big and explosive as it ever was, and menacing the gutter again. Destroy all honeysuckle forever.
Along the westward edge of my property is a giant white oak tree, easily 80 feet tall. In all likelihood it has stood there for a century, if not longer. It will not last another century, because revolting climbing vines slithered up its sides and choked off all but a pitiful smattering of its once-glorious foliage, destroying its ability to nourish itself. Birds nested there; understory trees grew in its shade. Now it’s just a giant dying and mostly-dead stick. Guess who will have to pay to have it brought down, before the wind gets a chance to swing it like a baseball bat into the rest of my shrinking forest? This guy!
Left unchecked, the vines will do this to every bit of green life they can get their spiny, disgusting clutches into. A single vine snakes its evil way up the side of a majestic tree—or a pretty little sapling, for that matter—then springs a million disgusting little gripping roots into the bark of its host, and chokes and chokes and chokes, until the tree is nothing but the dead and hollowing armature for an invasive murderous horror. The worst happens in the summer, when the vine—but not the tree—sprouts green foliage, but cluttered, jumbled, maniacal foliage, parasitic foliage, actively killing the thing holding it up, a hideous ghoulish inversion of a tree.
The only thing to do is to fight the vines off, regularly and forever, with loppers and thick gloves, so that the whole world will not eventually become a rotting necropolis writhed over by the crazed death-foliage of climbing vines. I alone stand between Earth’s ecosystem and this Lovecraftian doom. The line must be drawn here!
Hey, yeah, let’s talk about another motherfucker that kills big, beautiful trees and turns them into giant swords of Damocles, waiting to drop onto a hapless doofus such as myself! The emerald ash borer is a very pretty and totally evil green beetle whose wild, out-of-control proliferation has amounted to a death sentence for what seems like it eventually will be every ash tree in North America; it lays its eggs in the crevices of ash tree bark, and then the hatched larvae burrow into the wood and eat it for two fucking years before emerging as adults, to repeat the process until the tree is deader than hell. Assholes!
I had never heard of the emerald ash borer before last summer, when a sudden and terrifyingly violent storm came down the hill and smacked a giant ash tree that stood right smack dab in the middle of the view out my living room windows. The ash tree, weakened over years by emerald ash borers, tipped right over ... right onto an even larger and otherwise fairly healthy hickory tree that stood right next to it. The soil around the hickory tree, softened by rains and left pillowy and rutted by the gradual withdrawal of the dead ash’s roots, couldn’t hold the hickory in place. It uprooted when the ash fell on it ... and tipped onto a giant white oak.
The white oak held its fuckin’ ground, buddy! Hell yeah! But now it had some number of hundreds of tons of very large dead trees leaning on it, which was bad. We hired tree experts to take down the two dead trees before they pushed the oak down, too. The tree experts carefully removed a section of our wooden paddock fence so they could lay the dead hickory tree down safely, but when it came down, it fell through the intact fence section directly next to the section they’d removed, and destroyed it.
When I look out the windows of my living room, now, I see a huge barren gap in what once was a towering, lush, beautiful, unbroken canopy of foliage. I also see the corpse of that ash tree, rotting in the woods. I planted a dawn redwood next to what’s left of the old hickory stump. If all goes well, this famously huge and fast-growing specimen will fill in that hole in the foliage long after I’m dead.
Fuck the emerald ash borer!
My ludicrous forest home sits on a hillside. The word “drainage” meant pretty much nothing to me before I moved here, and now drainage is my life. I am living the drainage lifestyle. I will die right now for my drainage and for drainage in general.
It might escape the notice of the untrained eye, but the exterior of my house is a crazy labyrinth of wacky gutter and downspout arrangements and natural water courses. The corrugated black plastic tubes snaking under the ground, carrying rainwater around the house on its way downhill and away from the gutter downspouts, so that it will not erode the ground out from under the foundation. The frankly ridiculous length of wide-bore PVC pipe, held in place by a big dumb rock, that routes rainwater past a particularly bog-sensitive patch of ground. The innumerable winding ruts carved by rainwater making its own way downhill no matter how many manmade interventions and detours we install. The two-dozen trees and bushes we’ve planted this spring alone, to drain the boggy patches and prevent erosion and groundwater pollution. All of it leading down to a stream bed that runs alongside the road and passes under my driveway via an alarmingly rusted and degraded culvert pipe that will have to be replaced before it collapses and leaves us stranded here, unable to escape by car. At which point, sure as you are born, a tree will fall on my head.
Death to all rodents! We had mice in the attic. You could hear them squeaking and scrabbling, horribly, through the wall, the sound amplified by the hollow air ducts as the mice scurried across them. Chipmunks burrowed under and killed all my pepper plants. A bat—a rodent as far as I am concerned, whether taxonomically or not—got into the hollow space behind my older son’s bedroom wall and flapped and squeaked and it sounded like a fucking nightmare from hell, like Dracula, like pestilence. He couldn’t sleep in there.
I planted American holly trees along one side of my patch of forest adjacent to an area where neighboring developers (more on this in a moment) had knocked down a section of woods. Rabbits, which I’m told are not rodents but are rodentlike enough for me to lump them in with the rodents, have built a warren of tunnels under their roots. Likewise, a few weeks ago I watched a big fat raccoon—not a rodent, but also, a fucking rodent—stroll casually up the fence-line dividing our property from our neighbor’s, hang a right, and disappear into a crevice on the side of her house. In broad daylight!
That’s way too many furry vermin! That’s nearly all the types of small mammal I can name and wedge haphazardly into incorrect taxonomic categories. I do not think we have any rats. Yet. The day I see a rat is the day I hose down the forest with gasoline.
My driveway is more than a quarter-mile long.
When we moved here, in January of 2017, the lot next to ours was undeveloped forest; it didn’t have so much as a lean-to on it. What felt like hours after we finished unpacking our boxes, crews showed up next door to saw down the dozens and dozens of massive, ancient trees that stood there, and then to just fucking burn, in big smoking piles, what they’d cut down. (It’s the most wasteful and ruinous thing you can do with felled trees, but also the cheapest after just leaving them to decay where they fall.) A three-lot subdivision of aluminum-clad cookie-cutter single-family commuter sleep units stands there now, empty; if I turn my head to my left, I am looking into a bathroom window where a forest used to be. As Tom Scocca joked when I told him about this: In capitalist America, suburbs move to you!
And so, like, mew mew mew, we lost the sylvan privacy and seclusion we moved here for, which is no big deal in any but the very least-grand scheme of things. More importantly, the local wildlife lost that much more of its shrinking habitat, which is no small reason why ours now looks like the scene in Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure when Pee-Wee switches on the light-up glasses.
And more importantly than that, the patch of forest we live in lost a neighboring patch that had shielded it from the blast of downhill winds for hundreds of years. More on this in a second.
Can’t wait to meet the new neighbors! And to become known among them as the weird and inexplicably hostile hermit guy.
Once upon a time, I loved wind. I would go outside on windy days just to feel it blowing past. Now that I have lived in the stupid forest for a year, wind is my greatest and most hated natural enemy, and must be destroyed. It roars down the hill like an army of freight trains, and every time it gusts I cringe, waiting to look up and see an oak tree coming through the roof to skewer my brain and smush my domestic comforts down into the mud like so many tent stakes.
In the year or so since they tore down the neighboring woods, wind has knocked down some dozen of our old trees, and not all of them dead and hollow ones like that huge ash. This sucks! And not just because it has trashed my dang fence like three different times! Things lived in those trees and grew under them and were crushed by them when they fell. (Things like my fence, for one!) The trees themselves were alive. Now they’re gone because some dingus wanted to sell cheaply made houses quickly and with the highest possible profit margin.
This is not the wind’s fault. The wind cares not for the schemes of man, and this is part of the problem. In any event, it doesn’t make me hate the wind any less! I would fistfight the wind if I could. I would spit on the wind if it would not blow the spit back into my face. My only recourse is to plant a bunch of stupid hardy evergreen trees along the property line and hope that there will still be some forest for them to shield from the wind 60 years from now, when they’re tall enough to form a worth-a-shit wind screen.
Carpenter bees will have made a hive out of my husk by then. I will have a maple tree growing out of what’s left of my head by then. I will be buried under a Great Pyramid of fallen leaves. But at last I will have defeated the wind, from beyond the grave, and that will be fuckin’ satisfying.