Home Sweet Home

Inconstant barbarian

I destroyed somebody’s home about a week back.

Actually, I probably do that a lot without even noticing it, and when I do realize that’s what I’m doing, I stop myself.

Like the day before the homewrecking, while I was watering the dwarf Norway spruce (“needs frequent watering unless you’ve been getting ample rain,” said the tag—or something to that effect). I’d already deliberately jet-hosed off the spider-mite webs lurking between branch tips. Those mites do a ton of damage to the poor little vertically challenged spruce. Then I spotted an expansive open-work web stretching the two feet between the spruce and its viburnum neighbor.

Still in cleaning mode, I was about to hose that away too, but hesitated.

Why spray it away? It’s not in my way. It may be in the flyway, for flies and mosquitoes and gnats and such. But—not that I mean to be judgmental—who needs them?

So I desisted, and received my reward. I spotted what I took at first for a curled-up brownish leaf lodged at the web-to-spruce intersection. It hung on to the branch in most un-leafy bouncy fashion.

I looked more closely, and spied a small tank of a spider, its huge boxy body supported by the kind of legs a Star Wars monster might stomp with. When I say huge, I’m thinking like a fly caught in web as Spidey hustles forth like Godzilla incarnate. Half an inch across at least, and all deadly menace. I would show you closeup photos, but you would not thank me if they gave you nightmares. Look here if you dare.

Full of surprises

A strange mess of slender gray/brown twigs, with some green coneflower leaves over and (a couple) under them, with the rim of a black plastic pot showing in lower right corner

The mysterious mess of sticks

My big surprise, though, was walking out onto my deck the fateful evening and finding, as I glanced at the four pots of coneflowers stashed in the rail planter awaiting their permanent homes, a strange intrusion. Masses of small sticks protruded that weren’t there in the morning.

Now wotthehell! I muttered. Weird things have been happening on that deck lately:

The gust that yanked the umbrella out of its stand and the surrounding table and launched it on an arc all the way to the garden’s edge. I didn’t see this happen, but deduced the arc from the fact that nothing in the straight line from launch point to landing got destroyed.

Or those flourishing Asclepias tuberosa (milkweed if we’re not talking fancy), all four of them set down tidy in their pots for the night atop a milk crate after bedtime watering. When I came out the next morning, I found skeletal remains: lost and half-gone leaves, and a few stalks also halfway gone. Ain’t no caterpillar did that!

Asclepias tuberosa (butterfly milkweed) in bloom, with clusters of bright orange flowers atop stems with foliage, alternating long thin pointed green leaves, against a background of brown mulch and gray cinderblocks

What the milkweed should look like

Four pots of Asclepias tuberosa after something munched them down by half; pots are light green plastic with black rims, a couple of them showing dark green script reading "Native plants." Pots are in a black plastic plant tray atop a glass table top, and parts of two lemongrass plants in smaller black pots can be seen nestled in two corners of the tray,

The milkweed, after the marauder got to them

But who else would have munched off most of the leaves and left half-bare stalks standing? Have I perhaps acquired a rabbit who toughly scoffs at milkweed toxins but dines daintily enough for Emily Post?

An investigation

So yes, like any gardener, I’m used to odd happenings. But these sticks ’midst the coneflowers were an anomaly of anomalies. They couldn’t have blown there at random. The coneflowers’ leaves massed so thickly they’d even made it hard for me to ensure that water got from the hose wand into their pots.

Bird's nest viewed from above, constructed of sticks and moss as described in accompanying text, with a few blurred green leaves showing at the four corners of the photo

Mystery solved

As I moved closer, I realized the sticks formed an interwoven structure. It wasn’t until I looked directly down at the plants from above that I realized the truth. Somebody of the avian persuasion had, in the course of one day, built a nest lodged tightly among the stalks and leaves. The stick edifice splayed out at the bottom, extending the underpinnings out among all four of the pots’ tops and the coneflowers’ understory. No wind would blow this nest away, unless the coneflowers, pots and all, took flight with it.

Closer to the center, the nest refined into fine intertwinings. At the very center, for the ultimate homey touch, the sticks spun into a bird-sized cup, carpeted with a soft, greeny-gold moss.

Moral calculus

Are you thinking, awwww, how sweet?

Not I. I faced a moral dilemma. To wit: If I leave the nest there, the coneflowers are goners. They need their homes in the ground soon. They might have a fighting chance if I keep watering them, but how could I spray cold water daily over a broody bird and her babies?

It came down to a choice between the bird’s nest, or the plants’ survival. I’d like to say I thought long and carefully, but I made the calculations fast. No eggs in the nest. It might have been built on spec—you know, Joe Robin builds a love nest to lure his maybe-lady to. But this year seems choc-a-bloc with these bird guys hopping about puffing their red chests out like there’s some MAGA rally in my yard. Maybe he has so much competition that he’ll never get lucky.

However, if he does get lucky, there might be eggs here soon.

Hell, if he can build a nest in a day, he can do it again. I’m proud to say that sticks are a dime a dozen (free, in fact) all over my yard. And there’s lots of moss handy too.

The coneflowers, on the other hand: seriously at risk.

Reader, I removed the sticks. And then I moved the coneflowers to a less bird-luring location.

A moral calculus?

An Eastern bluebird nest made of grasses interwound and containing three pale dusty-blue eggs, each about thumb size, as shown by the thumb on top of the nest at bottom of the photo

This would have stopped me cold!
Eastern Bluebird nest” by SeabrookeLeckie.com
licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I could justify myself by noting that if even one teensy egg had sat in that cushy nest, I wouldn’t have hesitated a nanosecond. The nest would still be there. I’d be praying anxiously for coneflower survival, while mama bird shrieked every time I stepped on deck.

Or if I had known it for a bluebird’s nest, with or without eggs, I’d have left it and let the coneflowers take their chances.

But I don’t feel good about my decision. This was somebody’s home.

And when I stop to think about it, I recall that homes—for wild creatures and humans alike—have been disappearing at an increasingly rapid pace in recent years.

Some of that we can blame on climate change: the ominous rise of seawaters, the devastation wreaked by more frequent and more violent rampages by wind, water, and fire. Bangladesh could sit largely underwater in far too few years. California could go up in smoke, and Wyoming, you could be next. Ultimately, those disasters stem from over a century of human impact on the environment, not deliberate but as a side effect (an “externality,” as the economists phrase it) of increasingly breakneck industrialization and burning of fossil fuels.

In the shorter term, though, deliberate human action has caused massive habitat loss for thousands of species, sometimes including Homo not-so-sapiens. Many of us shuddered at the reports last year of the accelerated setting of fires Amazonia to clear land for farming or cattle grazing. (You can see a NASA report based on satellite images tracking the past two decades of Amazon forest destruction, with some vivid maps, here.) Here in the US, the destruction of natural (diverse) forests, meadows, and wetlands has augmented the effect of invasive species to put hundreds of our indigenous species of birds, reptiles and amphibians, fish, trees and other plants at risk of extinction.

There may not be a lot I can do about all of those problems day to day, but I can (and should) put more care into making my own garden into a better habitat for other species. You’ll be hearing more about those efforts in future posts. (Mice, ants, and earwigs, if you are listening: this does not mean I will stop trying to drive you out of the house!)

Homes for all?

While I tinker on my own home, the issue of human homes has been weighing on my mind. Having volunteered in the past at a local survival center, I am keenly aware that homelessness among those of our own species is scandalously prevalent.

The numbers aren’t hard to find, although I suspect they understate the problem. The federal government uses a standardized approach in tallying the homeless. Every year, the Department of Housing and Urban Development coordinates locally organized counts of people without homes who are in shelters on one January night. Every other year, those who are unsheltered get counted too.

In 2020, the official tally found 580,466 people homeless in this country, nearly a fifth of them children. Over 200 thousand people had no shelter. In January.

If the numbers are a bit hard to see in perspective, think of it this way. If you imagine you had a clear field, you could put all these men, women, and children in Miami (FL) or Raleigh (NC) or Omaha (NE). You’d still have more than a hundred thousand of them left over. You could put them in Atlanta (GA) or Sacramento (CA), but over sixty thousand still would have nowhere to go. If you put them all in Baltimore (MD) or Minneapolis (MN), there would be enough homes left for only a few thousand others. Those however are the 2020 numbers. By this year, the increased numbers might top even those cities off.

And this doesn’t begin to capture the predicament of the ten million Americans living on the brink: in poverty and spending more than half their income on housing, or doubled up, due to poverty, in housing with people with whom their relationships may be precarious.

Hitting close to home

The issue has become visceral for me in recent weeks.

My sister has been ill for some months now, with a stomach disorder that has plagued her since childhood. It gets dangerous when she is under severe stress. She needs calm, stability, and security. Her stress levels ramped sky-high, what with losing a large part of her medical insurance during the pandemic and butting heads with the work-from-home bureaucracies for months on end; struggling with dirt-level poverty, bills piling up, meds unaffordable, dog getting sick, car dying—you name it. The mounting stress had her so sick that she lost about 50 pounds in two months.

Just as she was beginning to regain some health and strength, the owners of the little house she’s been renting decided to sell the property it sits on—land, big house, little house, everything. Before she moved in a year and a half ago, she told the owners she needed a place where she could stay put for at least 3 to 5 years. Their response: We’d never sell this. The real estate market in the area has now gone stratospheric. They’ve been living 200 miles away and like it where they are now. So they’re selling.

At first they said they’d wait till next spring. Then they said they wanted her out by September. Then in mid-June they told her she had to be out by July 15.

She’s been packing all day and vomiting every night since, and often spends half the night doubled up in pain.

The owners have every right to sell my sister’s home. Or do they? Legally, yes. Morally? You tell me.

I had every right to remove that bird’s nest. Or did I? I’m not so sure.

And now, your turn:

Remember to sign up for the “newsletter” if you want notices of future posts, if you haven’t already done so. And whether you sign up or not, please post your comments below. (If others post comments before you, the Reply box for your comment will appear after their posts.) I try to reply to every comment, but please feel free to answer others’ comments yourself, too. Here are a few questions to get you started, but go for any topic this post or gardening in general inspires you to.

  1. What have you tried in order to make your garden into a good home for more animals and plants?
  2. In your area, what are the biggest challenges to maintaining and expand habitats for native species?
  3. Do you know of any local community efforts to provide homes for those without any? Any ideas on the best ways to go about this?

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12 Responses to Home Sweet Home

  1. Ellice Gonzalez says:

    Such a beautiful, rich & poignant piece … but still containing your wry & funny comments. Bravo!

    • Kateri says:

      Thanks for the cheering on, Ellice! And thank you for being such a faithful reader.

      Of course you realize that you’re just egging me on to keep doing this. Not that I needed much of a push, but the way you and other readers of the blog express your appreciation does give me extra strong incentive to keep going.

  2. Hillary says:

    So sorry to hear about your sister’s housing situation. Housing is a real problem, especially affordable housing. In my area, very few people can afford to live where they work, as the number of people moving into the area from other parts of the country keep pushing both the population and the housing prices up.

    • Kateri says:

      Something definitely awry when basic human needs come last in the order of priorities! The situation you describe seems to be repeated over and over again all over the country, Hillary. Even in my relatively bucolic corner of Massachusetts. And of course, the people pushed out who still have to get to work will most likely need to drive (since as a country we don’t do a great job at public transportation), which will increase use of fossil fuels and emission of yet more carbon dioxide. Sometimes it makes me think I’m foolish to try improving anything by planting milkweed or native ferns or locally indigenous shrubs. But then I figure, it can’t hurt anything (except maybe my knees), and just maybe one more butterfly fluttering by will cause the tiny breeze that tips us in a better direction.

  3. Laurie Shade-Neff says:

    Ditto what Helen said.
    Home is where the heart is and hearts need a place to be held and nurtured.
    Everyone deserves a home.

  4. Susan McKenna says:

    The house I live in is on the market—it is one block from downtown Northampton and borders the Round House Parking Lot. There is a 1/2 acre lot, filled with wildlife including a rare brown hawk, several albino skunks, owls, raccoons, and opossums. It is a bird sanctuary, home to dozens of our little singing friends. Bears and deer have made their way to the backyard, displaced by urban encroachment. The adjacent rental properties are owned by two of the major Northampton investors, who together own dozens of rental units and a number of the vacant storefronts in the City. They worked with the city planner to get this prime real estate designated as commercially zoned. This means someone could build a forty foot tall building in the back yard. My partner, who is the owner, offered the lot to the City as a sanctuary. Refused. Too much upkeep. They’ve already taken 20 feet by eminent domain for parking spaces. Bad city planning I say! The plan now is to offer the 1/2 acre at a very low price to whoever buys the house.

    • Kateri says:

      What a horror, Susan, to have such rich city habitat for wildlife threatened by real estate investor greed for profit. And then to have you displaced, too. One does wonder sometimes why these people get called “developers.” “Destroyers” might be more apt.

  5. lorna says:

    If it was a bluebird’s nest, it was a blessing, but then, so can milkwood be….. Maybe you could set up another attractive setting to attract them with milkweed straw-branches. I have bluebirds in my yard abundantly this year; they make nests in the bushes and compost heap.
    On another subject: rain. I saw on CNN people having to swim up subways steps, and umbrellas turning inside out in the heavy wind. Living here in inclement weather is just so much easier. Also, we live in a rain forest at the moment…the birds love it, and I, personally, swim inside the myriads of greens.

    • Kateri says:

      Oh, I’m sure it wasn’t a bluebird’s nest. They are far too elegant for stick buildings. And this was too big for one of those. You are so lucky to have so many of them in your yard. I never heard of them nesting in compost heaps, though! Am thinking seriously of putting up some of those wooden bluebird houses on poles next year. It’s a rare thrill in my back yard to see one of the lovely creatures. Even though I have a nice big birdbath out for them. The robins and the mourning doves seem to hog it.

      And yes, rain rain rain. Still coming down nearly all week this week, it seems. Saves me watering time, but interferes with getting out there to dig and tinker. The resident Thumper Bunny appears to be taking advantage of the rain washing the cayenne pepper off the coneflower leaves; more devastation every time I step out there post-rain. Maybe I should just let everything turn into rainforest….

  6. helen snively says:

    thanks.. love the way you pulled these two sides of habitat together.

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