This is an old house. By Canadian standards, that is. Not old like in Sweden or Italy. Old enough to have a certain lean to it. It’s built of wood as is appropriate for the West Coast. There are some stone houses around but they’re oddities, sort of like the places with sod roofs.
There are advantageous to a wood house. In an earthquake they’ll most likely shimmy and shake and except for some cracked plaster survive just fine. The problem is that this is the West Coast. It rains most of the winter. Things grow. If you leave something out for a few days, you come back to find it covered in periwinkle or blackberry vines or deadly nightshade. You have the feeling if you fall asleep in a hammock, when you wake you’ll need to call for help. A neighbor will have to come with shears to cut you free.
Visitors from the prairies rave about our gardens. These are the people who in late August put away their lawn mower and their shovel and hoe and rototiller for ten months. The snow buries everything so they can watch soap operas all winter or go curling. Here, there’s no escape from gardening. If we get snow, it lasts two weeks, then disappears and leaves me with the job of chopping the broken branches off the rhodos. It’s nice that the Japanese quince blooms in late January but that means gardening has begun again. The snowdrops soon appear and unless I resort to spreading Weed and Feed at night, there’ll soon be hyacinth and daffodils. I’ve barely had time to wash the stains out of the knees of my jeans before I’m digging and fertilizing and weeding again.
With the rain comes mold. Not a little mold. Blue mold, black mold, white mold. Mold that covers everything. With the mold comes dry rot. Dry rot is a peculiar thing. Everything looks perfectly fine but when I step on the stairs one day, they collapse. When I look to see why, I discover the supporting beam has turned to dust. I can break apart the wood with my hands, push my fingers through it. Dry rot is a bit like marriages that disintegrate. They look great on the surface but in private they’re turning to dust. It’s like those people who appear on the news for having murdered their family or neighbours. Everyone says about them, they seemed quite normal, a little withdrawn perhaps, not hail fellow well met, but polite, considerate and then one day they butcher their family or friends. Rotten to the core under a veneer of politeness and paint.
That’s how the steps to my back sun deck went. Perfectly sound it seemed and then dropping with a stomach clenching thunk. My father found a scrap of lumber and made a rough joint to hold everything in place but I knew I had to call in a carpenter. He took the steps apart like a jigsaw puzzle, setting aside the good bits and throwing out those that had begun to dissolve. He hammered and sawed and banged and then the stairs were up again, sturdy as ever. He put a sheet of tar paper where the bottom step touched the ground.
“Earth and wood don’t mix,” he said. “The ground will rot out the wood in no time. Keep them separate as much as you can.”
I scouted around the property and discovered that when the lot next door was raised the contractor simply dumped fill up against the back of my carriage house. I got out my hoe and squeezed in between the embankment and the back wall and began to pull the soil away from the foundation.. The shingles were soft and punky. There was no flat place to stand, no room to use a shovel. I had to hoe the debris back toward the lane, wrenching my hands each time I hit a rock. I’d dig that out and start again only to find another rock. I kept at it, though, because another winter and the shingles would be as soft as blotting paper, the uprights falling to pieces.
Now, I’m going around my yard, other people’s yards when I’m visiting, knocking on wood, checking the foundations, checking the beams that hold up our lives. I’ve got myself a small pocket knife, when no one’s looking, I press the point into wood just to make sure everything’s okay.