Dry Rot

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 Everyone says about them, they seemed quite normal, a little withdrawn perhaps, not hail fellow well met, but polite, considerate and then one day they butcher their family or friends.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.

urban life

When I sold my house last year with its double lot, I was afraid I’d be bereft of wildlife. didn’t move far but I bought a free-hold strata, a house on a tiny lot and a commonly owned road. Like a lot of property in Victoria, the ground is all up and down with a steep rise that leads to the various dwellings. My bedroom overlooksthe front yard, it’s not really a yard, a patch of ground, then a tumble of rocks until the next
house below. At my previous home, I was used to having deer sleep in the yard. One evening, it was three
stags, two asleep, one standing on his hind legs sampling the holly tree. I watched him he watched me, then he lay down and joined his companions.In the morning, they were gone and so were one hundred
and ninety-eight of the two hundred tulips that lined the sidewalk. I regretted the tulips.My father had spent one spring planting them. I knew that they’d come back the next year, the tulips that is, and as much as I enjoyed three handsome stags lying in the yard, I vowed to cover the tulips with wire mesh. I’d leave a few uncovered so the deer could have a treat.

In spite of their taste for tulips, I love the Island deer. They’re smaller than Manitoba deer. They’re very handsome. They’re a bit like GreatDanes with antlers. I grieved not having them around anymore. Then one morning, I looked out the bedroom window. There was a young doefast asleep. We had breakfast and lunch and dinner at about the same time. I munched ona sandwich and she munched on some grass and weeds.

We looked at each other out the window. I waggled my fingers at her. She waggled her ears at me. She visited for a day, then she disappeared. Two weeks later, she reappeared. She was nibbling on the new leaves of one of my bushes, snacking on some tufts of grass. Then behind her another doe came up the broken slope and, finally, a third. They all looked like they were about two years old. After a time, they drifted across the road to a neighbour’s property. I thought when girls get together, there have got to be boys around and, sure enough, two dayslater, one of the does was nuzzling up to a buck with a handsome
set of antlers.

This isn’t in the country. On Salt Spring you take thisdeer cavorting in the yard as normal. I’m talking about the city. Urban life. Traffic. Buses. People walking. Cars. Yards. Houses. Apartment blocks. And it’s not just the deer. A friend of mine had a raccoon who slept in the tree outsideher apartment window. Another
 friend has two eagles who alight in a tree at the back of her yard every day just when she’s preparing breakfast. A friend lives in the very heart o fthe city, tourists, buses, hors carriages, lots of traffic and she looked out one day to see an otter waddling across the parking lot.

I applaud this, lost tulips or not. I think there is something magical in the fact that when my son and his family go for a walk at their place outside of Bellingham, deer join in and follow behind them. He said it unnerved him at first. I think he’s adjusted. I think we all need to adjust. We’ve done tremendous harm to the environment. Deer haven’t, bears haven’t, cougars haven’t, otter haven’t. It’s their environment along with our own that we’ve harmed. I think other species have been trying to show us forsome time that it is possible  for all of us to live together if we just respect the environment, if we don’t take every last inch for ourselves  and don’t destroy what we don’t possess.

We often think that the death penalty is appropriate for the loss of some flowers, for a bag of garbage being torn apart, for the noise a flock of crows makes. We take what we need and even what we don’t need. At one time the passenger pigeon filled the skies. Buffaloroamed the prairies. No more.

With each loss of a species, we make our world narrower, less interesting, less diverse. There’s a jack rabbit in Gimli, Manitoba, trying to teach people that we can live together, share space. I always look for him. He sprints down the sidewalk on Fifth Avenue. If he or one of his kin nibbles on one of your fruit trees, put burlap and wire around the trunk. When he visits, admirehis grace and beauty for he is a miracle of movement.
(This article first appeared in Logberg-Heimskringla)