Would nature miss us if we were gone?
With a tiny shriek, my head bobbed back and I held silent, still. I could feel the pulsating wings of the bee next to my face, its humming like a tiny eggbeater against my cheek.
Fifteen feet up, this was serious. I was balancing atop a long aluminum ladder, attempting to clean out a gutter. An hour earlier, I’d been up the ladder in this same spot, plugging a small hole in our roof that had been made by a carpenter bee. Said bee had now returned and was not happy.
If the bee decided to exact revenge, I would plummet 15 feet if I fell to the right. Were I to fall to the left, it would be some 30 feet off my home’s back deck.
Down below me, my husband and son went quiet as they watched, holding the ladder.
The bee wasn’t quite done. It flew several feet away, then flew back, coming even closer, this time to my lips. My mind filed through a disappointing series of options: Swish the bee away. Lean my body away from the bee (and, unfortunately, ladder). Begin climbing down. Remain motionless. Eventually, the bee decided I wasn’t worth stinging and flew off over the roof of the house. I exhaled and began descending the ladder. When I got to the bottom, I sat down on a deck chair, resting my hands on my knees in shock.
Our home is located on three acres of dense woods. It is an oasis, a dark, wet world of big spiders, noisy birds, red fox and white-tailed deer. It is also covered in cedar shingles, making it an attractive home for a variety of creatures like carpenter bees, which gnaw small holes the size of dimes along the roof within which they nest.
When we first saw our house as potential buyers, we were entranced with the idea of living in the woods. We loved our future home’s eerie otherworldliness. Here was our own little wilderness playground, a real life nature show where we’d live as one with the wildlife yet still enjoy a hot shower and the mall 10 minutes away.
It took only two years, however, to realize that rather than seeing us as protectors or saviors, the millions of species we coexist with consider us as hosts — the type from which you drain blood — or competitors who happen to be using the same living space. No matter how hard we attempt to get along (which ideally would include their staying out of the house), we are constantly beating back what I have come to accept as an invading force.
The grapefruit-sized wolf spiders seem to prefer our basement and the underside of my motorcycle’s cover. The black rat snakes like living underneath our porch. The maples and poplars seem to appear overnight, their wet green fingers climbing up the house walls. The obnoxious wren that expects total privacy while nesting above the side door. The ants, yes — there are ants, and many of them.
I now believe that were we to go away for more than two weeks, we’d come home to something probably unrecognizable as a house, a structure that has been entirely returned to the forest. If you’ve ever seen the paintings of American artist Alexis Rockman, with their animal characters seemingly capable of living in the most post-apocalyptic of settings, you’ll know what I mean.
Perhaps this is why so many of us love so-called ruin porn — the ubiquitous online photographs of derelict buildings in places like Detroit or long-abandoned summer resorts in upstate New York. We are transfixed by the ways nature survives or reappears in places we believe we dominated or destroyed, from the trees that grow out of crumbling houses in Baltimore to the wolves and boar roaming the toxic lands of Chernobyl.
The day after the bee incident, an exterminator came out to destroy an underground wasps’ nest next to the front door. My husband told the young man how I was plugging the carpenter bee holes with wood putty. “We don’t recommend doing that because the bees will simply excavate new holes in your house,” he replied. That’s OK, I thought to myself; I’m not quite ready to give up yet.