Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Not-So-Good Housekeeping

One year, we entertained a house spider from Thanksgiving to the Fourth of July. All winter I caught flies for her, operating on the theory that predators are a higher lifeform, more worthy of aid, than prey. Where did I get flies in the dead of winter? I forget, just lucky I guess. As time went on, her web on the ceiling in a corner of the bathroom became old and ratty, littered with souvenirs of her previous meals, but I couldn’t evict her. Where would she go? Actually, I felt honored she had chosen to move in with us, and curious to see what would happen. An eight-month experiment ended in failure: I never did learn the outcome. One night she seemed excited and alert; the next morning she was gone. Off to greener pastures I guess. She disappeared while I had a fly chilling for her in the fridge. (Did she ever wonder why her meals were colder than she was?) When we finally took her web down, it contained the remains of a dragonfly, several small moths, and the carcasses of innumerable houseflies. She was not a particularly tidy housekeeper.

Neither, you may rightly conclude, am I. I’ve noticed that men are rarely judged by their housekeeping, and then only if they’re sole householders. Women, whatever else they may accomplish in a productive lifetime, are still judged on how they keep a house. (Remember the discussions of Janet Reno’s somewhat casual lifestyle after she was nominated for Attorney General?) There’s an old saying “An immaculate house is a sign of an extremely boring woman [person].” Let’s just call those of us who choose otherwise “creative housekeepers,” shall we? A friend of similar persuasion doesn’t like to kill houseflies—so she just stuns them and feeds them to her frogs!

Another time I brought a near-frozen orb weaver in out of a December snowstorm. She stayed several days, then one night I found her walking across the living room, and she too disappeared. I’ve even watched a wolf spider attack and kill a black widow here in the house, and I finally unraveled the mystery of why spiders are found in bathtubs. By the way, if you don’t want to scoop them up, you can hang a strip of toilet paper over the edge for them to climb out on. That’s creative housekeeping!

Probably my tolerance for spiders is higher than most people’s.
(I definitely don’t like them in bed, though. Eew.) Or maybe it’s because of the background in biology, and meeting lots of people who grow strange things at home—a respectable tradition among biologists. Remember that Darwin kept earthworms on the piano, not that his wife Emma appreciated it much.

I’ve rescued tiger salamanders from the garage, found hatchling yellow-bellied racers in the kitchen, let a baby towhee sleep overnight in the study, and chased young scrub jays in the bay window. Most of those encounters were courtesy of the cats, I suspect. But some wildlife find their way in on their own. There’s nothing like coming face to face with a skunk in the kitchen at midnight! That happened a few times before we got a cat door installed. Now I suspect they’ve learned to use the cat door too, and it’s wise to remember to put the cat food up off the floor during skunk season! I’m happy to say we have never had a skunk “accident” inside though. Besides, I’m pretty sure they do it on purpose.

You know you’ve created a permeable household when the bees start hitting on your houseplants. One year, the nectar dripping from the flowers on my waxplant (Hoya carnosa) attracted a honeybee who could not possibly have recognized or remembered this plant. I also found a mature seed pod on my “hearts entangled” vine (Ceropegia)—documenting that at least one intruder was successful in pollinating its complex flower. Ecology is the science of the “household,” after all, and this is ecology in action.

My mother believed there were more important things in life than housekeeping, and certainly more important parts to the business of childhood than learning to wash dishes or being forced to take on adult responsibilities at a tender age. That example has brought me both blessings and banes, but it did leave us free, as children, for the explorations so necessary to discovering and growing to understand the world. Adults call it play, but that’s a grown-up abstraction that grossly oversimplifies the process.

The more I see the effects of “good housekeeping,” the more deeply I appreciate that I was never trained to be a sterilizing force on the planet. Our dependence on chemical poisons (called cleaning products) is frightening. Thankfully we are beginning to rediscover more benign alternatives—vinegar, baking soda. Overly fastidious people may not feel comfortable in my house, but most other beings will find welcome. A living creature, whether two- or four- or six- or eight- or no-legged, any creature that enters our house has a good chance of getting out alive. Knowing that gives me pleasure, and a certain sense of pride.

Copyright, S.L. White, 2008. Illustration copyright Jan Ratcliffe.
Originally published in Upbeat, February 1997.


Texas Travelers said...

It is a great post. You should see our place in the city. No pesticides. We used to be the only place on the block that had lots and lots of butterflies. Now some of neighbors have come around. Now with a buffer zone, the butterflies, wasps, bee, and spiders are expanding their territory.

Most people don't appreciate if I post a photo of a spider. We have worn out the bird-watching, butterfly photography, and dragonfly chasing and have taken up spider study. It's interesting.

Troy and Martha

. . . Lisa and Robb . . . said...

I just stumbled across the doorstep of your blog. Nice place you've got here!

Gotta love the spiders!