October 18, 2009

When I was just starting school, we moved to a very magical place. The north side of Austin, in a little subdivision called Balcones Woods. You got there via the highway, passing a couple of active quarries - the subdivision was marked by a large stone wall turned into a sign ... that was Balcones Woods Drive, a long, winding road into the subdivision with little branches coming off of it like tiny creeks fracturing off a slightly larger river.

Having just come from the frozen northlands of Indiana and townhouse living, I was mesmerized with the duality of our new house. If I stood in the front yard and faced south, it was a neighborhood. If I stood in the backyard, faced north and through the section of fence that Dad had taken down ... woods. It was beautiful and I was in heaven.

Dad began carving out areas of the backyard for plants. There was a border lined with decorative cement "fence" pieces, scalloped like little half circles erupting from the ground - and rose bushes and other plants safely ensconced between them and the fence. There was the garden area to the west side of the yard. And one little "wild" patch that Dad never did figure out what he wanted to do with. In a lot of ways, that was my favourite area, oppositional child that I was.

Despite my allergies, I spent long and happy hours in the backyard. I learned to not give completely in to Mom's fear of wasps and bees, although they do make me rather nervous now. I played with little garter snakes ... and brought them up to show Mom and Dad both before learning that 1) Mom is terrified of any creepy-crawly, but most especially snakes and 2) some snakes were serious business. Dad was good about it. He told me what to watch for in rattlers - but I never did see one. I'm not sure we really discussed cottonmouths much, but we probably should have.

I continued to pick up and play with my little ribbon snakes, however. And lizards. If I could have caught the rabbits that came into the yard, I'd've picked them up as well.

In the evenings we'd watch as the rabbits and deer would come to the garden for a snack. Dad was alternately furious with the wildlife and entranced. We could have built a critter-fence around the garden, but somehow despite his complaining, Dad never built it. I wonder now if it wasn't because he, too, enjoyed watching the animals come creeping into the backyard through the gap in our back fence.

One of the most memorable and even magical moments, however, was one shared by the entire neighborhood.

I don't know how the whole neighborhood knew to open their front doors and come outside. This was long before cell phones or even cordless phones. Besides, no one could hardly move or take their eyes off the scene.

A large buck was leaping diagonally across Balcones Woods Drive.

I can remember watching as it passed our house, lightly touching down and then this surging ripple in the muscles of the hindquarters and with this silent explosion of energy he was flying all the way across the street to the edge of Julie Koska's yard. Another surge and he was at the edge of Keith's yard, next door to ours. In a matter of heartbeats he was bounding down the street and around the curve out of our sight.

It was one of the most beautiful events I've ever witnessed. It seemed to happen so quickly and yet it also happened in slow motion.

And while it was a beautiful event ... it was also the harbinger of bad things to come.

You see, the subdivision was expanding. We were forced to put our section of back fence back up because the builders were going to put in a two-story house behind us. The woods behind us were bulldozed. Rabbits, opossums, snakes ... these were just a few critters we saw trying to move into our backyard because they had nowhere else to go.

At first, I thought this was wonderful. More rabbits in our yard. More deer. But then the deer stopped coming at all. The two-story house now where my beautiful extended backyard had been looked directly into our back porch and kitchen. An opossum decided to live in our trash can (until Mom freaked out so much that it left when she wasn't looking).

One night, soon after our new backyard neighbors moved into their two-story ... we had some old neighbors decide to move into our house. Mom and Dad were in their bedroom ... when they heard this odd skritch, skritch, skritch sound. They turned the lights back on, went into our wood paneled den and looked around. At first, nothing. Then the skritch.

Then there were three loud THUDs as Dad took a shoe and killed the three scorpions on the wall.

Mom came into my room the next morning and explained how we'd have to check our shoes every morning before putting them on from now on. So, I looked in my shoe carefully and saw something scurrying back and forth. To be honest, I'm pretty sure I would have noticed the critter doing the 50 yard dash back and forth in my shoe even had Mom not warned me. I wasn't sure what the hell a scorpion was, but the thing in my shoe didn't move like a spider, that I knew. I bent over the shoe for a few minutes, studying the speeding critter. Definitely not a spider. And I had no idea what the issue was with scorpions - maybe they were somewhat poisonous. Not rattler poisonous or Mom would have been freaking out more, but maybe they were more painful than a wasp sting. Best not experiment.

Since she'd said something about it, I calmly went into her room, "Mom, there's a scorpion in my shoe."

"Oh honey, just because I just told you about that doesn't mean there's a scorpion in your shoe."

My poor mother never did understand that I was not a child who made up stories like this. If I said I didn't feel good, chances were that vomiting was in the near future, not that I was trying to get out of something. That kind of duplicity just didn't occur to me. If I said there was a critter, there was a critter.

Don't get me wrong, I could make up a wild story, but they were obviously wild stories. And I did like to play practical jokes, but I could never keep a straight face when I did. Which rather gave the joke away.

"Mom, there's a scorpion in my shoe."

"Now, don't make up stories."

I just stood there. Finally, "I've never seen a spider that looked like that."

Exasperated, Mom went into my room, picked up my shoe with casual abandon that I'd never seen her use around a creepy-crawly more than a daddy-longlegs, and dumped my shoe out over the toilet to prove to me for once and for all that there was ...

She screamed. Well, squeaked.

There in the toilet bowl, attempting to swim its way out, was a light tan, semi-translucent scorpion.

I was fascinated to see it where it couldn't hurt me (could it shoot venom or something out of that tail? maybe I should re-think this curiosity thing). Mom pushed me away and flushed the toilet. And apologized.

Whether it was coincidence or not, soon thereafter we began making plans for moving out of Austin to the Dallas/Fort Worth area. Dad went up into the attic to lay down some more insulation to make the house more salable ... and discovered one more creepy-crawly who'd moved out of Balcones Woods and into the house.

As we were finishing our packing and waiting for the moving van to take our stuff away, I heard Dad laughing about the "bad luck" of the new home owner who'd bought this house. I should interject now to say that my Dad had the morality and ethics of a child who thinks pulling the wings off of flies is a roaring good time. When he was installing the insulation, he discovered not termites ... but thousands upon thousands of ant eggs. I like to think that he at least sprayed something up there, but probably not.

It's the thing we understand least, I think, when we tear down a "wild" area in order to build a new subdivision. We're not just building up a place for ourselves, we're evicting others. I'm not saying we shouldn't ever build! I do wonder, though, if we shouldn't re-think the arrogance with which we build. We get upset when our homes are invaded by spiders or ants or scorpions. (Or, mice in the attic, I say, shaking my fist at the mouse racetrack above the living room ceiling. Apparently mouse and chipmunk Nascar is held in our attic. Yeah, it's exciting to hear the zooming mice in an oval whilst trying to watch tv.)

What effect is displacing the native wildlife going to have on the neighborhood? What effect will having fewer trees and more concrete and asphalt have on the area? Can we figure out ways to coexist with the creatures we can coexist with?

Some things we learn through experience - like the midwestern farmers who tore down fences and tree lines to keep the landscape unmarked by ridiculous boundary lines (and thus keep us looking different from the "ugly" partitioned farms of the U.K.) ... only to find out that without those windbreaks, small though some of the were, snow swept through the fields and buried farmhouses and barns. Is there some kind of balance to be struck between living near the rich, rich farmland of an old river bottom ... and the completely natural and necessary flooding of that area every decade or so?

Why is our first instinct when an earthquake or hurricane rips through and destroys a town - or a tornado mutilates a trailer park - "well, they decided to live there." Why isn't our first thought a way to adapt to existing conditions instead of putting on blinders and assuming we can "fix" the nature of the area?

I don't know any of those answers ... just another one of my crazy-talk think-pieces.

Posted by Red Monkey at October 18, 2009 3:41 AM | Storytelling: She was, of course, supposed to be sleeping. | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |


Tara R. said:

Over development is a big problem where I live on the Gulf Coast. Builders keep putting up huge resorts and closing off the view to the ocean, displacing who knows what native species, and still they stay empty for most of the year. It is such a waste of land and resources.

Don't get me started on hurricane homes...

October 18, 2009 11:49 AM
Free Pixel Advertisement for your blog