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Beyond Your Doorstep
A Handbook to the Country
By Hal Borland
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 1990 Barbara Dodge Borland
All rights reserved.
The Country House
The newcomer to the country will find the first signs of "wild life" in his own house. Even before he explores the dooryard he can sharpen his eyes indoors. He may be surprised at the outsiders who want to share that house with him.
There was a time when "nature" meant every living thing on earth, the earth itself, the air, the water, the weather, even the stars and planets. In that unsophisticated age, the "naturalist" was a man interested in all such natural phenomena. But times change, and as man urbanized his life he came to think of nature as alien if not, indeed, hostile. And the naturalist became the person who specialized in some aspect of that strange, alien nature.
But nature has its own insistence. The urban tides ebbed as well as flowed, and many returned to a natural environment. With characteristic human zeal to understand the new, the strange, the alien, some of them were fascinated by the natural world around them. And even some of those who persisted or were trapped in the urban environment looked about them with new interest in such things as birds, insects, plants, and animals. A whole new legion of naturalists, in the old sense, appeared. Since the old term had lost its essential meaning, we couldn't call them naturalists, so we granted some of them the name "bird watcher." "Animal watcher" and "plant watcher" still are strange to the tongue, logical though they are, but "nature watcher" suggests itself for all of them.
In that sense, there now are millions of nature watchers. They live everywhere, in cities, suburbs, small towns, and country. Some of them are specialists to a degree, but most of them are interested in the broad picture of nature and the interrelationships of life. Some of them study birds and insects on a penthouse terrace in the heart of the city. Some of them study wild life in a city park. Some explore botany and entomology in a suburban backyard. And many of them take every chance they find to go down a highway, leave the highway for a side road, quit the road for a country lane, and finally come to a place where wild plants far outnumber tame ones and human beings are vastly in the minority in the community of living creatures. Some, who are either dedicated or specially fortunate, go to the country to live.
I am one of the fortunate ones. I live on a hundred-acre farm with a riverfront, an area of fields and pastureland, a relatively wild mountainside of brush and timber. We came here to live in part because I have been a nature watcher all my life and in part because as a writer I have a degree of leeway in my choice of residence. Underlying these reasons is the belief that close acquaintance with nature is essential to a balanced and reasonable philosophy of life, and such a philosophy seems important to me.
The ideal time to go to the country, to live or to visit and explore, is March. March marks the beginning of the natural year. Spring peepers peep, the earliest wildflowers bloom, trees prepare to open bud, migrant birds return, and the first of the insect hordes are hatching. From that beginning one can follow the season into Summer with its growing leaves, burgeoning fields, nesting birds, and birthing animals. As Summer passes one can see how nature matures, with reddening berries, young birds in flight, insects swarming, flowers turning to seed heads, nuts ripening. One can watch and wonder through golden September and into the magnificence of October, know the falling leaves, the honking geese, the silken flight of milkweed floss and thistledown. One can know the new horizons of bare-branched Indian Summer, settle into Winter's hush, live with snow and ice, and prepare to watch Spring again.
March, I say, is the ideal month. But it isn't always practical. March usually is muddy if not icy underfoot and wet and cold overhead. March has uncomfortable and inconvenient aspects, even for the resident countryman and especially for the newcomer. So the sensible advice is to go to the country in your own comfort and convenience and eventually come to know March, with its whims of weather and its rewards of new beginnings.
We came to this farm not in March but in late July. We moved here from another country place, and the timing was dictated by details of living and legal necessities of sale and purchase. You buy a place when you find it for sale, and you move in when you get possession. In any case, we didn't come here merely to watch one Spring arrive. We came here to live and to work, and I expected to see quite a number of Springs mature into Summer, Summers ripen into Fall, Falls fade into Winter. I could be patient. If there is any outstanding lesson to be learned in the country it is that patience is a virtue. Nature seldom hurries.
I shall be writing in some detail about this farm and the nearby hills and valleys, not because I live here but because one aspect or another of this small area is broadly typical of much of the American countryside north of the Carolinas and east of the Mississippi. Even the house and dooryard have their typical aspects.
The day we came to take possession, while we awaited the arrival of the furniture van, we went through the house from cellar to attic. I had made an inspection of the house as a structure before we bought it, and I had not been unaware of its few non-human inhabitants. But I had taken no census, so to speak. Now there was time to make a casual survey of those with whom we would have to share this house. Every house has its own population, especially country houses, and the people who live there are fortunate if that population is, as the ecologists say, in balance, a balance favorable to human habitation.
In the cellar I saw a mouse scurry. I had only a quick look, but I saw that it had big, rounded ears, a rather blunt nose, and whitish feet and belly. It was a white-foot mouse that had come in from the fields, quite different from the European house mouse that infests so many houses. The white-foot is essentially a clean creature and a friendly neighbor, but the house mouse is a dirty nuisance. I found no signs of house mice.
In the kitchen we found no cockroaches, centipedes, millipedes, or water bugs. An old ant trap in one of the kitchen closets proved that this house, like every country house I ever knew, had its ant invasions now and then. But there were no ants in sight. In the bathroom there were no silver fish and again no water bugs. In one corner of the ceiling there was a small spider web with two dead flies trapped in it. And in the living room were two more such webs, both small, both relatively new. Spiders are everywhere, but we seemed not to be overrun by them. Not downstairs at least.
The bedroom closets smelled of moth balls. I looked for cocoons, found none, nor did I find any clothes moths. I decided the moth balls had been prevention rather than cure, and thanked our predecessors.
Finally we went to the attic. There I was aware of a faintly sweet odor and looked for bat droppings. I found a few, dark brown granules something like coarse coffee grounds. There were no obvious openings through which big bats could get in, so ours probably were the little brown bats that live unsuspected in houses almost everywhere in the United States. These little bats are the size of small mice and can creep through incredibly small crevices. I once found one that had squirmed between the sashes of a half-open storm window, a crack so small I couldn't force a lead pencil into it. The few droppings indicated that we had a pair or two in our attic.
Then I saw a mud-dauber wasp nest on one of the open rafters. There were half a dozen such nests, but I was sure we had only a minor wasp population. Bats tend to rid a place of wasps. Looking for more wasp nests, I saw spider webs here and there among the rafters. Were we overrun by spiders in the attic? No. Wasps kill spiders, paralyze them with their sting, and stuff them into their nests to feed the young wasps when they hatch.
So, within half an hour, I knew that the wild population in our house was quite well in balance. Which spoke well for those who lived here before we came. There were no signs of invading birds or squirrels or chipmunks. If we were lucky, and if we worked at it, we probably could maintain that balance, though we would always remain in the minority, surrounded by insistent nature.
Since then we have had a few invasions, but none crucial. Two or three times the house mice have appeared, probably from the big barn where they thrive on waste grain and litter. I got rid of them with traps. From time to time ants have got into the kitchen, usually in late Spring, and they had to be discouraged with poison in covered traps—I refuse to use open poison, even for ants. Almost every year a few mud-daubers seem to think the open front porch is an ideal place for their nests, and every year a few paper-maker wasps build a few open-celled nests there. I have to take steps, since I regard the porch as ours and we don't like wasp stings. And each September a few black crickets get indoors, hide under the bookcases, and stridulate well into Winter.
Before hard frost came, that first Fall here, we had an invasion of elm-leaf beetles, which look like miniature fireflies. They came into the attic by the thousands and into other parts of the house by the hundreds. I swept them up and destroyed them every few days, and still they came. They were a nuisance, and I also resented them because they help spread the fungus disease that has killed so many elm trees. We fought them with every means at hand. But nature herself stepped in, apparently, with some obscure but potent means of control. Since that first Fall the number of elm-leaf beetles has steadily diminished. Last Fall I saw only a few dozen of them in the house.
Our next invasion was more tolerable. During the first mild days of late Winter the ladybird beetles appeared. They were on all the window sills and they crept into the house at every opportunity. Our house has shingled outer walls, and the shingles provide ideal winter quarters for those little spotted orange beetles. When late January comes and the sun warms the shingles, the beetles crawl out to bask. I don't resent them. I welcome them, knowing that ladybird beetles are probably the best of all natural controls for aphids, sometimes called plant lice. California truck-gardeners buy them by the bushel to release in their vegetable fields and keep the aphids in check. So when they first appeared here in the house I gathered up those I could catch and took them outdoors and released them, hoping they would go to work in the garden at a proper time. They did. We have had only a minimum of aphid trouble on our plants, and I credit those hordes of ladybird beetles that spend the Winter under the shingles of the house.
Our place has a number of outbuildings, a big old barn, a garage that once was the milk house, a chicken house, a small brooder house, a corn crib, and a woodshed. When we got settled in the house I took a casual census of our obvious neighbors in those outbuildings.
The garage had its normal insect population, mostly spiders and wasps. Later that Fall I found that it is also a Winter refuge for hibernating woolly-bear caterpillars, which some say can foretell the weather of the coming Winter. Incidentally, I have found them unreliable prophets, almost as untrustworthy as woodchucks, the ground hogs of legend. But they hibernate in the garage by the dozen. In the Spring they emerge in the benevolent sunlight, feast on plantain leaves, pupate into silky cocoons, and emerge as beautiful little pink-tinged yellow moths.
The garage also had two barn-swallow nests, mud structures about the size and shape of half-coconuts plastered on the sides of overhead beams. And in the old litter in the loft of the garage were several families of white-foot mice. The garage, I found, had a normal, harmless population.
The chicken house, unused for some years, had been taken over by a family of red squirrels, those hyperthyroid little bundles of indignation and energy. They came and went through a variety of knotholes in the outer walls, and I found several old squirrel nests among the heaps of litter in the corners. Those hat-size nests were jumbles of twigs, bark, dead leaves, milkweed floss, rags, a little of everything. And there was a trash heap, their kitchen refuse, fully a bushel of riddled pine and spruce cones. They had brought those cones from the woods, torn them apart to get and eat the seeds, and left them in that untidy heap. Red squirrels are not very good housekeepers.
When I went inside, half a dozen squirrels scurried, glared at me, scolded, then whisked through the knotholes and raced and thumped on the roof, still chattering angrily at my intrusion. I eventually cleaned out the place and claimed it as my own for a carpenter shop, hoping to live at peace with the squirrels. But it has been an uncertain peace, and periodically I think I should evict them. They knock paint cans from the shelves, scatter my sandpaper, gnaw paintbrushes and electric cords. And they still yell at me. I am the invader, not they. But even if I could drive them out—and, short of killing every one of them, I doubt that I could—I doubt that I would. A red squirrel in a house attic is a noisy, destructive nuisance, and a whole family of them is intolerable. But out in the old chicken house they are interesting neighbors, temperamental and unpredictable as they are. I like to have them around.
The red squirrels had rid the chicken house of almost all other residents except spiders and mud-dauber wasps. Up to now the little red fellows have not achieved a foothold in any of the other outbuildings, though now and then I see one among the piles of firewood in the woodshed. But for some reason they have never set up housekeeping there.
The woodshed has a population of mice, most of them white-foot and deer mice—the two are not easy to tell apart without examining them in the hand. The mouse population there seems to rise and fall in direct relation to the presence or absence of rats, which move in from time to time. When the rats move in, the mice move out. Then I poison the rats and the mice come back. I prefer to have the field mice. The rats have their stronghold in the big barn, in the hay and straw that is stored there each year. I keep them in check with a selective poison in covered containers where other animals cannot get at it. Those ugly, destructive Norway rats, common all over the world, deserve no quarter.
The barn has a huge, cathedral-like loft where the hay and straw are stored. That loft is also the home for a tribe of gray squirrels. The tribe sometimes numbers as many as fifteen, sometimes drops to only four or five. It probably consists of only one family, and I suspect that as soon as the season's new litter begins to mature the older squirrels move out into the woodland just across the home pasture. The squirrels live on the corn that is stored in the corn crib near the barn. I see them there every day in the Winter, plucking the yellow kernels from the fat ears jammed against the wire mesh. Somehow they occasionally steal a whole ear, and now and then one brings an ear and climbs with it to a high crotch in the giant Norway spruce just outside my study window. There he sits and shells the corn, deftly eats the germ from each kernel, and dribbles the rest of it onto the ground beneath.
The squirrels nest on a high beam in the barn loft, a nest that looks like half a bushel of trash. I have never climbed up there to examine it, but I know that gray squirrels are no better housekeepers than their small red cousins. Like the red squirrels in the chicken house, the gray squirrels in the barn have an assortment of knotholes, gnawed to proper dimensions, through which they come and go. If they are disturbed at the corn crib they dash to the barn, swarm up its weathered old gray boards with uncanny skill, and swing through a knothole with a beautiful, arrogant flip of the tail. In Winter I marvel at their surefooted agility on the frosty shingles of the barn's high roof, and in early Spring I watch their mating-time battles and pursuits over those dizzy heights. Now and then there are intertribal fights between the reds and grays, but not often. I have heard that in such fights the males sometimes castrate each other, but I have never seen it done. I have seen a red squirrel lose a part of his tail in a battle with a gray.
Excerpted from Beyond Your Doorstep by Hal Borland. Copyright © 1990 Barbara Dodge Borland. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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