I am rarely away from my place much in the summer. I like the quiet here and don’t yearn to be gone for very long at a time. To me, a vacation often means that I don’t have to start my car for days on end, or put on socks, for that matter. But this year has been different; my wife and I took a two-week driving trip through New England, the longest vacation we’ve ever had without our kids along for the ride. We had a great time, but when we got back, we were surprised to learn that all kinds of things had been going on in our absence.
I’m not talking about a break-in or a wild party. The place was locked up tight, frequently checked on, even lived in a while as the two of us hit the hottest spots in Maine and Vermont, that is if you like the homes of poets, coastline walking trails and moose rehabilitation centers.
No, the changes in and around our house were subtle, little things that made me realize that my yard and my gardens, even unused rooms, change when no one is there to walk through them.
We saw proof of this observation first-hand before we ever returned home: The last stop on our tour was Steepletop, poet Edna St. Vincent Millay’s home until her death in 1950. The farm, comprised mostly of woods and rolling hillsides, is near Austerlitz, New York. Millay’s place stood empty for more than a decade, that coming after her sister, who moved in to preserve her famous sibling’s possessions, passed away. In just 10 years of vacancy, most of the time and labor and money that Millay had invested in turning the farmstead into a showplace (it had 13 inter-locking gardens and a magnificent pool and rock walls) became unapparent. It will take the Edna St. Vincent Millay Society hundreds of thousands of dollars and many years to restore the place; we’d love to go back to see it when the work is completed.
Joanie and I arrived home from our trip very late after driving all day across three states. I could tell as the headlights of our car swept across the driveway that night that the weeds I occasionally pick out of the white rock on my way to the barn or mailbox had gone unchecked; I couldn’t believe that I could see them, in some instances 3 or 4 inches tall, growing in places that were barren just a few weeks before. I made a mental note to get after them the very next morning.
Before we ever went to bed, we saw even more proof of how quickly an unoccupied home can go into decline. We had turned our air conditioning up to save a bit of energy while we were gone, so the house was warm and musty. That was remedied quickly enough, but it hadn’t been 20 minutes after I brought in the last load of vacation gear from the trunk that I heard Joanie voice her displeasure — rather loudly and in a higher pitch than usual — over spotting a mouse in our kitchen. It had come out of an open utility closet door, taken a good look at the strange creature standing at the kitchen sink, then ran for the security of the crack between a cabinet and our refrigerator.
We haven’t seen a mouse, even evidence of one, in our house for years, but it was obvious to us that night why we were seeing one then. Not only had the place been very quiet in our absence, but also we had boarded our housecat, a 3-year-old neurotic named Edgar, at our local veterinarian, so he’d have steady doses of food and attention. We were actually afraid he’d destroy our house while we were gone… Edgar enjoys shredding our hands and arms after his purrs lull us into patting him, but it is now obvious that he — and his predecessor, Arthur — must have been a pretty good rodent-deterrent system for us. Joanie was picking up Edgar the next day, so we set a trap near the refrigerator and went to bed.
A few years ago, I read Alan Weisman’s “The World Without Us,” in which the author used all sorts of scientific data to paint a picture of what this planet would be like if people were no longer walking on it. In some instances, Weisman depicted the minor but certain changes that would be seen in as little as two weeks or so. Images from his book came to mind as I walked my yard that first morning of our return.
Although my son had mowed the yard in my absence, I still found the usual litter strewn in the grass, both fallen from my trees and tossed from passing cars. I also discovered that huge black ants had taken up residence in the big patio umbrella I’d laid on our deck to keep the wind from blowing it open. They had already furiously built quite a metropolis for themselves, tending to and doting over a host of big yellow-white eggs. I shook them out and got the umbrella back up.
I also soon noticed that everything had grown, not just my grass, but the corn and soybeans in nearby fields. I mean REALLY grown — perhaps a foot or more in the heat of a humid June. A golden raintree sapling that I had started in my garden, and am going to transplant soon, had shot up another 6 inches or more in the time we were gone, as had my tomato plants and hollyhocks. I began pulling weeds and creepers away from flower beds that were clean just a few weeks before; I couldn’t imagine what a month’s absence would do to my place if I were not around to tend to it.
The moles had gone crazy in my absence, too. Without my vigilance, they took it upon themselves to tunnel themselves silly — huge mounds of yellow-red clay signaling the approach to their city of destruction near a trio of blue spruce trees on the north edge of the property. The wasps had built nice-sized nests under my cabin door and along a back porch gutter; I wasn’t home to swat them away. Just about everywhere I looked, coneflowers had bloomed, hostas had sprouted purple, and sunflowers had tripled in size. My sole grapevine was nearly covered over by a purplish-green invasive that I don’t even know by name, and Joanie and I both walked through cobwebs — contorting and spitting as we went through our garage. I found new spider webs in my cabin, too, spun from books to windows, doors to lamps.
We also gained two freeloaders that we’re not particularly happy about, both creating havoc and intimidation without us there to nip it in the bud. A raccoon has clearly been taking advantage of our absence by raiding bird feeders for seed and nectar, and a brutish gray-and-white tomcat — quite the thug — has made himself at home around the place, bullying our old barn cat, Max, and stealing every morsel of food he can find. Their fates are yet to be determined…
We’ve been home long enough now that things have pretty well returned to normal. The recent monsoons are the only thing keeping me from my duties as groundskeeper, but the shrubs are trimmed and the house de-funked. The moles and ants and unruly vines have been whipped into shape whether they like it or not.
The mouse, I am happy to say, has been dispatched, not by Edgar, but by deception, a bit of Colby Jack cheese, and a trap. After a few weeks away from home, Edgar now expects his meals in bed.
Mike Lunsford can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, or c/o the Tribune-Star at P.O. Box 149, Terre Haute, IN 47808. You can visit his website at www.mikelunsford.com; his new book, “A Windy Hill Almanac,” will be released this fall. Expect a photo feature on Mike’s trip to poet Robert Frost’s homes in the July 21 edition of the Tribune-Star.