The Wisteria

Next to my front stairway is a wisteria vine at least twenty years old. Like the immortal "porch plants" that infest the back yard, it refuses to grow according to my wishes. Slow-motion tendrils curl around the posts, pry at the downspouts, and reach into the second-floor porch, looking for something to dismember. I know that if I stood still long enough, those tendrils would find me, wrap around my neck, and slowly choke me. So, in self-defense, every few years I cut it back to a fraction of its former growth. I have done this at least four times; yet, each time it grows back. My wisteria is at least 6 inches in diameter, and it has my number. My only advantage is that I move faster.

My town of Somerville is a streetcar suburb composed almost entirely of two- and three-family frame houses. The back yards of these houses lie in block-long strips, often divided by a picket fence or nothing at all. At one time, it was more densely populated than Calcutta. Now it is merely crowded.

Over the decades, the local wildlife has adapted to this environment. Years ago, a raccoon got in the back door, which our downstairs tenant had left open for air circulation, and was tearing into bags of cat food on the back stairs when our tenant heard the noise and went to investigate. Finally she brushed him out the door with a broom.

Later, our next-door neighbor was host to a family of skunks that moved in under the front steps. They were happy and cute, a Mom and Pop and two little cubs, but there were dogs living in the neighborhood, and some of them weren't very smart. Our neighbors bought fox urine and poured it in selected places around the porch. The skunks moved out to think it over, and while they were gone my neighbor put in a whole new latticework of pressure-treated lumber, dug into the ground so the skunks would have trouble getting back in. Later, I discovered they had moved to another porch down the block.

Today, squirrels and pigeons infest my second floor bay window. They get in through a hole in the soffits and they live a life of ease, sheltered from the cold, the wind, and the rain. The pigeons coo in my living room. The squirrels scamper and chew on the beams, and produce evocative sounds like "thmthmthmthmthmthm ... thmthmthmthm ... thmthmthmthmthm ...". I growl at the ceiling, "Hey, pull it out and go to bed, all right?" My cats hang out in the living room, listening hopefully.

The squirrels have learned not to venture too far from the soffits. On two occasions, Mr. B. has run down a squirrel in the attic, grasped him efficiently by the neck, and squeezed his windpipe until he is dead. The first time, he dragged the twitching corpse downstairs and dropped it next to his food dish. The second time, he dragged the corpse around and around our dining room table, as if to say, "The only thing you guys hunt is meat in a can. Get with the program!"

What do I learn from this? The wisteria teaches me slow-motion self-defense. The animals teach me to be adaptive, to live life as it comes. Together, they teach me the simplest rule of life: "Don't sh*it where you eat."