Small Lives: November, 2009
My family lives on eighty acres of sand, much of it sculpted into dunes and hollows by the wind. All of the land is marginal. In an area where most of the soil is light and unsuitable for agriculture, our land is the sandiest and the hilliest, a fact in which we take great pride. But the sand hills are fragile, easily destroyed. On the road just north of our lane, the graders bullied their way through the highest hill on our land, leaving a cut bank on either side. Every year, the sides collapse a little more, exposing fresh cliffs for bank swallows to drill their nests. Strangers drive by, pausing long enough to shovel bucketfuls of the pure yellow sand into the backs of their trucks, perhaps for cement or their children’s sandboxes, contributing to the collapse of the hill. And every year, a little more of nature’s Aeolian sculpture is eroded.
It would be easy to lose these hills. Only the vegetation – trembling aspen, chokecherry, wild rose, creeping juniper, bearberry, crocuses, buttercups, buffalo bean, native grasses – keeps the sand stabilized. On south facing slopes, cacti and ant colonies thrive. The lane to the house from the road is just a trail through the prairie, worn down with years of driving. We’ve considered building the lane higher, but it’s a gamble: Would the grasses and shrubs secure the land before the wind redistributes the soil?
The stability of the land was among our concerns when we considered moving the chokecherry bushes in front of the walk-out basement of our two-storey house. Ever since we moved in, twenty-one years ago, the chokecherries had been growing taller until they were the largest chokecherry bushes I’ve ever seen, about twenty feet high, big enough to be called trees instead of shrubs, at least by my prairie girl standards. The berries were mostly out of reach of earthbound humans, but the birds enjoyed them, and we enjoyed the black-capped chickadees and bohemian waxwings that feasted on the berries all winter. In summer, the trees sheltered birds’ nests. For several years, we enjoyed the bright yellow “canaries” – gold finches or possibly yellow warblers – until the cats caught and killed one of the astonishingly beautiful creatures. I was disgruntled, wondering why the cats could catch and kill such a lovely songbird, yet could do nothing about the scores of mice who regularly invaded our home. I was somewhat consoled when bluebirds chose the chokecherry bushes to build their nest, and I really hoped the cats would focus more on mice and forget about the birds.
As the bushes grew taller, they not only shaded the basement level of the house but limited our view from the main floor deck. At night, the chokecherry trees were a mysterious, brooding presence filled with darker shadows and mysteries. More than once, as we drove up in my husband’s truck and parked between the house and bushes, we glimpsed some small creature’s movement in the headlights. On moonless nights, while walking the pitch-black path from the truck to the house, we’d peer blindly at the ground, fearful of encountering a porcupine or a skunk.
One night, we arrived home to find Gemma, our border collie, German shepherd, and lab mutt, barking and circling the bushes. Clearly, something was in there. Fortunately, the acrid stench of skunk was absent. Nervously, I took a flashlight and went to see what it was: a porcupine, twisting back and forth to present its quills to the dog. I was able to catch several glimpses of its brown eyes in its lighter brown face while it spun, surprisingly quickly, to keep its vulnerable head away from Gemma. It noted my presence, but identified Gemma as more dangerous. After a few moments, I was able to coax the dog into the house, where we counted the number of quills in the dog’s muzzle – only twelve, this time, down from the record thirty-six – and made arrangements to take her to the vet to have them removed. Meanwhile, the porcupine waddled off into the dark as quickly as its ambling pace allowed.
More often, we’d encounter a toad unsuccessfully trying to hide in the stones of the walkway. We speculated that possibly it was drinking water from the dog’s dish, or perhaps it had found a way to dig beneath the wood frame of the house into the earthen subbasement, living in the damp soil beneath the house. We’d leave the toad alone, wondering at its ability to survive in the sand hills; its ability to survive the hot, dry days; its repeated appearance as we drove up at night. We wondered how it survived the winter, and how it reproduced in this dry, porous land where, even after the heaviest downpour, the puddles disappeared within an hour or two.
However the toads were surviving, it seemed likely the chokecherry bushes and the cool moist shade underneath their branches had something to do with it, just as they provided food and refuge for the birds. So when we realized that renovations to the house would require rooting out the bushes, we hesitated. We were concerned about the wildlife, but our house was in desperate need of repair. The roof had been missing shingles for years; the twenty-five-year-old cedar siding – warped, dried, and brittle – was a definite fire hazard; the deck was falling away from the side of the house, and the floor of the deck was rotted through.
When I first noticed the deck getting soft, I warned my husband that the deck was rotting and need replacement. It was eight feet above the ground, so a fall could be dangerous. Unwilling to accept my evaluation without confirming evidence, he immediately went directly to the area I’d indicated and tested it by stepping on it. Now, you must understand that my husband is a large man – six feet two inches tall, well over two hundred pounds, with a size 11, triple E foot. But not even those snowshoes could keep him from falling through the rotten particle board of the deck. Fortunately, he only fell to his mid-calf before he was able to stop himself, suffering nothing more than a scraped shin and a bit of embarrassment. He admitted that perhaps I was right, the deck was getting soft in places.
The next time he went through the deck, I was folding clothes on the second floor, and our sixteen-year-old son Alex was playing computer games on the main floor. Suddenly, I heard a large crash. “All right, everybody?” I called, expecting a holler back with an explanation that Gemma or one of the cats had knocked over a flower pot or some such minor incident. Instead, silence. I hurried down the stairs and onto the deck in time to see Alex hauling his dad from a thigh deep hole in the deck. More scrapes, this time, and I imagine quite a bit more embarrassment.
I missed the next occasion – only Alex’s enthusiastic report that “Dad fell through the deck again!” and an overturned chair guarding a new hole in the deck provided evidence of this episode. Alex had been underneath the deck, putting water in the dog’s dish, when he was startled by the sudden appearance of his dad’s foot plummeting towards him. Fortunately, neither son nor father was injured. After that, my husband never strayed from the plywood he laid over most of the deck, and constantly reminded the rest of us to stay on the plywood. Oddly, no one else ever fell through the deck.
Finally, reluctantly, we refinanced the house and found a work crew, and started the lengthy process of repairs, beginning with removing the rotting deck. But the workmen needed more room to bring in their equipment and we needed room to manoeuvre past the new stairs, so we decided, reluctantly, that the chokecherry trees would have to go. I was grateful that the bluebirds had found another location for their nest that year, and grateful, too, that it was already August, past breeding, so the nests, if any were in the bushes, would be empty.
And so the chokecherries were removed, along with another ten or twenty feet of the sand mound – calling it a hill would be an exaggeration – behind them. I agonized about moving the chokecherry trees, fearing I was making a mistake, that we’d regret their loss. Perhaps not only was I killing the trees, I would also be losing the land they had stabilized. I worried about our toad, our mysterious little visitor. I asked the workmen if they’d seen any sign of it, something hopping, perhaps a body, but they said “No.” They even managed to look faintly concerned, as if the fate of one small wild creature, not even a mammal, mattered to them. Or perhaps they were more concerned about my sanity.
Today, though, my daughter and I found the flattened body of the toad, legs stretched behind it, caught in mid-stride by a tire on the little used bumpy lane on the far side of the embankment. We had been forced to use this approach when the workmen’s equipment blocked the main lane. Somehow we’d caught the toad with the tire; probably my tire, my fault, because I’d driven there last. So the toad that had managed to survive years in this arid, fragile desert was undone by the destruction of the chokecherry trees and by a truck driving unexpectedly on a usually abandoned path.
Maybe it’s not the same toad. Over the years, I’ve seen many perfect little toad shapes, sometimes on the gravel roads of the country, sometimes on the pavement of the city. But this time, because we removed the chokecherries, moved the hill back, transformed the landscape –this time, I felt responsible, aware that I demolished a habitat for my own gratification, for my own convenience, for the preservation of my house, inflicting my will on the landscape, and disregarding the small lives that depend on the chokecherry bushes and the habitat in general.
Perhaps the toad’s death is not my fault. Perhaps someone else ran over it, or perhaps it died first and was later flattened by a vehicle. Perhaps it was not on its way to the house at all. Perhaps I am assuming responsibility for events beyond my control, beyond any human’s control. But better to acknowledge the possibility, to note the passing of one small life, unremarkable in so many ways, just as our own lives are unremarkable in so many ways, but precious nonetheless.