Category Archives: Around this old house

No Bed Bugs Here

Dear (urbanite) Son:

 The annual August ant invasion has finally passed, almost—the joys of living in a 130-year-old all-wood house sans insulation. I don’t know what’s going on with Black Flag. The label says “Kills on Contact,” but some of them just seem to swim through it. Maybe Black Flag has changed the recipe, or the ants have built up immunity?

 After a couple of weeks of spraying I bought some ant traps. This morning I put one of the traps on an open shelf where their path still straggles by. After a bit there were ants crawling all over it. Against all instincts I did not spray although I had bought a different brand of aerosol insecticide as well. The box said they would take the bait back to their nest and it would wipe out the colony. By this afternoon there were only a few ants—two or three on the trap and a couple on the wall—so it appears to be working. Hooray! Or it could just be the end of ant invasion season, i.e. the peak of summer heat which they are just trying to get out of.

 Speaking of pests, I forgot to tell you I found a huge, black widow spider living in an upside down plastic tree pot this spring. I expect it was full of babies or eggs. I squished it with whatever garden tool I happened to have on hand. Remember that little dead one you found a couple of summers ago when you were working under the house. Maybe it was a male because it was a lot smaller than this one. Like I said, it was a good thing I had the whole house tented and fumigated a few months before your visit.

 I just happened to think of that because today I found my very first scorpion, in the Tupperware drawer, in a Tupperware dish, alive and well until I scalded it and flushed it down the toilet. My research says California scorpions can give a nasty sting, but are not deadly.

Got to get back to planting my winter garden. Looking forward to your holiday visit.




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Discovering This Old House

I sat there on my new toilet (lid down) staring at the wall, trying to think good thoughts. So maybe the lady owned and wore diamond rings, and the rings slipped off while she was doing dishes or washing her hands and dropped down the drains. This would account for both the kitchen and bathroom sink pipes being disconnected and lying about. Perhaps they kept some kind of endangered species in the bathtub? I hear the otters are trouble again. How else could there be so much water damage on the floors, walls and the bathroom ceiling?  There was murky, standing water in the bathtub that would not drain when I bought this pitiful fixer-upper.

And the old, calcified toilet? Just a little humor on their part, because it flushed so slowly, probably anyone using the shower in the other bathroom in the back of the house, at a slightly lower elevation, lost water pressure for quite a bit. Then, when the sewage started coming up through the drain, well, the expression on the fleeing showerer’s face was no doubt priceless…

It took a plumber and his assistant one day and the equivalent of probably one month’s rent the owner had not been willing to spend to repair the whole mess. Then, because the front bedroom had no closet, some former tenants took it upon themselves to build one—into the bathroom. Now, upon entering the bathroom, one faced a blank wall. A turn to the right would point one in the direction of the toilet; a couple of steps and a sharp turn left took one to the sink. Between these two features was the tub. This L configuration was awkward and ugly. And the built-in closet was poorly constructed. It didn’t take much effort to tear it out which I had done.

The party who boarded up the big old bathroom window, replaced it with an ugly little aluminum-framed sliding window which destroyed the symmetry of the house from the outside. I tore that out as well and now had a lovely big open hole in the bathroom wall.

I had also ripped out some of the water-warped wall paneling under which was more water-warped paneling. Who in their right mind would install tin tiles in a bathroom? Tin rusts, as was clearly evident. I am not thinking good thoughts.

So there I sit on the toilet (lid down) pondering all this and staring at the wall of my now 77 square foot bathroom (sans closet). At the place where the closet was attached to that wall I see a space between the warped fake paneling…planks? Houses aren’t built of planks. Houses are constructed of two-by-fours which are covered with sheetrock—although this clearly wasn’t sheetrock. I picked up the crowbar and hammer again for a closer investigation of the planks.

By the time I was done, I was standing in an 847 cubic foot bathroom surrounded by one-inch by 12-inch cedar planks with red fir flooring under my feet instead of layers of decaying linoleum. Even the now 11-foot high ceiling (hiding above the acoustical tile eight-foot ceiling I had since ripped down) was made of one-by-12 cedar planks. It was the most gorgeous, rustic bathroom I had ever seen, and it was mine—all mine!

In a corner of the bathroom ceiling was a square door for attic access. The house had no apparent attic access when I bought it. This was why. I got the ladder and climbed up and slowly removed the door. Poking my head through the space, I could hear the Hallelujah Chorus rising in my spirit. Rays of golden light streamed through vertical slats of attic vents onto a dusky space that had not been seen for decades. From my vantage point I could see the whole house had originally been constructed of the one-by-12 cedar planks, hidden beneath layers of paneling and above false ceilings for a very long time. My “pitiful fixer-upper” was some kind of historic treasure!

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Wesley the Owl by Stacey O’Brien

Bird by Bird
Most mornings I get up a little before the sun to hear the song birds, few of which I can name, chirping and beginning to sing at the approaching dawn. An owl I have never seen, still slowly hoot hoots before calling it a night.

Quail live around my fenced-in property and are most often seen in the early evening, skittering about and pecking for food. In the winter when I have bird feeders out they will fly over the fence into the yard and eat seed that has fallen to the ground.  A famous local nature artist, Steven Ball, gave me one of his signed quail prints. He painted a quail mural on the Bank of America in a nearby community. I did a story on the mural and an interview on Mr. Ball. Promoting the cute little critters seems a better choice than hunting them.

I often hear and see Canadian geese flying south through the valley in the springtime, generally in pairs, seldom in the bigger V-formation. In the fall they will come back through from the other direction. Right now the turkey vultures (also migratory) are doing a lay-over in this neighborhood en route from Canada to South America. Wild turkeys abound, like the Pilgrims ate. One neighbor has a whole flock on his property where they live quite safely, and did not mind being photographed for a Thanksgiving cover on my former newspaper. A common raptor in the Sierra foothills is the red-tailed hawk.  

I did a report on pheasant hunting (non-judgmental) by children at a local pheasant farm in existence for that purpose. Beautiful white egrets stand like statues among the cattails. I sometimes see one flying up the river which I can hear but cannot see from my property. I also have a cheeky blue jay that occasionally flies into my kitchen to steal the cat’s food, the closest I have come to a friendship with a wild bird. She is raising her two chicks mostly in the environs of my yard. Such is life in the backcountry.

But for an amazingly up-close and personal relationship with a bird, biologist Stacey O’Brien has written about her 19-years with WESLEY THE OWL: The Remarkable Love Story of an Owl and His Girl. The young barn owl came into her care because he had a nerve-damaged wing and could not survive in the wild. Barn owls will only eat mice, three a day. In Wesley’s lifespan that came to more than 20,000 mice, all killed and delivered personally by his keeper. So deep was Wesley’s devotion that he was gravely concerned that Stacey ate such oddities as spaghetti and took the extreme measure of dropping a dead mouse into her mouth while she was sleeping, for her to have proper nourishment.

Owls do not get in water because they can become waterlogged and develop hypothermia. Taking cues from is “mom” Wesley would dunk his head under running water to “wash up” and even try, sometimes successfully, to share the shower with her. He offered a running commentary on Stacey’s activities and could understand much of her conversation with him. The most poignantly touching scene for this reader was Wesley lying on Stacey’s chest and giving her an owl hug with his outstretched wings.

WESLEY THE OWL is an obvious choice for backcountry readers and anyone who can imagine what it would be like to talk (and listen) to the animals.

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Filed under Around this old house, Memoir musings, Wildlife