I’m out at Farm. Yeah, I know, surprise, surprise. Small green bugs—gnats, aphids—swarm the lightbulb overhead. They cling, somehow, upside down to the ceiling, making a marina out of wood paneling.
It’s finally dark out. June bugs fling themselves against the front door. Something dots the back of my neck, I try to chase it away. Today, June 14th, Flag Day. I’m here to mow, an insane endeavor depending so much on a car, a push mower, gasoline, and this forty-year-old body. Wall sounds, probably the pack rat. My approach to this old farm house, earlier today, descending the gravel road, sent two groundhogs scurrying across the front yard I would soon get to clipping. They disappeared to somewhere, probably into that hole slipping under the front of the house, just west of the stoop.
The mud dauber hegemony appears to have been overthrown. But the demise of one type of mud dauber only gives rise to a new dauber regime. I know of at least four types of mud daubers. The ones I knew to have owned this place in the warm months were relatively large, auburn-bodied, and aggressive enough to have stung me a few times over the years, including twice one afternoon last August.
The daubers that are now taking over the farm house, which someone described to me one time as “really just one big wasps’ nest,” are smaller, with black wings, a metallic blue thorax, a black abdomen, and black legs. At six o’clock in the evening on this august Sunday these blue mud daubers number in the hundreds. At first I thought they were so-called “organ pipe” daubers, a wasp named appropriately after the nest they fashion, which looks very much like organ pipes. And while I have seen that organ pipe nest here, out back, I don’t think these small blue daubers are organ pipers. This new majority wasp appears not to be making any nest at all. I don’t know where they came from and I don’t know where they go. But I can say for sure that they have waged war against what I’ll call the original daubers, the reddish ones.
The blue mud daubers have gotten into the house, with ease, with aplomb. Still, their incursion, on an individual basis, appears to be a foray of curiosity. Once inside, they seem to want to get back out, pinging against the windows, beating their wings against the inside of the door. They have yet to sting me, a fact to which I cling, and to which their reign here, if I have anything to say about it, depends quite heavily. For now it’s detente.
At the risk of complication I must note the existence of yet another species of what I believe is also a mud dauber type of wasp. These daubers look like a cross between a straight-up paper wasp and a yellow jacket. They have a thin, reddish body with legs banded in black and yellow. If I were pressed, I would suggest the bluish daubers and the black-and-yellow daubers are bound in some sort of alliance against what was the ruling class, the larger, auburn daubers.
I step back outside, into the last of the light. Some large bird—probably a whip-poor-will but perhaps a barred owl—is flying around, in the gloaming. I catch just glimpses of it, a mostly forgotten dream, fragments on the wing, in dying light. A barred owl called out earlier, at 18:30. Whatever bird is out here, it is quiet, flying calmly, staying aloft without flapping.
I’m gonna have to get you out here but at this time of year the place embodies the mentality of a boxer; it delivers a quick right to your solar plexus, a bit of stunner. It was hot today, upper eighties. The sun was strong and unobstructed. I could have reapplied sunblock to my arms, after sweating the first application away. My flesh is a little tender there.
The ticks are active. On my pants, my thigh, my calf. I was perceiving their creepy-crawl well enough, with alacrity. Then it’s tweezers and a lighter. Inside, in a mirror, while blue wasps flew casually about the room, I checked myself for ticks that had gotten past my tactile defenses, the eight-leggers somehow deft enough to breach the deet-line. I didn’t find any, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t there.
I’m here alone, unable to rely on B, who would normally serve as a second pair of eyes in the tick inspection routine. She’s at home with Hugo, the dog, in air conditioning, bothered not by ticks or wasps. For a little company, now that it’s dark, I look up and say hello to Leo, the lion. I sit and listen to the frogs, to the toads. At sunset, I watched a young deer cavort in the road, finding something of interest there, what I could not imagine, perhaps a discarded pretzel, a rogue Dorito. I took a shower outside, naked to nature, drying as the evening breeze waved the sun away.
I stand up, open wine, pop an antihistamine. Back inside, my head, inches from the bare bulb, becomes immersed in the radical cloud of gnats. They’re everywhere. In the wine cup, on the thermos, on this page.
I’ve now spent a night at this erstwhile farm during every month of the year, save July. Mid-June I am finding a challenge. At least at this later hour the wasps appear to have retired. I’m clean, and I’ve got a box fan whirring back in the bedroom. I’ve been streaming podcasts for hours. I like to believe that if I attempt this mowing project again next year; if I’m still here a year from now and if I come back to this place to mow, it would be a challenge in all the same ways except instead of dredging the universe of podcasts for something decent to listen to I would be able to pass some of the time—to cushion and succor the solitude—with the sound of baseball being played hundreds of miles away.
I have risen very early. It is Tuesday, but just barely.
Yesterday morning I set fire to a pile of brush. The pile sat exactly where we’ve had fires during the reunions Patrick calls “Farm Party.” The pile was roughly two-thirds old stuff, but the old stuff wasn’t that old, two weeks of age were on it, since I’d been here last.
There’d been rain here in that interim, and not just a little bit of rain. The remnants of Tropical Storm Cristobal, whose spin merely glanced St. Louis, hit the middle of the state hard. The road passing by the house—the road now dubbed Hoot Owl Holler Road—is washed out near the foot of this property’s front drive; washed out to a depth and a degree I’ve never seen. I sent the photo to Helm, who remarked that the gouge, which is made where a tribulet of Little Tavern Creek runs over the road, is the worst he’s seen in years.
Given the rain I was surprised the pile went up in flame so readily. I had even thrown some fresh cuttings atop the old stuff. The fresh pieces were mostly smooth sumac, a weed most diligently besetting the front yard here, in the form of ‘suckers’ or shoots rising from a vast and insidious underground network of this plant’s root system, a root system stemming from and supplied by so-called ‘mother plants’ that reside nearby. As I understand it. I went over the suckers, fastidiously, with the push mower.
What went onto the pile were the mature, woody-trunked sumac ‘mother plants,’ seven or eight foot tall, which were sitting innocently at the edge of the strip of brush running between the house and the road, a sort of natural privacy fence. In addition to the sumac this brush line is comprised of a scattering of young walnut, a mess of blackberry bramble (which, by the way, appears to bear young green fruits where weeks ago a smattering of small white flowers gave hint of summer berries), along with a few obligatory cedar and other miscellaneous trees and shrubs about which I have yet to educate myself.
I cut what mature sumacs I could find or reach easily with my loppers or, if need be, with the Inspector Gadget-worthy pole saw. Following instructions I found on the Missouri Department of Conservation (DoC) website, I left a foot of trunk on these sumacs, the remaining half-dollar-sized coin face of which I sprayed with glyphosate, a.k.a. ‘ground clear,’ a known carcinogen. I want these sumac dead. The plant has its place; it is a perfect choice if one wants to plant an erosion control system. It serves this role well because it naturally wants to make a place into a thicket of itself. There are dozens upon dozens of these sucker shoots in what once was and what I would love to see be a lawn again. I remember arriving here last August, seeing the front yard turned into a jungle scene, the sumac thriving and basking in thick, vegetal pandemonium, their shoots going woody and several feet high. Despite knowing it was futile, I cut some of them with clippers, finding turtles and toads and orb weavers thriving in the thick but only a tractor toting a brush hog is going to clear the yard of the sumac when they are left to grow all summer untouched.
Not this year. I have mowed over them three times. They keep coming back, but then again, so do I. And now, dear sumac, I have a plan, I’ve done my research.
Maybe I can hamper their growth by cutting the mother plants, maybe not. The DoC website said to cut the sumac once in July and once in August. Consider it done. However, it will be twenty-five days (or so) before I am here to mow again. Surely in that time the sumac shoots will grow to a noticeable height once more. Eight inches? A foot? More? Just thinking about them growing in the sun, with that breeze on them, instills in me an unsavory mix of anxiety and envy.
Along with the sumac I added some low-hanging walnut branches to the pile. Once I’d added all the new, fresh, green pieces to the pile I immediately realized I’d made a mistake. I wished I’d first started the old stuff to burning. With the green branches on top, the pile was going to be a smolder-pond; more difficult to light.
But I had an idea. I climbed the rock to the the top of the ledge, up where it is flat and for the most part now clear. I don’t quite know what to call that area up there. The plateau? The ledge? The bluff? The pasture fence runs through there, where Patrick and I put in a gate this winter. On the other side of the pasture fence the vegetation has grown rather high and thick, so I haven’t used the gate much since it went in.
Anyway, up above the rock, just on the other side of the barbed-wire fence, on the pasture side of it, I had set aside, weeks or months ago, my go-to fire starter: cedar branches. I reached over the fence and grabbed a bundle of these cedar limbs, some of which were still damp from last week’s torrential downpour. I took those branches down to the pile and tossed them on top. Then I went up to the old machine shed where I’ve stored a cord or two of split, dried, hardwood, mostly oak with a little ash and locust mixed in. I grabbed six or seven pieces of months-old oak. From the house I fetched a lighter and some newspaper (Belleville News-Democrat, fresh from Illinois).
Atop the cedar branch kindling I constructed my classic campfire formation with the aged oak and newspaper, making a short, roofless log cabin. The newspaper took the light, which it passed to the cedar, which caught and lit the oak. Once the oak started to burn there was enough heat and flame to fall through the pile—or, really, what happened was some of the flaming oak slid off to the side of the pile, the green limbs at this point only smoldering, expunging a thick smoke. As the oak fell down, toward the ground, the flame went with it, which was fine, because now the flame had access to the bottom of the pile, which accepted the flame and thus the pile was lit not from the top but ultimately from below. Once the base of the pile was aflame there was heat enough to chase the green moisture from the newest cuttings and eventually everything burned.
This left a nice mound of coals, to which I desultorily added new trimmings, and a little more old oak from the shed, as needed, to keep the coals alive and to keep some flame in place. Once I stopped adding the aged, dried pieces of oak the fresh, green trimmings I continued adding swamped the bed of coals and the fire was suffocated, resulting in nothing but a lackadaisical smoke. The fire was dead.
Or was it?
Randomly, at 16:45 yesterday afternoon, I was sitting in a chair up on the ledge, exhausted, dirty, and drenched with sweat. Nowhere near the fire. And then, snap of the fingers, what remained of the pile suddenly reignited. I sat there and wondered at the blaZe in the distance, astounded once again by my luck.