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Other People’s Messes (March 1, 2000)

I have known people who seem to live in absolutely pristine surroundings. I visualize them spending every waking hour pulling weeds, moving heavy objects around, banishing dirt and dust and generally polishing. I do not live that way. Oh, I like a tidy environment, and a certain amount of cleanliness is essential for me to function at all, but a compulsive polisher I am not.

In my life, there have always been cluttered and dark cubbyholes. I’m speaking of tangible and ultimately visible places, not the ones we all carry inside us. For the past few years, I have been living with clutter and messes accumulated by someone else. The very idea of dealing with them angered me so much, I banished even the most obvious from my thoughts. I forgot an essential truth, however. We do not banish anger and resentment; we come to terms with them… or they grow alarmingly.

A few weeks ago, I opened the door to one of my outbuildings. This is a smallish building where I keep the trash barrels which are so conveniently emptied twice a month by Patrick Schafer. Inside were not just the two aforementioned articles, but myriads of objects and substances whose origins and uses were completely foreign to me. I had been looking at them and deploring their existence for years. I had, however, done nothing about them. I closed the door, but I could no longer close my mind.

The next day, I knew I had to take action, but how to begin? Another essential truth: almost everything in life is pretty simple. Not necessarily easy, but simple. I started by opening the door again, this time with a broom, heavy gloves and some containers for trash. I tossed out two old rags, a broken watchamacallit and an empty Coke can. An hour later, the little shed was neat and available for future messes. Amazing!

Last week, I went out to the barn, which is quite large. I go to the barn frequently, as the water pump and all gardening equipment are stored there. I opened the door and… oh, my! It barely opened all the way, and in order to get to the pump, I had to hang onto the handle of the mower while stepping over a pile of tiles and a 100 pound sack of cement (long ago solidified). I looked around. I don’t believe there was a square foot in which to deposit one more thing. How long had I been living with this? Don’t ask! I closed the door. I slept little that night, thinking of the disarray in that building so close to the house. The thought of making a dent was formidable, and the anger that it existed at all so familiar, so, dare I say, comfortable?

The following day, I equipped myself with the heavy gloves once again. What to do with eleventy million empty boxes? Use some for trash containers. Nest leftover small ones inside big ones and stack them neatly to one side to be dealt with in dry weather. Astonishing how putting one foot in front of the other can whisk away deleterious notions. It took the better part of a day, and there is still much to haul away, but there is room to move, the floors are swept, and I know what’s there. Commentary on the depletion of the arachnid population in a minute.

This morning, I went downstairs to do a load of laundry. On a whim (!) I opened the door of a long unused room. Oh-oh. About those messes made by other people. Today I had a revelation of sorts. I have lived in this house alone with my two dogs and cats for several years now. Those are no longer someone else’s messes; they’re mine. And, as Scarlett said, “Tomorrow’s another day.”


Miss Marple, Agatha Christie’s elderly lady detective, was always unwittingly stumbling over dead bodies. I find that easy to believe. I think some people just have a penchant for running into things that fascinate them. I sometimes like to think of myself as the Miss Marple of critters. I certainly run into them a lot in my daily ramblings. Each carries its own mysteries, which can occupy this old mind for hours on end. Take the case of the Black Widow spiders…

In the very first moments of tackling the barn, I came upon a wad of bunched-up newspapers. (Press Democrat; November, 1993. Sigh.) I grabbed them from their hiding place behind a stack of plywood, fortunately with gloved hands. Out fell two shiny black balls about half the size of a dime each. They unfurled angular legs and began to scuttle off. “Oh, no ya don’t,” I said. I grabbed a small shovel and rolled one over. Sure enough, there was the telltale red hourglass on her belly. I squished them both, but not without a moment of sadness. A peculiarity of mine.

Whenever I see something dead, or dispatch it myself, I can’t help but think of the time and energy it took to make it what it was. Whether it is a tiny bundle of feathers and minute bone, a hugely muscled mass of fur, or a well-constructed bit of exoskeleton, each is a miracle in its fashion.

Black Widow spiders are not all that uncommon in Anderson Valley. They do, however, like dark and secret hidey-holes. Spiders, all of them, are complex creatures. To date, there are about 30,000 different kinds worldwide that have been classified. It is estimated that this figure represents only about a quarter of all species. Spiders, contrary to the belief of many, are not bugs. They are in a class by themselves, literally the Arachnida.

True spiders have two main body parts, joined by a thin stalk. The top portion, the cephalothorax, contains the brain, the venom glands, and the stomach. The bottom part, called the abdomen, contains the heart, sex organs, lungs and silk glands. About the venom glands, it is thought that all species have them, though only a very few are harmful to humans. In the United States, the Black Widow and the Brown Recluse are notable.

Black Widows (so-called because, like quite a few invertebrates, they feast on you-know-who after mating) are quite lazy for spiders. They like to lie around, build the occasional sloppy web, mate and lay lots of eggs in papery little sacs. They bite when the fancy strikes them. Males are much more active. They are smaller, with longish legs on a slender body, and some orangey dots on their backs. Males don’t bite, and I think it’s a shame they don’t have a nice common name. After all, their lives are spent in search of females with which to mate; when they find them and accomplish their purpose, the poor fellows get et. “Victim” seems like an okay moniker.

Black Widow spider bites are rarely fatal. They are, however, very uncomfortable. That is not to say the bite itself is painful. Indeed, many Black Widow bites go unnoticed at first, as there is no pain or swelling at the site. There is swelling elsewhere, though, along with severe abdominal cramps. Profuse sweating, muscle aches and searing pains in the feet can also occur. There is no first aid for spider bite, and don’t attempt it. If you suspect you’ve been nibbled by a Black Widow hie yourself to the doctor. There is anti-venom available and you can be given an injection of calcium gluconate for the discomfort.

I found Black Widows in nearly every nook and cranny of that barn. I also founds lots of the empty egg sacs. I scrunched the ones that didn’t scurry fast enough, though I did marvel at their sinister beauty. They look lacquered. One of the things that surprised me while cleaning the barn was that there were no mice, nor was there evidence of mouse habitation. I can probably thank my three efficient cats for that, and I shall. Killing mammals is not my strong suit.

I can hear all the vegetarians and vegans right now. “So, Miss Reverence For Life, how do you feel when you’re seasoning the tri-tip roast?” Oh, shut up!


The four does are back, and they’ve brought a friend. These are the lady deer who spent the better part of their pregnancies lolling around below my deck last year. It seems to me they’re earlier this year, but they are all five showing signs of impending life in their midsections. Even in the nastiest weather, they show up in the late afternoon to munch the tender grasses which seem to grow inches daily. It’s hard not to feel a certain peace while watching them. They are quite used to me, and allow me to talk to them. Some of my most enjoyable conversations are held with non-humans.

Bernie and Bernadette, the ravens, do the most intricate and daring dances on the few dry afternoons we’ve had. They “awk” and “caw” at each other, go into alarming spins, then spread their lustrous wings and soar as the thermals below the house catch them. What a feeling that must be!

Though I haven’t seen them, I hear acorn woodpeckers calling. I like to think they may be the ones I raised and released last year, getting ready to make a new generation of colorful feathered clowns.

The almond trees on the eastern side of the house are in bloom. These trees, planted in total ignorance of their needs, are adorned with ghostly moss and lichens. They look dead most of the year, and I have been toying with the idea of removing them for a long time. Then comes February and the morning windows are filled with a froth of pale pink blossoms. Some summers there are even some few nuts. The cycle continues.

Oh, the daffodils! I do look forward to these each year. I have planted so many; so many varieties. How cheerful they are on stormy days. After the heavy winds, I go out and rescue the ones that have been battered to the ground. I take great pleasure from these bunches of cream, orange and yellow on the dining room table. The essence of Spring. Below the deck. I see a large patch of double daffodils and tiny Jack Snipes beginning to nod. I call this “Roger’s Garden.” My dear old hound’s last Fall was spent following me everywhere. He helped me plant those bulbs; I am so grateful for the beautiful memories their emergence brings.

I always have a few books going. I get all weird (weirder?) if I don’t. At present, one of the books I’m reading is Under the Tuscan Sun by Frances Mayes. I came across a line yesterday that really resonated for me. “Never casual, the choice of place is the choice of something you crave.” How true.

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