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Respecting boundaries

Posted in A Writer's Desk

Not my photo.  I was too busy shooing 2 dogs and 3 cats away.
Not my photo. I was too busy shooing 2 dogs and 3 cats away.

Part of the pleasure of living in a log cabin is the imagined sympathy for my predecessors here, especially in the extremes of cold weather. This is what it was like for them, I say to myself, as I throw another log on the fire (or turn the thermostat up) while I listen to the howling wind (and turn another light on). It’s a harmless indulgence to look upon the past nostalgically from the comforts of the present.

But every now and then I am reminded that some things really do never change. Not only is the Nth generation of the critter in my walls a constant, noisy reminder, but there are other dramas that play out which are no respecters of human boundaries.

Log cabins don’t need much maintenance, but it’s a good idea to perform an annual external inspection to look for new knotholes where old knots have fallen out. Most of the interior walls have secondary surfaces instead of bare logs, but we’ve found shed snake skins in the attic and it’s always been clear that other things may live between the logs and the wallboard, both predators and prey. My father-in-law was once doing the rounds with a bucket of cement looking for holes, and watched a black snake slither into one log before he got there. Left with the dilemma of whether to leave the hole open for the snake to exit again, or proceeding with his task, he cemented the hole (which tells you a lot about my father-in-law).

So, we came home yesterday to find this interloper in a crowded upstairs room, with one of our ambitious but inexperienced cats sitting next to it, wondering what he would do next. This was a young snake, maybe a foot and a half long, and he had his head hidden in his coils, like the picture, presumably because the cat was similar to predators he would encounter outside and he was hoping she would go away.

Black snakes aren’t poisonous (they’re rodent constrictors), but they are ill-tempered and will bite, and I was worried for my pets. As far as I’m concerned, snakes are welcome to explore the interior of the walls, but he had crossed the line in paying us a direct visit and had to go. If he had uncoiled and slithered off, we would have had the devil of a time getting at him, since there were dozens of little spaces he could retreat into. This made capture unlikely and forced us to other alternatives. So, while he was self-immobilized on the wooden floor, we would have to dispose of him more permanently.

My great white hunter of a husband considered the damage of birdshot on the floor and resorted to the blunt side of a favorite cavalry saber we have lying around, not perhaps ideal since the curve was in the wrong direction for a downward strike, but adequate to the task without bloodshed, and an excellent device for carrying off the corpus delicti out the back door to leave him as a present for the coons and possums up the slope. It was a shame he had to go, since I hoped he and his kin would help us with the noisemaker-within-the-walls-and-her-walnuts, but he had crossed that boundary from which there is no return.

So, on the one hand, it was amusing to imagine that little had changed since this cabin was built two hundred years ago (1812), but on the other hand you have to draw the line somewhere. Snakes outside; plumbing, electricity, and heat inside. Progress marches on.

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  1. When I lived in similar circumstances in New England my wall inhabitants were pretty (and disease- bearing) white footed or deer mice, and the snake was the northern milksnake, a kind of king snake. On the whole I think I prefer the snake, especially now in the Southwest, where hantavirus is a factor. But chacun a son gout– I would draw the line at rattlesnakes!

    June 17, 2014
  2. Dean Banfield
    Dean Banfield

    We too have lived with scurrying sounds in the walls and ceiling voids of every house we have lived in. But this recalls our little ex-schoolhouse in Newtown, where the barrier seemed particularly porous. We had a possum in the heat duct, birds down the flue and into the living room, a large rat that our terrier dispatched with posthaste, but really the worst was literally a nest of baby black snakes which emerged from the wall one day. I picked up an old-school floor standing speaker, dropped it on to of the bunch and leapt on top of the speaker to provide enough heft to mush the intruders. No, they do not belong in the house. Cleaning mouse turds from the back of kitchen drawers is as far as it goes, and even that is a violation.

    June 20, 2014
    • When we lived in Newtown, there were chimney swifts nesting in the (duh) chimney where the swiftlets would tumble down to see if they could reach the curtains in their first flight and cling there or whether the cats would reach them first. Semi-annual event (two sets of nestlings per summer).

      That house was much older (1712) and larger. The main summer beam was enclosed in the dining room, but the squirrel that used to run along it within the walls drove several animals nuts (not to mention our dinner guests).

      Then there was the time David excused himself during a dinner party to lock himself and a trespassing bat in the library, followed by the muffled pffzt of a .22 birdshot round. Bat on the wing.

      The mice were omnipresent, despite the cats and dogs who moused as a joint team. Our Brittany spaniel once caught the mouse he and a cat were stalking, and we only found out when we suspiciously made him open his mouth to show us the unharmed (but very wet) trophy. Soft-mouthed retriever. We let that one go outside, thinking of Job.

      Never did find out what reasonably large critter died in the ceiling over the bathroom. We pondered the issue of coon vs possum for the 4 long months it took that smell to fade away.

      June 20, 2014

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