This Old (Farm)House

by Laura Parker Roerden

This morning, I awoke to a simple pale orb moving in a confused pattern in the window of my bedroom in the farmhouse. Bits of morning were reflected in flashes off wings like patches of hope in a stretch of darkness. I must have rubbed my eyes too hard in a dream, I thought, and tried to refocus. The white patches of light, or an angel, or whatever it was, failed to settle.

I watched it then and now get caught in the folds of the curtains, rising from the ridges as a scar might rise from delicate wound. Something in its movement suggested freedom. A moth, I suddenly realized, was caught between the window pane and sheer white curtains. Two sources of light were dueling it out for the moth’s attention: one from the window and the other from the room.

I have read that moths move in a perpendicular line to a light source. As nocturnal insects, the source of light is usually the stars or moon, a source so far away as to be reliably stable. But caught between the window and sheers, this moth kept turning and adjusting its angle to the light. Instead of freedom, it found instead a hall of mirrors, where no clear path home could be plotted. The moth, once seeking to orient to the light, now was being led astray by it.

This old farmhouse frequently has guests of the insect and rodent kind. It’s nearly impossible to secure a 200-year old home to smaller wildlife. Lines of ants leave their nests to follow chemical trails left by others in a bizarre reversal of the old bread crumb trick for finding one’s way home. Bats hang innocently enough in attics, causing us to pull up sheets more tightly around our necks when jokes about vampires raise the hair on our necks. Webs are left by spiders in corners everywhere, appearing as if left by magic or perhaps in a sinister plot to dirty a house just then brushed clean. Mice scurry away into the darkness when lights are turned on after cleaning off treats left on cans and glass in the recycling bin. Mosquitos and flies mark the seasons and bring out our worst: irritation and loathing and, at times, violence.

There is a temptation to wage war on these intruders. Suburban homes, newer and better homes, we are told, are built air tight. There is no place for intruders in them. But an older home audibly breathes: inhaling wildlife and exhaling heat and new life, in a near constant exchange. Older homes are alive.

A spider web from a barn, where we tend to leave nature to its own devices entirely.

Nature is at once part prey, decay and promise. We can not forget our roots in such a home; where our days unfold with the background of nature’s effort to reclaim even us. There is never any doubt how the story will end. If we aren’t afraid to fully awaken from our dreams of perfection and refocus, we will see, in truth, that’s the grace behind nature’s beauty.

War is certainly an option for this old house. You can try to close up holes, place poison along the perimeter; buy swatters and high-tech gadgets. You’ll then awaken to a steady stream of dead mice or flies on your counter top now legs up. Spiders will be smeared on your walls. New holes will be chewed where wood and stone meet, until foundations threaten to crumble.

Professionals can be called in for more reliable removals, but no good can come from seeing pollinators and detritivours as the enemy. You’ll instead inhale poison. Flowers won’t bloom. The luscious tomato you’ve waited all year to eat might never ripen. Mosquitos that find their way in through your own innocent passage will be unmet by spiders and bats, who once did the dirty work for you. Remnants left in trash will rot in their plastic bags, never feeding an endless circle of life. Fragments instead will be left, where once was the suggestion of integrity.

There will be unintentional consequences, too, that spill out of your home and into the woods and your streets: other wildlife will eat poisoned prey and fall victim.The war we wage in this old house is always, in the end, oddly against ourselves.

I’d rather accept the steady exchange between inner and outer; the reminder of nature’s final grip on our lives; the attempts to coexist and find balance that I wish to become reflected in my and my family’s manner. I’m grateful for this old farmhouse that has stood sentinel to a time before the Civil War through a muddy river of imperfect time.

Just recently a tiny field mouse was caught in our sink, unable to climb up the watery walls. I awoke to find my 11-year old son Ben standing at the sink with a mason jar, trying to coax the afraid mouse into it. He leaned with intent and compassion over the sink. Each time he positioned the jar, the mouse would try to scurry up the sides of the sink and end up wet and shivering on the bottom. Instead Ben grabbed the mouse gently by the tail and like a helicopter directly airlifted him to safety into the jar.

As he started to walk to the front door, Ben asked, “Mom, where can I put him where he won’t be cold?”

I suggested finding a pile of leaves in a patch of sun, but thought better of adding “away from the house, so he doesn’t come back in.”

And just like that Ben was off to find his rescue a better home.

Decades of living in this old farmhouse have changed me. I now welcome visitors as common as stones, whether or not they are invited.

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