I HIRED A VINE TO EAT MY HOUSE
(Published in the Kingston Whig Standard Oct 10/13 & September 25/13)
Way down under the bottom of the housing heap was where I lived in rentals most of my adult life. In seventeen years of marriage, I had moved 35 times but we weren’t in the military. Just living on a student income with three kids, leaving one place after another minutes before it morphed into whatever Dante used to describe Hades.
They included a former karate studio in Toronto; the rooms behind a closed hippie business (with the last one or two burned off in a previous fire) in Washington State; a shack on top of a mountain attached to a ranger’s cabin in Idaho; the bungalow where the entire roof blew off at one sitting and lay at a crazy angle in the front yard…
Accommodations like these are non-existent now, not because of stricter regulations but due to that gleam peculiar to the developer’s eye when spotting something ripe for tearing down. Like the place we lived in Seattle across a parking lot from the university. It had four illegal apartments all wired to a single fuse. Down in the basement, we couldn’t plug in the toaster without bringing darkness to the vocal other four. There were schedules for when it was okay to iron…
We left that netherworld in 1979 when we moved to Kingston and bought a row house on a corner that had been commercial premises since 1840. It had 20 windows and 16 doors, three leading to the outside and marks upstairs where a truck had banged into the brick, taking the corner too fast. As I thought buying a house was like any other shopping; – select your cheerio’s and hand over the $5.95, we nearly lost our deposit.
But here it was, after the mining camps and cabins and the ghost town I’d lived in as a kid, logging hundreds of miles in bush planes, I would never have to move again. This was MINE! We would live upstairs, over the bookshop I would open, over the family business like the Queen. And I would put my forever stamp on the building, just as the previous five owners had undoubtedly planned to do, passing it on in turn to their children, all of whom wanted to live somewhere else.
If you want God to laugh, tell him your plans.
The most important thing to begin immediately was a garden. I had planted so many that I’d never seen come up, moving twice a year the way we did. Raised in Alaska, the growing season is brief and cruel, listed on seed packets almost as an footnote. So I’d never known the answer to questions like whether or not you could put something the size of a tooth into dirt and get a thing like a miniature sun, 7 feet tall whose scent tempts wild canaries to use it as a trampoline?
Excitement didn’t begin to cover my feelings the first time I saw finches dive off telephone wires, singing as they jumped on my sunflowers. So of course I planted more in great platoons as though I needed a whole militant corner full of pollen. The only enemy were late night imbibers staggering home from various booze ups. My garden lay directly in their path.
With drink-blinkered eyes, the sunflowers called to them where petunias and geraniums merely snickered. Night after night my troops went down without a struggle. One time a police car pulled up with a pair of befuddled bikers in the back and made them apologize for sunflowers clutched in their hairy fists.
After much thought, I got paper bags and began covering them at night with the words: THE SUNFLOWERS ARE NOW CLOSED. THOSE IN THE THROES OF INCIPIENT VANDALISM ARE DIRECTED TO THOSE FLOWERS NEARER THE POLICE STATION ON QUEEN STREET. Of course, being in literate, polite Canada, the vandalism ceased immediately. I even had an amused neighbour do the bags when I was away one weekend.
But then a student film crew decided that all this sunflower surrealism swaying in the moonlight would make a good shoot and inadvertently trampled the lot. By then, however, I had begun what was to be, outside my marriage, the other major relationship of my life.
“I want a leaf house,” my youngest son had once said. He meant, ‘vine-covered.’ How romantic, I thought, disregarding the farmer near Brighton who couldn’t stop laughing when I asked him if I could buy some Virginia Creeper?
“Give it to you for nothing,” he said, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Just dig it up and haul it away and don’t say I didn’t warn you.”
What was he on about? According to Wikipedia, it wasn’t related to ‘true ivy’ which damages the mortar on brick houses like mine. ‘Parthenocissus’ is its overall family name. It doesn’t look all that different from poison ivy, though it has two more leaves. Actually, not being a stupid vine, it doesn’t so much creep as climb like a goat wherever it can. You can find it all over my neighbourhood now, miles in every direction, clocked at 50 foot growth when unhindered.
It would shade what the write up calls my, ‘wall surface,’ saving on air conditioning and helping with the total lack of insulation. While its grubby little berries are poisonous, the reds of its fall foliage are magnificent. like an apology for occasionally troubling humanity.
Yes, it covers my entire house and much of the roof. Some passers by seem to think the vine’s presence or not is a simple matter of voting it off, their minds weakened through watching one too many reality show competitions where voting determines the outcome: (Which woman must the bachelor marry? What act has the most wow? Should you hire a vine to eat your house?)
A knock on my door. “I hate that vine of yours,” the man says. “Don’t you know how it damages the brick?”
“Not creeper. Real ivy does that,” I say as though I welcome yet another opinion to those daily dished out whenever I’m in the yard. “Native wisdom used it as a remedy for diarrhoea, difficult urination, swelling and lockjaw.”
“Humph,” he snorts, eloquently and takes himself off.
Randolph Gregory, the proprietor of Randy’s Handyman Services, was up on a ladder once after I asked him to cut it back around the upstairs windows. He says the vine gave him a little shove off the ladder when his back was turned with the clippers. While I dispute this, for awhile there, I did see him sway suddenly back and forth, clutching at the vine as though it were a grenade he was contemplating throwing into tomorrow.
According to Island Creekes online, the vine has tendrils, ‘like little arms that grab.’ That is in reference to its adhesion to walls, I tell Randy who firmly refuses to have anything more to do with it, now that his feet are back on the ground, though over the years he had done everything else I can think of.
The list of species using the vine as shelter in the wild is long and varied including the red-backed salamander and the five-lined skink. The tufted titmouse and the common crow are just a few of the many who use it for food.
I thought of using it for income purposes myself once. I would charge poets $5.00 for putting a little of their verse and name on a leaf for the summer. Then I’d document it with a picture and send it to them. It would be even better than naming a star you can’t see after yourself. “Leaf #5120 is yours, 57th from the bottom 4th row on the right hand side.” I’m on a busy downtown corner with a great mix of academics and townspeople guaranteed. (Even a naked man walked by once, undoubtedly a poet himself though that’s another story…)
But then I imagined how many poets would want to visit their leaf sites, undoubtedly with hoards of fans and trample all over the garden. Plus, being Kingston, there was sure to be a bylaw, ‘Against The Commercialisation Of Creeper.’ I am quite sure that we have more bylaws per resident than any other town our size in Canada.
So for what purpose DO I use the vine, other than as long-time companion and protector? To indulge my fairy-tale mind; Baba Yaga in her little chicken-footed house, camouflaged, I am certain by a distant cousin of my vine, racing through the Russian forests in search of prey. Romance amid the plain, unadorned brick of the remaining three attached houses in my row that once stretched all the way along the north side of the block.
To remind me that I am home now, moving is a thing apart from who I am. I have a place in the world that is mine, protected by a gallant green soldier who stands watch over me, gathering my world under its dense leafiness, gulping down carbon monoxide off the street as it shelters me from the cold.