Nature vs Nurture

I have a complicated relationship with nature, particularly as it relates to my home and, in particular, because I’m a homebody. Over the years I’ve had the obvious encounters with the creepy crawlies you find in your living space on a semi-regular basis: spiders, ants, and other sometimes unidentifiable, but not shockingly weird bug specimens.

A townhouse in Texas offered my first anxiety producing experience when I found myself face to face with a Twinkie sized cockroach as it slowly squeezed its way out of my DVD player before lumbering across the carpet. The same house later experienced a pill bug infestation in the hundreds, which is far less traumatic than you would think especially if you refer to them as roly polies. A roly poly infestation sounds not entirely unpleasant and kind of like something the BBC would produce for babies.

As a lifelong arachnophobe, a rental house in San Jose, CA brought my first spider-induced panic attack when I discovered one the size of a teacup lurking on the wall. That it was basking in the bright green glow of a recently acquired plastic IKEA lamp only made it more terrifying. My reaction was validated when the creature induced a GASP! from my otherwise non-spider phobic spouse. Even the 5.9 magnitude earthquake we experienced a few months later—my first—in no way compared to the shock of that creature. It had had thighs. Hairy and muscular spider thighs.

Moving to Northern Colorado offered a master class in nature exposure. Finding an animal’s clavicle while hiking in Poudre Canyon during a visit should have served as a warning, but it did not. Nor did the constant signs cautioning me to watch out for rattlesnakes, which could be avoided, I assured myself, if I just didn’t visit their habitat, places called the “Devil’s Thumb” or the “Devil’s Backbone.” Easy enough.DSC_0068.JPG.jpg

We moved into a quiet and semi-modern subdivision across from a large tract of open space filled with prairie dogs and coyotes and settled in to a new life in the real west. In retrospect, I don’t know if I was more troubled by the blowfly infestation in the “finished” basement (which emanated from something the landlord found in a back room crawl space…), from the rabbit parts found near the front door, the rabbit skeletons in the basement window wells, or from the 4’ long bull snake that entwined itself around a stroller in the garage, its head encircled by a glue trap used to catch large spiders, but that first year proved we were in the real west alright.

When some people read the term “open space” in a real estate listing they think of the scenic vistas they’ll enjoy from their backyard, like I once did. I now think of everything that lives in it slowly and inevitably making its way toward and into my house. And that’s why I can’t believe I didn’t appreciate what was in store for me when we decided to buy a house in Massachusetts, set directly in front of a cranberry bog, its reservoir, and the acres of conservation land surrounding it all.

I have snakes in my basement.

Let that set in before I say it again.

I have snakes in my basement. The basement of my home.

It doesn’t even have the same ring as “Bats in the belfry.” “Snakes in the basement” sounds like a horrible term for an STD. I didn’t realize how much I even disliked saying the word “snake” until faced with them on a regular basis.

Snake. Snake. Snake. You have to make its sound to say its name.

Once again I missed the signs that could have stopped this. On a cold and rainy fall day we had a house inspection on a property we had made an offer on a few weeks earlier. The inspector was in the basement with my husband and caught a darting tongue with the glow of his flashlight. A few more feet into the space, he caught a glimpse of a tail, tucking itself into pink ceiling insulation.

I learned of this 30 minutes later and did nothing. That it was the only house we could afford in the town we’d been renting in for 18 months and where our kids went to school—and remains so—probably had some role in our decision to go forward with the sale. That the seller had a rack of servers running in the fieldstone basement of an old New England farmhouse—thus creating a rainforest-like climate—allowed some degree of plausible deniability to their continued presence after he left.

When spring arrived, it became clear the snakes had not vacated. By summer, snakeskins lined the ledges along the top of some basement walls like dirty underpants left behind. If I had to go into the basement I wore gloves. If I had to go into the part of the basement that had the pink insulation overhead? I wore gloves and a hat and hunched myself over to create more space between my body and the ceiling. My eyes would scan the floor, the walls, the ceiling, and I would sprint back up the rickety staircase as soon as I could. And then I read that snakes can climb stairs…IMG_0077

Over time, I stopped going down into the basement, learning to pretend that we simply didn’t have one. I obsessively filled gaps in and around the baseboards and heat registers on the first floor. And when my husband stopped traveling for work and I no longer had to worry about resetting breakers, checking for leaks, or dealing with the furnace, I reached expert level pretending status.

Friends that know about our problem have volunteered to come over and help eradicate them by drowning. We’ve employed a near constant application of snake powder and various sonic devices and tried to eliminate their food source with mousetraps. A friend suggested I try to attract them away from the foundation by building them their own house somewhere in the yard. A “snake house,” she said, explaining it was basically a big pile of rocks that they would want to live in. I thanked her, but explained that structure already existed in the form of our house.

Last summer, I even worked up the courage to remove one from the basement myself in a moment of snake-induced rage, employing Campari and soda, BBQ tongs, a large plastic bucket, and welding gloves. I struggled as I pulled its ever-expanding body out of the wall, being mindful not to wound it with the tongs, and then threw it in the bucket and brought it outside where it thrashed its tail and head at me before it was relocated. As it turns out the courage was temporary, but the images from the experience appear to be forever. I’ve not been back down there since.

The snakes in the yard still startle me. I regularly find and pick up the dirty underpants they leave under bushes and along the foundation, using a very long stick to estimate size. I research snake species and habitat and fantasize about some kind of landscaping that will magically drive them away from the house. We’ve invested way too much money on various foam sealants for cracks in the foundation, so much so that it looks like our house is oozing something. I’ve even on occasion thought about arranging some kind of “accident” for some of the snakes we find—including those found outside—to lessen their numbers. I am also responsible for one case of manslaughter, which my children remind me of regularly.

Making peace with nature is complicated. Fantasizing about city living is not.

Published by Karina Coombs

Freelance writer

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