The dark underside of old houses

IMG_2931Back to the farm this week for the first time since December. Spring arrived ahead of me. The forsythia was blooming and the elm trees were beginning to leaf out. It was a good week to be in the country. My mother planted the forsythia, or at least supervised its planting. Today she would have been 100. The forsythia almost didn’t survive the previous farm owner who let a hackberry grow up in the middle of it. Now it’s coming back. Mother would like that.

Last December I removed four rotted window frames from the farmhouse and rebuilt them over the winter. This week they went back into place. Small progress, but I’ll take it. They came from the upstairs bedrooms and the only reason they rotted is because Mom and Dad decided long ago to not put aluminum storms on the upper windows because that part of the house wasn’t heated after we kids left home. And so, given enough sun and rain, rot happened. A couple of them were almost beyond revival. But with several new wood pieces they’re good for another 100 years. And I learned two new skills––frame-building and glass-cutting. And now I’m on the hunt for storm windows to protect my handiwork.

The spring migration is underway. A flock of cedar waxwings, on their way to Minnesota and Canada, hung out in the elm trees all week. There was a good rain (the first since last fall) and the next day the waxwings were down bathing in a water-filled depression in the driveway. They are such sleek birds, black with a splash of yellow and with their rakish feather crests and black masks. They never say much and it’s easy to mistake them for grackles from a distance.

The grackles were back as well, and they made enough noise for everyone, chattering and holding forth in one tree and then another. Innocent bystanders were a couple of mockingbirds and a pair of phoebes, all migrants back home for the season. The red-winged blackbirds were also back. Nothing evokes my childhood forays into nature like the distinctive song of a red-wing.

I suppose the cedar waxwings have always come through here in the spring. But without binoculars, they are easily overlooked. All those years and I never knew what was over my head.

The bird diversity is helped by the current unkempt nature of the farm. The feedlots, with all that rich compost, have grown up in weeds, creating a seed fest and thick cover. Probably a couple dozen ring-necked pheasants have been sheltering there for the past several years. In addition many of the elm trees which my father planted in the thirties are near the end of their lives and they are home to woodpeckers and other cavity-seeking birds. It’s tempting to clean up the place by taking out the old elms and all the volunteer red cedars, and to fill in the depressions in the driveway. But then a flock of waxwings settles in a cedar and goes to work on the berries and then drop down to take a bath in the pools in the driveway. To paraphrase E.B. White, it makes it hard to know whether to smooth nature’s rough edges or savor it in its unkempt state.

When I wasn’t distracted by birds this week I managed to do a few things. For a year there has been a water leak under the farmhouse and we’ve had to shut off that part of the water system. The first step in fixing it would be to crawl under the house using a tiny access hole maybe two feet by 16 inches. Once under the house, there’s about a foot and a half clearance between the floor joists and the earth. It’s damp under there, the piping is old and corroded, and who knows what spiders live a foot away from your face. I got about halfway through the access hole and just couldn’t do it. Too claustrophobic. So I made a better way. In the floor of the house I cut a nice big hole which provides much easier access, and with more headroom. The leak turned out to be in a copper line. The best part of all this is that a plumber is going to be hired to do the actual work. But I made his/her job a fair amount easier. That’s the joy of an old, unoccupied house. You can do things like cut holes in the floor and not worry about making it pretty. The new hole also gives me quicker egress if I were to be cornered by a skunk. The floor joists are two feet apart, by the way. That helped. It’s still pretty nasty under there, a dark netherworld of corrosion and sewer smells and crawly things and rat poop. But now it’s easier to drop into that world to do what needs to be done.

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