My husband and I were city folks with two young children, excited to be buying a house in the suburbs: Rooms and floors! Our own driveway! Our front yard, tiny though it is! We even got two trees: one in the front and one in the back.
"There's no trash on our street," was the first thing my 5-year-old daughter said. Not only was there no trash, there were no shouters, loiterers or urine smells: Nothing to be wary of. There were no downstairs neighbors complaining about the racket, and no upstairs neighbors blasting music while moving furniture. No more airshaft views through pigeon poo windows or laundry-room roach fears: Life would be a bucolic celebration of the seasons and open spaces. We bought garden tools.
Shortly after we moved in the spring, we heard a persistent knocking that recalled our old noise-averse downstairs neighbor. It turned out to be a black-and-white woodpecker with a jaunty red cap, who systematically drilled circular holes in our brown wooden shingles. We went from admiring the bird to banging on the window to squirting it with a water gun (rain! It shivered in delight), to fixing a fake owl to the roof.
It wasn't scared. It pecked straight through the shingle and flew back to the tree. It turns out that one of the woodpecker's natural adaptations, to protect itself from pecking-induced brain damage, is to have a very small brain.
A neighbor advised us to paint our house a less tree-like color.
Maybe there was something unpalatable about our trees. The one behind the house had ants all over it, which thrilled the kids. "Look, Mom, they're going right in!" That didn't seem right. I grabbed a stick -- I was sort of excited that we even had sticks -- and tentatively poked the bark. My stick encountered no resistance for several rotten inches. The arborist said it should come down.
So, suburban nature was not carefree. Still, there were daffodils, there was birdsong, there was grass. And we had our little house to clean and paint and decorate, because it was, for once, our own place. We relished our private pod of family life.
My father came to see the house one day that spring; as we approached the front door from outside, my father said calmly, "That's probably termites." I may have screamed. The invasion covered roughly a third of the door.
Termites! I had heard of them: They ate houses. Why wasn't my father alarmed?
"They'll be gone in an hour," he said. They left behind only a few wings as evidence of their cavorting. I kicked them off my doorstep.
The next spring, I was more prepared. We planted a new tree, enjoyed our crocuses. The woodpecker kept knocking and we kept trying to turn him away, like seasoned naturalists who know a pest from a prize. We also acquired a robin who bashed against our window in a daily brawl with its reflection. The window held.
But when spring, in its indiscriminate energy, actually entered my house, well, I lost it.
It was a warm day, and the kids and I were heading out to the paradise of our yard. We approached our front door, from the inside, and found it seemingly covered with a grayish brown blanket. As it came into focus, I saw the blanket was actually a moving, squirming mass of termites.
"Ew, Mommy, look at the door!" shrieked my daughter.
"Are those bugs?" asked my son, 3, fascinated.
Oh, it was horrifying. There were just so many. Some of them were flying. And they were on the wrong side of the door. Nature was fine, woodpeckers and rotten trees were fine: They were all outside.
I hustled the kids down to the playroom.
"You guys want to watch TV?" I asked. "And I'll see if those silly bugs want to go outside? Do you think they're lost?" The kids nodded slowly, skeptically, and I strolled out of the room, practically humming in my composure.
Then I sprinted, face averted, past the front door. I found the yellow pages and the biggest ad for pest control, and dialed with shaking fingers.
The nice lady I spoke to advised me to vacuum the termites, as if it were that easy. She waited as I wildly waved the vacuum hose at the door, trying to accomplish the job from the distance of the hose length, with my head turned away and my eyes closed. Nothing doing. I had to get up close, grit my teeth, and vacuum those suckers.
"What do I do with the vacuum bag?" I imagined the termites all crawling around in there, becoming angry, plotting.
"Well, I would throw it away," she said.
Eventually, we would replace a section of plywood wall hidden beneath our front steps where the termites had found their own homey bliss.
We installed a baiting system and so far have seen no more termites. Our new tree is thriving. We've planted more bulbs. And our house, now painted white, no longer attracts the woodpecker. Every year, I'm overjoyed by spring's arrival. But then my city training kicks in, and I can't help it: I glare outside with a fair amount of suspicion.
Here in the suburbs, I have to stay alert.