Tuesday, February 12, 2008

The witch tree

Marcie and I used to often discuss the strange plants and animals that adorn our home and its vicinity in Normal Heights. One element of our landscaping which is a constant source of change and seems permanently out of tune with nature is a tree in our back yard which I take for a flowering dogwood.

Today, as I tried to get outside for some air (bad idea... the air tastes like a cloud of exhaust and made me choke), I noticed Seamus staring into the tree. Mind you, this tree has hosted hawks with fresh pigeons in their claws as they ate them, an owl, hummingbird colonies and even a woodpecker.

Even without those odd visitors, an early lesson in the environs here usually means I take note of Seamus taking interest.

I saw nothing, but then I realized he was watching the petals of the little white flowers on the tree as they drifted down onto the ground. I took a "Seamus' eye view" picture for you:

The cat's eye view of a dogwood

Marcie and I dubbed this tree the "witch tree" because of the creepy things that have fallen out of it over the years we lived here together. The tree, firstly, has a knack for dropping very well-aimed leaves down your shirt, usually the back of the shirt, in fact. It constantly sheds.

The leaves would not be bad, unless you knew what lived in the tree. The tree hosts a multispecies community of spiders. No, the tree is infested with spiders. I am not saying they are social spiders, but they seem to have plenty to eat as they multiply and winter over in the thing.

I can likely be fogiven for thinking, at first, that this lovely 12" construct was a webbed-up bat:

A grim cocoon

That thought, of a small mammal webbed up in that mass of tightly-woven but chaotic webbing, may be macabre, but it is wholly fictional, obviously. However, what is not fictional is that, in the many, many webbed clusters like this in the tree, one runs a good chance of finding black widows.

How do I know? Why, I am glad you asked.

The tree, when we moved in, was one giant nasty collection of leaves in webbing. When one day I decided to water our hanging plant, Marcie asked me to knock some of the webs down and clean the tree up a bit. Bad idea.

As I gleefully sprayed down the nasty chunks of dead leaves and branches, adding them to the growing pile under the tree, something caught my eye. A jet black, fat, lurching body clambered over the leaves from a soggy cluster of gummy detritus. I spray it and the round, clumsy thing flipped over for a moment. A big red hourglass stared back.

Squish. Buh-bye. Black widows are not fun. I don't like small animals which can kill, spider or not, useful or not. I kept working but then saw another. Squish. Then two more, smaller ones, and an immature juvenile whose more colorful pattern I recognized from an article on the latrodectus morphology. Squish-squishity-splorp.

There were other spiders, not all of them black widows, the bigger of which I sprayed away from me, the smaller of which I ignored. I could not believe how many of the widows there were, however, especially in a tree. I believed them to be more interested in being more hidden and near moisture and darkness.

I was rolling up the hose when I noted a black, shiny body nestled between my shoelaces, legs drawn in tight. I sprayed it off carefully and swear it tried to bite me as I did. Squish.

As if this entire experience was not getting unnerving, Marcie chose that time to retrieve some laundry. As she walked out and the occasional branch of deadness and spider fell from the weight of the water, a bag of black plastic fell and plopped onto the ground, scaring her and me both.

It was shaped like a little human.

Now, our neighbors at the time had children who loved to throw each others' toys onto our roof. In retrospect, I had no reason to think it was a baby, except for the meaty, wet splat the bagged form made. In other words, it had me thinking.

"Honey, go inside," I said.

She looked at it and then at me. "Just throw it away, honey." she said. "It's junk."

I checked it anyways. It was a cheap doll with a soft middle, covered in mud and obviously having gathered a lot of leaves. I dropped it back in the bag and went to toss it in the trash, when my grip set off a little wheezing cry.

"Maaaaaamaaa," it said.

I paused and got a shudder down my spine, then dumped it. As if did, I shook off a spider whose thick web was making it hard to shake, stomping it as it finally landed on the ground. Squish.

It was a fat, brown, "golden garden spider." But I was done with the creepy mess. I have never sprayed that tree out since, and likely never will. But Marcie decided that the tree would be called the "Witch tree."

"It looks like a tree a witch would fly out of on her broom," she said. "It's totally creepy, honey."

Or perhaps a bunch of spiders and a soggy, infested baby doll could fall out and cry for mama.

But that tree is just one of many little wild features and woodland creatures our abode sports. I will sprinkle in our experiences in that realm as we go along.

In fact, the white flowers mean that it is almost time for the skunks and possums to make their appearance and move in under the house. That's a lot more fun than spiders, by far. And a lot more story, too.


Lana Banana said...

You know, it's just not right for ANY human being to use the word "squish" that many times . . .

I'm just saying.