Archive | November, 2018

Unstoppable creeper

In many areas, English ivy is considered an invasive species. It can crowd out native plants, cover and smother trees, and deprive native animals of the flora they need for food and shelter.

While I was going to work in Seattle and Bellevue, the ivy that clung to the Douglas fir tree behind my house and grew in the bed between the foundation of my house and the lawn, spread over the back of my house. The creeping vine crept over the bedroom windows, crawled over the kitchen window, colonized the gutters.

From my back deck in the bright summer the wall of green seemed somehow institutional to me. Ivy covered the brick of the cookie cutter Collegiate Gothic style. The massive buildings with ornate cornices and perpetual ivy signified the liberal education as much as golden arches signified rapidly produced hamburgers.

Whenever I see ivy I think of the University of Washington’s Gothic style, or the phrase Ivy League. I don’t really know much about the ivy league. Yale, Harvard, Princeton, Cornell, Columbia, Dartmouth, Brown, and U Penn, U Penn is an ivy league school. Some of these names have crawled into our vocabulary as a kind of verbal tinsel. These linguistic faux-marbling imply prestige: a development of tract homes in a Cape Cod style named Harvard Heights, a driving school called Princeton Academy of the Wheel, the Dartmouth Grill next door to the movie theater called The Harvard Exit Theatre.

Ivy fills the forests near my house. The vine clings to the trunks of Douglas fir. The vine strangles maple trees and cotton wood trees until they suffocate and become covered in lichen and mushrooms. The vine finally splits the tree into hunks that fall into the bed of ivy on the forest floor. The bed of ivy covers the forest floor in a knee-high blanket of meaty, fibrous leaves. Spiders, raccoon, and rats live under the cover of the ivy. At first, when you enter the forest you feel that you entering a verdant space filled with life, bird song, plants, and the somehow prestigious shape of ivy. The ivy transforms the trees into columns of ivy. Ivy hangs from the canopy.

On my first walk from my house to Puget Sound, I found myself in the bright and green woods. My house is in a subdivision modestly named Pinewood. The division is in a neighborhood with the humble name of Woodmont. The neighborhood is in a city named Des Moines after Des Moines Iowa and distinguished verbally from Iowa by the locals pronouncing the terminal S, as in “Des Moine-sss”. I walked through the fuzzy, vine covered trunks to a steep slope. I could see white caps on Puget Sound and then came out to the rock shore of the sea. The forest stood on the slopes of the hill, a solid mass of vegetation.

Despite densely inhabited strips of apartment buildings, condos, and small lot houses, my neighborhood retains a rural feel. Up until the recent boom in Seattle, much of the neighborhood had green belts required as noise mitigation from Sea-Tac. A constant stream of jets heads north as planes approach Sea-Tac. At other times the stream heads south as planes depart. Around the airport, the neighborhoods seem frozen in the 1960s and 1970s. There are less sports utility vehicles here than in Seattle or the East Side. People drive Ford trucks or newer Toyota Tahomas. There are many Datsun Z80s around. Only recently have the Toyota Camrys from the 1990s given way to Ford Focuses and Toyota Corollas. You find cars with body damage and primer in the parking lots.

The green belts stuffed with all consuming ivy right next to the densely packed urban apartments were dangerous. It is in the green belts that the community dumped toxic trash. It is in the green belts where temporary shelters house meth lab. It is in the green belts where the Green River killer executed his victims and stored (for easy access) their decomposing bodies. The ivy covers these things and gradually gnaws them out of existence. When you enter the forest you feel that you entering a verdant space filled with decay and death.

Occasionally, the community attempts to clear the ivy. Crews cut the veins at the root of the Douglas fir trees. They pull up the sheets of ivy revealing the rat trails, the piles of garbage, the bones of missing people. But within a season the ivy returns.

I realized about five years ago that the ivy was gradually covering my house. It wasn’t going to transform my house into an Ivy League college, but instead the tiny brown roots would finger their way into the siding of the house, crack the cement foundation and rip the house down until I was living among the spiders and rats.

As I cut the vines down, I cut the telephone land line to the house. The land line was no longer in use. I ripped out the copper line. I ripped out the vines. It came back in sheets with the roots clinging to strips of house wood and paint. After a weekend of labor the house was revealed. A few pieces of siding had been ripped up. The window screens held tiny filaments of ivy root that could not be removed. But the house has been restored, sort of, to how it looked when I first moved into it.

But the ivy has started to creep back. It has sent tentative feelers up the wainscoting. It will not rest.

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My Skinner Box


When you leave the house for a journey or an errand, don’t turn back if you forgot something. If you do have to turn back, sit down before you start again.

Walking on the sidewalk in downtown Fall City, I avoided cracks in the cement. The roots of the maples tilted the stones. Some roots cracked the cement. Thick grass grew through the gap. “Step on a crack, break your momma’s back,” my brother said.

I stepped on the crack.

“I’m going to tell her,” he said. I wanted not to believe these things. Like Heaven, they seemed to me a scam.

At school, they talked about a figure named Jesus and God. “Where do they live?” I asked. “Have you ever seen them.”

“They live in Heaven.”

My father said that heaven was a scam. It was a way of making you do stuff that other people wanted you to do on Earth. We had pets that had died, and they were gone. We buried our cat Shorty George who ran into the rim of the Nova’s rear tire when he was trying to run across the street behind the car. He lay on the side of the road, not in Heaven, but on Earth dead, and whatever had been inside of them was gone, like a toy with a battery that had run out of power, like the toaster when it was unplugged, like the fridge when the power lines went down. Dead and without light or burning filaments or the smell of toast crumbs getting burnt even more.

“Don’t walk under ladders,” my father said. So I walked under ladders.

If we got out of bed on the wrong side, then our day would be filled with bad luck. We weren’t supposed to believe in Heaven, but we were supposed to believe in luck.

I tripped on a deadfall in the forest following my dad down to the pasture. “Go back and walk over that again.”

“I’m already on this side,” I said.

He looked at me. “It’s bad luck,” he said. “Fix it.”

Our world was filled with signs of doom and confirmation of our general bad luck, our damnation, our isolation from grace. My striped t-shirt had a perpetual spaghetti stain brown like the remnants of a bullet hole that had shot through me. I would never be clean and radiant and walking lightly through the world.

Even when I found a penny on the asphalt outside of the dinner called The Other Place, luck could be good or bad. We had two diners in town. One was named Martinelli’s like the golden bottles of sparkling apple juice in glass bottles shaped like apples. The other was not that place. A penny was a dreadful event on the asphalt, dry, but inches from the mud puddle with unfurling cigarette butts and the ribbons of fleshy night crawlers who had wriggled out of the cracks.

If it was heads up, bad luck. Worse luck. I didn’t believe in luck. If I didn’t get Heaven, but only had Hell, then I didn’t want luck good or bad. I would step on cracks, walk under ladders, shatter mirrors, always wake upon the wrong side of bed. It didn’t matter did it.

But the penny was heads up. Good luck. I could see the reflection of the cumulus clouds in the mud puddle. The day was going to go my way.

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