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Town and Country

 

I want to tell you more about the farm. I lived in a shared row home with three housemates in South Philly and drove across the bridge to Jersey every day to work the summer camp program there. When I started, the other staff called me a city girl and took me under their collective wing. During training week, I learned how to net a water strider bug in the creek, unhook a fish from a Tom Sawyer bamboo pole at the pond, pick wineberries, chew birch bark, present hay to the cow, spread manure, and scoop the chicken coop. 

 

I like to think I took to farm life like a natural. The only thing in this environmental education program that had a hard time sticking were the scientific facts. What we mean by ecosystem; spiders are not insects; what’s a sassafras leaf . . . The others told me, but the information slipped out of my head as soon as I saw a toad and started imagining what kind of adventure he was going on that day. The others brought insect identification guides on their walks and answered kids’ questions about animal tracks in the woods. To deflect any request for knowledge, I took a different tact.

 

“Some people say an elf lives in these trees,” I said in a dramatic whisper to my six-year-olds. “He has an underground travel network to get around and he pops up through holes in the dirt.” 

 

“Why does that stump have a hole in it?” asked a kid with a bucket hat and a face like a mime from aggressive sunscreening. 

 

“That’s one of the elf’s hideouts,” I said. “He builds a fire and invites his friends over.”

 

“Some say” was a good phrase when a kid asked if a story was true. Or the all-purpose line when lying to a child, “What do you think?” Sometimes I’d have a kid who didn’t fall for it and met my eye with a raised eyebrow. They might buy your low-rate act, but we both know what you really are. 

 

Every morning I wrote out the schedule with illustrations and taped it on the back of my t-shirt, so that after going over it at the start of the day I could abdicate responsibility for ever answering the question “What do we have next?” “Look at the schedule,” I said, luxuriating in a deep swig of instant from my travel mug. “Is that a hamburger?” someone asked. “It’s the pond,” I told her, keeping emotion out of my voice. Don’t let them know when they’ve shook you. “What about this?” someone else pointed. “Is that a dog?” “It’s a goat,” I said sharply. I suppose you can do better, BRODY! When we visited the animal pen, Cesar, the largest goat, accosted me from behind and bit off half the schedule. He gulped the construction paper and went back for more. I ran to the other side of the pen and hid behind a crowd of kids. The pond was now half a hamburger. I started duct taping the schedule to the end of a pool noodle, called it a flag and assigned someone daily to carry it. 

 

In the meadow, we caught bugs with long-handled nets. The meadow grasses were so tall, you couldn’t see a kindergartner in there. Every so often I’d yell “Nets up!” and the kids held the poles above their heads so I could count them, just to make sure no one was stuck in the embrace of a pile of thorns. We captured beetles, ladybugs, cabbage moths, monarch butterflies, and grasshoppers and imprisoned them in jars, watching them through the glass. 

 

Kindergartners are good at catching things. They’re low to the ground, fast, and most of all, observant. Six-year-olds notice everything. “You skipped almost all the words on that page.” “You wore those shorts yesterday.” “That’s your car? Why is it so dirty and broken?” All right, Encyclopedias Brown, let’s direct those resume-building qualities into tracking something interesting for me to look at! When I was out of ideas for an activity, I picked a living thing (spiders; worms) and announced we were hunting for them. 

 

Living things were everywhere on the farm. All day we were on the lookout, noticing and catching. Inchworms, water snakes, cicada shells. An antennaed slug trailed a coat of slime down my arm; I was as enthralled as the kids. Together we tiptoed on the constellation of elevated tree roots surrounding the pond to catch the frogs off guard. Stealth was everything. A frog crouched silently on the bank, eyes ahead, ruminating on his life choices, and BAM a kid missing his front teeth had him squirming under a net. Neighboring frogs escaped with a synchronized plop into the water; we examined the victim. He was an alien creature, superior to us, enduring the indignity with stoic code. 

 

One morning before the kids arrived I walked down to the pond on my own and went for it. A frog slipped through my fingers and I slid full force down the muddy bank into the water. It was so much better than L.A. Fitness Aqua Fit. The same week, I sat on the creek bank while the kids played in the water, and a tiny field mouse darted out of a hole in the mud. I got him by the tail and cupped him in my hands while the group gathered round. I couldn’t be stopped! I was a wildlife phenom! I was meant to have dominion over fish and fowl, to scoop crawfish from streams and tame grasshoppers on a teaspoon of sugar water. All of life lay ahead of me! Should I hike the Appalachian Trail? Wasn’t there a dating site called Farmers Only? Maybe it was worth checking out? 

 

Home in the city on nights and weekends, I noticed things. The weeds growing out of the median caught my eye through the car window. What type of grass was that? I circled to find a parking spot at night and a raccoon ran across the street and behind a trash can. “Hello!” I said with enthusiasm. Should I follow to check out its habitat? I started giving pigeons a second look. I watched a woman open her screen door to fling a huge packet of Nifty Fifty’s fries into the street, and considered the fleet of pigeons dive-bombing the goods. Those shimmery green and purple necks — they were almost mermaid-like. Were we all giving pigeons a bad rap? I did have a little roof off my third floor hallway. Enough room to keep some birds? 

 

The farm had opened my worldview. All corners of city and country were teeming with creation, buzzing in ecological harmony. There was life everywhere. I was a naturalist! 

 

One Tuesday partway through the summer, I ate too many Haribo sour goldbears and fell into bed past a reasonable hour: a typical night. At three in the morning I woke up with a stinging feeling up and down my arms. I slapped and scratched. In the morning, I searched my aquamarine Target sheets and saw the seed-shaped enemy. 

 

I had bedbugs. 

 

Beat.

 

Would you care to cue up some Alanis with me?

 

(Opening guitar strum….)

Hiyy yiyy yiyy 

Yaaaa ya ha hiyy yiyyyy 

An old man turned ninety-eight

He won the lottery and died the next day

It's a black fly in your Chardonnay

It's a death row pardon two minutes too late

And isn't it ironic... don't you think

IT’S LIKE RAAAAIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIIINNNNNNN ON YOUR WEDDING DAY

IT”S A FREE RIDE WHEN YOU’VE ALREADY PAID 

IT’S THE GOOD ADVICE THAT YOU JUST DIDN’T TAKE

And who would've thought... it figures

 

(Lyrics reprinted without permission.) 

 

I tore the sheets off my bed, stamped my feet and cried “No, no, no!” in a full Nicholas Cage freak out. I flipped the mattress and found more evidence. There were bite marks on my arms. I wanted to tear my skin off. I wept in the shower. 

 

Wait. Did we think my newfound appreciation for the study of the natural world would see me welcome the bedbug experience with Jane Goodall curiosity and a plan to name and keep them in an upcycled strawberry container? 

 

Are you serious? 

 

We found out that neighbors on both sides of us had the bugs and couldn’t afford treatment: we were surrounded. The hellish process started: trash-bagging; high heat settings at the laundromat; money spent on exterminators, mattress covers, sprinkle products and sprays and caulks. Worse than the overdraft was the agony, the paranoia of that needling bite, not knowing when and where they would strike, and the helpless feeling of doing everything possible to stamp them out while fearing it wouldn’t be enough. I yelled at the walls. 

 

Being at home disgusted me but at the farm, I did not take my anger out on the meadow insects. The praying mantis on a pillow of Queen Anne’s lace was still regal; the caterpillar crawling the milkweed, a miracle. Why did I honor the country bug, joyfully let him crawl on my arm, et cetera et cetera, while a city bug caused grossed-out tears? Was it because the insects were invading my territory? But then, I was doing it to them every day – not only interrupting their chores and conversations without apology, not only making sport of capturing and investigating them – but training the next generation to do the same! Was I an insect colonialist? Why did I think I had the right to upend their home life, and not them mine? Had they been talking? Juliette Binoche says she doesn’t believe in coincidences. 

 

I had my first turn on pig duty that week, and carried the compost buckets from lunch tents to pigpen. You weren’t supposed to just dump it over the side – that had created a muddy gully already – so I had to step in and walk to the middle so as to spread the distribution. The pigs, who didn’t care about perpetuating stereotypes and spent a lot of time in mud puddles, unmoored themselves and snuffled over. Where was I supposed to dump the food when they were surrounding me? I stepped back to make space, but they moved with me. The pig next to me bit me on the bare leg with a wet, toothy mouth – it was too intimate. “I do not give consent!” I hissed. I did my best to wind up the bucket; got some momentum, and flung the compost past the pack of pigs. Some of it landed on their backs, but Charlotte’s Web says that’s fine. 

 

I carried the empty buckets back to the lunch tents as the goats hung over the fence, judging me. They knew as well as I did that I did not have dominion over all creatures of the planet as Genesis promised. There were enough insects in a square foot of earth to tie me down like Gulliver’s Travels. All the other living things in the world saw humans as meaningless specks, and knew full well they could destroy us if they decided to organize themselves. 

 

I tripped over a frog-catching net a kid had left behind. The goats watched.

 

I do know someone who’s an exterminator by day and a comedian by night. I think it works for him, because he’s very funny. 

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