Thursday, November 01, 2007

"Dry, cluttered space"

When I first moved to Missouri in the summer of 2003 for seasonal employment, I lived in a maintenance shed. Half the shed held tractors and tools, while the other half had a desk, a bed, a camp-style shower, and a couch. The wall separating the living quarters from the maintenance area didn't quite reach the ceiling, so on workday mornings, I was invariably woken up by that noxious stench of cigarette smoke coming from the maintenance staff. The floors of the shed were concrete, light was provided by a dramatic single bulb dangling from the ceiling (whose operational string was too high for me to reach without standing on the desk), and the recent installation of plumbing left a hole in the wall big enough for a small opossum to traipse into the shed every night, knocking over dishes in search of food.

I liked the change of scenery that the rural quarters provided. I liked living on a gravel road that became inaccessible after heavy rain events. I liked having morels grow outside my door. I liked the nuthatches that crept around the white oaks in front of my shed. Their persistent, unfamiliar "quank!" always made me laugh. I grew accustomed to spotty cell phone service, to the lack of available groceries, to the Ozark accent that can be almost unintelligible to a New Orleanian.

After my first week, I decided to finally sit down on the cheap, foam couch in my new living quarters. As I sat down with a bowl of soup, 60, maybe 75, maybe 100 mice fell out of the couch, quickly scrambling all over the concrete floors of my maintenance shed. I slept in my tent for several months after that, going inside only to shower, make coffee, and empty the 20 Sherman live traps that I had set up to repatriate the white-footed mice back to the woods where they belonged. Every morning, I had to lure the opossum out of my quarters with a plate of scrambled eggs.

Before I moved to Missouri, I read Sue Hubbell's A Country Year, her charming account of experiences as a New Yorker recently relocated the Ozarks to tend to bee hives. It's a fine read, regardless of where you live. She explained why Missourians don't believe in a late afternoon sherry hour, how to deal with the road grater (you don't tip him, however much you want to), and finally, most importantly, she taught me about the commonality of the brown recluse in Missouri.

They're a part of life here. A recent study revealed that populations of brown recluses reside in 70% of Missouri homes. The spider's range is mid-Missouri down to Texas. I don't think they're very common in Louisiana, so I had never seen one before I moved here. On my second day of work, I was warned before heading into the attic to "watch out for brown recluses!" I rushed back down the stairs to consult my sister agency's guide to spiders: "Brown recluses," they say, "thrive in dry, cluttered spaces." This Ozark park's attic can only be classified as the perfect habitat for the spider. Literally pounds upon pounds of unused Halloween and Christmas decorations are stored in this attic in anticipation of some mythical party atmosphere summarily contrary to the park's mission.

Hubbell tells the story of her first brown recluse bite and how she lived to deal with the spiders. They generally live up to their name, preferring undisturbed clothing, old boxes, anyplace that doesn't see a lot of light. Brown recluses are such a part of living in Missouri, as Hubbell points out, that everyone just expects them:
Brown recluses cannot climb smooth surfaces, and I often find them trapped in the bathtub or the sink, skittering about trying to escape. A friend and her daughter stopped in for tea not long ago. I made the tea in a pot and handed out cups. Accustomed to country living, the daughter wisely peered into her cup before I poured the tea. "Hmmm! A brown recluse," she said calmly, and we dumped the spider out.

I learned from her book to always check my cups, bowls, shoes, and towels. Every item of clothing gets a firm shake before I put it on. Every shoe is emptied of potential spiders before I put it on my foot.

I finally left the maintenance shed after a couple of summers for the fancier digs of southeast Missouri, my sprawling house built with steel beams to withstand earthquakes. Lots of space, little furniture, unused rooms. In one room, we've stored almost 2 years' worth of recyclables. You see, I have to take my recycling to Cape Girardeau, but to recycle in Cape, you have to be a resident of the county, which I'm not. I truly despise having to lie about my residency to the man who helps unload my trunk. Before he ever asks, I nervously blurt out "I live on Bessie!" A friend of mine lived there once and surely would have accrued as many olive oil bottles, dog food cans, wine bottles and junk mail as I have. I just can't throw away recyclables.

Sorting through two years of recyclables has uncovered lots of dead brown recluses and a host of live ones, which were either released outside or killed by the weight of my running shoe. While the recycling room was definitely cluttered, it did not house a food source for the spiders. They subsist on insects, and aside from the occasional escape of the dart frogs' walking fruit flies, the house is free of insects. I don't see the cute little white-footed woodland mice inside, either, and I certainly don't have an opossum to keep me company. Occasionally a scrappy, gray field mouse enters the house from the adjacent soybean fields. I lose sleep until it's caught. Of course, in the fancy house I live in, I don't have gaping holes in my walls, but brown recluses still manage to get in.

Brown recluse bites hurt, and the younger the spider, the more painful the bite. Early treatment of the bite is highly recommended, even if the victim is unclear how sensitive he is to the spider's venom. Some folks are sensitive to the bites, while others merely experience a mild irritation and a small pimple-like bump (which causes the health care provider to ask, repeatedly and with disdain, "are you sure it was a brown recluse? How do you know...."). The venom essentially disables the body's immune system where it is injected. Any bacteria, including flesh-eating bacteria and streptococcus, can come into contact with the punctured skin and kill the tissue cells, leaving behind a deep pit about the size of the dime. Treatment for brown recluse bites involves a tetanus shot and a full course of antibiotics. While they remain the most venomous spider in Missouri, contrary to local lore, they can't kill you.

Some Missourians spend lots of money fumigating their homes to eradicate brown recluses. When they do, they knock out harmless little jumping spiders while poisoning the air and every available surface with a toxic chemical. I've learned to live with spiders, and I'm getting less nervous about mice in the house. In fact, by the end of my first summer in Missouri, I had grown so deft at checking live traps and releasing the animals that I didn't run maniacally to the woods with the traps anymore. I just moseyed away from the house, opened the trap door, and threw the mice out for the owls. While I genuinely feel that both spiders and mice would be much better off outside, in nature, I take their presence in the house as evidence that I live, happily, I think, in rural Missouri.

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