There Goes the Neighborhood
TEXT BY ROSANNA GARGIULO
PHOTOGRAPHED BY RYAN DAVID BROWN
Ardent nesters or interlopers? In Dresden, a former city dweller and her brood try to find a middle ground.
Three years ago, when my husband, Matt, and I moved from our 1940s duplex in Bath to a 1790s Georgian in Dresden, I confess we were fleeing neighbors. There was nothing wrong with them or our neighborhood: loops of gentrifying brick and clapboard homes built, along with an elementary school, a daycare, and a community garden, around a central athletic field. We were the problem.
Over the years, our one-cat household had mushroomed to include two cats and three rescue dogs: Hector, a sato; Lucy, an Aussie mix; and Basho, a grumpy old Spitz. A 6-foot-tall wooden stockade replaced our invisible fence. Matt’s eldest daughter and her two dogs supplanted our quiet tenants. Then our granddaughter was born. Soon after, his daughter married and we had a son-in-law next door, followed by a grandson, and yet another cat. Our front yard became parking. Vegetable beds appeared beneath the laundry line. A compost pile grew behind the swing set. We talked about raising chickens.
One August afternoon, I was attempting to relax in our bustling 4,000-square-foot backyard, but Lucy was on squirrel patrol, screaming as she jumped up and down along the fence, and Hector was barking at Sunday cyclists; our granddaughter joined him when she tired of chasing the cats. I took it all in from behind opaque sunglasses: neighbors’ curious glances over our fence and gestures of frustration as they navigated around our cars. We’d lived there longer than the homeowners to our left and right, yet, somehow, we’d become those neighbors.
Early the following spring, Matt and I yielded the duplex to my stepdaughter’s growing family. We packed up the cats and caboodle and drove north along the Kennebec River toward our “new” antique house in the hilly, neighbor-free Dresden farmlands, where our country living would trouble no one.
Or so we thought. Our bi-pedal neighbors were all out of view, fields and forests dividing our lots more effectively than boundary markers. But we found our homestead filled with new kinds of neighbors: the furry, fanged, scaly, slithering, winged, burrowing, climbing, and nesting kinds.
"I’d been raised to believe that being a Mainer means sharing space with our neighbors and our state’s teeming wildlife. Yet, repeatedly, we’d missed the mark."
Every old house is permeable, but our red Georgian, which practically shares a birthday with our federal republic, felt like a sieve. George Washington was president when the fieldstone foundation was laid. Centuries later, garter snakes wriggled through those stones and white-footed mice created little caches amid the crumbling mortar. Above the foundation, the situation improved little. Consider our windows: insulated with corncobs back when waste not, want not wasn’t merely a proverb.
Our house — dearly loved by the previous owner who’d been unwilling to sell to dog-less buyers — had been vacant for a number of years before we came along. At which point animals and insects of all sorts had staked their claim. Bats roosted in a vaulted nook by the chimney. Flying squirrels nested in the eaves. Cellar spiders looped ornate tapestries between the hand-hewn beams in the kitchen and parlor. Ants flowed like rivers through window seams. I’d never seen a mouse hole — until I cleared the entryway of our moving boxes and found a circle, jagged from rodent incisors, gnawed through the floorboards.
And those were just our “roommates.” Outdoors, there were skunks that Lucy repeatedly tried to herd with apocalyptic-smelling consequences. Porcupines climbed twisted fruit trees and, at night, deer bedded beneath the branches. Gangs of turkeys gossiped as they crossed our yard in familiar routes, whipping Hector into a frenzy. Coyote packs howled from hidden pathways. Lucy learned their language and began answering the calls. Ticks outnumbered us roughly a million to one.
A few months in, we dragged out our lawnmower and shredded the sloping grass in the orchard, creating a demarcation zone between our yard and woods. The deer ticks disappeared. So did the deer. We installed livestock fencing for the dogs, then numbering four (how do you say no to a rescue Bassett named Sunday?), that bisected the turkey trail. Our cats set to work reducing the superabundance of rodents. “They’re vectors for disease,” I told myself, biting off sadness as I cupped their limp bodies in my hands.
Maybe animal instinct drives us to move into places hard and fast, to territorialize and hunker down before winter hits. The fall after we arrived in Dresden, I surveyed our progress: cobweb-free beams, zero piles of guano, no scampering sounds emanating from the ceiling at night. We’d made their home our home. We’d sent the wild, disorderly things away.
That winter, I rarely saw animal tracks zigzagging across our property. Not even foolhardy turkeys gobbled by. I’d been raised to believe that being a Mainer means sharing space — even valuable space — with our neighbors and our state’s teeming wildlife. Yet, repeatedly, we’d missed the mark. In Bath, we’d been too wild. In Dresden, we were too urban. I decided it was time we learned the balancing act of being good neighbors.
To date, we’ve ceded a few corners to the spiders. They’re not hurting anyone and they’re a natural insecticide. One cat seems relieved to be confined indoors. The other, half feral when we got him, still goes out but we keep him well fed so he rarely brings us defunct “presents.” Outside, we’ve eliminated most landscape lighting to curb light pollution and set up toad abodes and butterfly puddlers amid our pollinator and shrub gardens. We still mow a boundary to deter ticks, but leave tall grass where we can and protect wildflowers like milkweed and purple loosestrife. This summer’s project: digging a small pond by a hibernaculum so the toads, prodigious slug eaters, can safely coexist with us year-round.
We’re not perfect. We are up to six dogs after adding our final two (I swear!) — an 11-year-old Yorkie and 13-year-old Shih Tzu — to the brood. Sometimes I let them play a little too loud and long outside. Matt’s lathe and saws are also ear piercing. And I’m itching to build a garage, for which we’d have to sacrifice valuable green space. Nonetheless, our friendliest neighbors are starting to come back around. The other day, the dogs and I watched as a juvenile porcupine nibbled the frozen grass beside our fence. In silence, we welcomed him to our home.
Rosanna Gargiulo is the editor of The Maine Review, a nonprofit literary journal dedicated to making contemporary literature accessible to readers and writers of all incomes. She writes fiction and nonfiction as R.S. Wynn and has received the Hummingbird Flash Fiction Prize and the Larry Brown Short Story Award. Her work has appeared in Bacopa Literary Review, Guesthouse, Pithead Chapel, Southword, and elsewhere. She lives in Dresden with her husband, her youngest stepdaughter, and their rescue animal horde.