| Living Room
Gertrude was dead and it was time to move on. I pulled the
leaves from the basil plant, plick, plick, tossing them into the bowl for
dinner that night. These poor basil plants; they had endured so much. It all
started back in the fall as winter approached and the temperatures grew colder.
The plants that had once stood happy, basking in the long days of sunlight,
realized that the frost was coming, and so had I. I left them out a little
longer, though, hoping to trick the artichoke plant. It needed a winter before
blooming and budding, yielding the delicacy that is an artichoke. The nights
I pulled them in all at once one day – the tomato, just
giving up a wave of plump red ornaments; the pepper plants with their small
green fruits; the artichoke, of course; and the various herbs. I harvested all
the green beans and left the plants to die. They had had their summer. The
lettuce and the spinach I left on the balcony, plucking their leaves over the
next week before the hard frost came. The artichoke got the sunnyest spot
possible, in the south-facing windowed nook of the living room. Surrounding it,
various herbs – basil, sage, parsley, cilantro. The peppers and tomatoes stood
just behind, while the oregano and chives earned themselves kitchen berths,
west-facing. All seemed well.
Then I returned from two and a half weeks of a business
trip. My neighbor, who had agreed to tend and water the plants during my
absence, had “pruned” the parsley down to its roots because it had been
“growing too big”. The dead stub protruded obtusely from the pot. But otherwise
everything was fine. The peppers were large and red, ready to be picked. The
tomato plant was churning out the last tomatoes of its most recent wave. The
artichoke was large and water-filled and spikey, the second set of artichokes
just small buds.
You see, my deception had worked. A week or two after being
brought indoors the artichoke plant had budded, a single perfect green nobule.
It grew and grew, until the tips turned brown and parted slightly. It was just
a few days before the business trip, and I was worried it wouldn’t be ready in
time. But it was. I made myself a lemony dip and enjoyed a treat of fresh
artichoke in November.
But when I returned from that trip, the biggest thing I
noticed wasn’t the ripe peppers or the newly forming artichoke buds. It was the
flies. Sometime during my absence, an entire colony of whiteflies had invaded
and set up shop amongst my plants. They particularly loved the tomato plant. I
wouldn’t have minded them so much – they are small, fruitfly-sized, and little
more than annoying. But they were busily munching away on the tomato leaves to
such an extent that tomato real-estate was running low and some flies had moved
over to begin on the pepper plants. I decided to deal with the problem by
harvesting the last of the tomatoes and the ripe peppers and then ditching the
plants; the tomato one couldn’t live much longer anyway. I thought that might
do the trick.
But no animal gives up easily, and mother nature is always
adaptable. Without their favorite food, the whiteflies had to find something
else to eat. And that something else turned out to be the basil plants. True,
ridding the apartment of the tomato and pepper plants reduced the whitefly
population significantly, but it also meant an attack on my herbs – basil as
favorite, but with also occasional munchings on the oregano, sage, and
cilantro. What to do? I let the issue go for a while; the population stabilized
and the basil seemed strong enough to put out new leaves as the old ones got
eaten. A spider moved in above the basil plants in the corner of the
south-facing window. We would later name it Gideon.
Of course, we were no stranger to spiders. I always take
care to maintain a professional relationship with the archachnid type – one
characterized by respect and mutual interest. After all, I am happier when
mosquitoes are dead, trapped in spiders’ nets. And my spider friends are happy
for the meals. In August, when the mosquitoes were real bad, we used to kill
them, trying to keep them slightly alive – enough to twitch anyway. Then we’d
flick them into Gertrude’s web and watch as she came down from her central post
to wrap up the prey in her sticky strands. And there were always mosquitoes
around, owing to the non-existance of screen windows in Bavaria, and more
particularly in our apartment.
And this suited Gertrude just fine. She had actually moved
in earlier in the summer, before the mosquito season, when the days were still
getting longer, and insects of all types were out and about, trying out new
wings and old legs. We kept our windows and doors open during the day, in that
propped-open-at-the-top sort of way that is common of windows and doors in
Germany. And so the bugs from the yard would fly in and around and sometimes
out. And fair numbers would find themselves in our living room, searching for
food or a mate or sunlight or a place to call home. And some of those wouldn’t
see the almost invisible strands spanning out across the corner near the balcony
door. And Gertrude would feast.
And it was in January, as the whiteflies continued their
destruction of the basil plants, that things got difficult. The skies clouded
over and for days and weeks it only rained, or snowed, or sleeted, or did none
of the above but was just a depressing gray. And the artichoke gave up on its
buds, letting them turn to dry ash, while just trying to survive. Many of the
basil leaves yellowed from the dual pressures of pest and lack of sun. the sage
was droopy. The oregano flopped. Only the cilantro stayed its cheery course,
always upright and reaching for the windows, dark green and growing. It was in
January that I noticed Gertrude starting to get thin.
She had been sitting in her web since since we closed the
doors and windows, keeping the warmth inside and the cold out. She just sat
still, waiting, conserving precious energy. But she was getting smaller, I
could tell. There were no bugs except the whiteflies around – none to wander
accidentally into her web, none to end up even a small meal. And what interest
had the whiteflies of the plant-less balcony-door corner? Gideon did seem to
have the right idea.
The night it all happened I was asleep. I had decided to
move the basil plants over under Gertrude’s web – just for the night. Just to
give her a chance at a snack. I thought Gideon wouldn’t mind too much if it was
just one night. But in the morning Gertrude was dead, and Gideon had
disappeared. Instead, only one spider could be seen in the living room: a
newcomer, large and long-legged – a hunting spider. And sitting in Gertrude’s
corner, it held firmly in its palps a large mass. Two days later it let the
mass fall and I could examine it closely enough to realize my fears: Getrude
was no more than a husk, wrapped in another spider’s silk. She had been a good
companion and so I returned her to the yard from whence she had come with a
Gideon turned up the next day, having simply moved to a new
spot above the cilantro. The hunting spider roamed Gertrude’s corner looking
for a new meal, but seemed uninterested in lengthy exploration. The whiteflies
had renewed their attack on the basil plants and I decided that the time had
come for a counterattack. I hadn’t grown the basil for the whiteflies’
edification. And I certainly didn’t want the insects to focus on the ailing
artichoke. So I took the hardy survivors – the cilantro, the sage, and the poor
old artichoke – and shook off all the flies, removed what larvea and eggs I
could find and moved them into another room, away from the whiteflies. And
today I took the basil plants, stripping them of their leaves one by one.
Plick. Plick. The meal was a basil eggplant pepper pasta, tasty and filling.
And worthy of the basil plants.
The living room seems bare now. No plants lining the sills
and no Gertrude near the balocony door. Gideon is missing again – probably
searching out the newest best corner. And I’m not sure if I’m going to name the
only remaining occupant; after all, hunting spiders don’t eat mosquitoes.
on her invisible web, plump from mosquito season.