Living Room Drama
Margaret, January 20, 2004

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 grew colder.

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 simple goodbye.

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.

Getrude resting on her invisible web, plump from mosquito season.