The home improvement task I enjoy the most is probably the least important thing we have to do on our new old house right now, and that’s painting. I really like painting. I like the way color transforms space. Sadly, I have very little artistic ability, but luckily painting a room requires no understanding of perspective or composition or the subtle intricacies of the color wheel. Basically you pick a hue and go. Even at that, it took me nearly an hour to choose the perfect shade of neutral for the first room I took on. The paint I selected looked so smooth and luscious, like crème anglaise. Good thing it had that off-putting painty smell or I might have gotten myself a bowl and spoon.
No, painting a room is not going to keep the house from falling apart, but it is something that needs to be done, and it’s something I can do. Electricity, plumbing, stuff on the roof, stuff in the crawlspace, and anything requiring heavy lifting—not so much my areas, but I’m helping the best I can. The house won’t fix itself. It is tempting, when K and I gripe about aching backs and arthritic hands, like we’ve aged 30 years in the past month, to say things like “Eh, do we really need gutters on the roof? Does it honestly matter that there’s only one grounded outlet in the whole house? Would it seriously be a problem if we never fixed those broken windows that are letting all the heat out? Spring is right around the corner!”
Of course we know the answers to those questions. Stuff’s gotta get done, and that includes even the little things—which usually end up being not so little. In order to paint that room, I had to make sure the walls really were walls and not just Jenga-like structures of lath and plaster that would crumble the second I applied the roller. Everything matters, everything’s connected, and everything you do is certain to get you dirty.
Ah, the dirt. We shower, we shampoo, we deodorize and disinfect, we live as best we can in a pristine denial, but a new old farmhouse is the perfect way to remind you that filth is a universal constant. Case in point, we have a bit of a mouse problem at the moment. At one point K started to put on his work gloves only to find a dried grain of corn carefully stashed in one of the fingers. Clearly some critter was using it as a sleeping bag with built-in holders for midnight snacks. I’ve seen the little things scurrying about when I pick up dead branches in the yard; they’re cute and seemingly innocuous, but poop from cute things is still poop, and when it’s in your kitchen or your clothes, it’s not exactly adorable.
Still, it’s not terribly surprising to find vermin in a farmhouse in the countryside. I’d be considerably more horrified if I’d ever discovered evidence of rodent life in my condo downtown. In a city, even a modest one like the college town from which we are moving, it’s a lot easier to forget about the natural world, to think of it as this sort of fringe element that occasionally threatens the human world in the form of icky bugs or Canada geese. (Say, when are we starting construction on the wall between Canada and the U.S.? Those damn geese are out of control, I tell you.) Away from the city, even though the parcels of land are strictly gridded and the visible plant life is almost entirely there for mass consumption, it still becomes very clear at some point that we humans are the outsiders. The so-called “vermin” and “weeds” actually belong here; we don’t.
And yet we are here, and fringe element or not, we unquestionably impact the natural world. Equally unquestionable, unless you’re into denying uncomfortable facts (and that does seem to be a thing these days), that impact is often damaging, and the damage is often irreversible. Species have gone extinct because of us. Yes, species have gone extinct not because of us, but if a terrible thing happens that isn’t your fault, I really don’t think it nullifies the terrible thing that is your fault, that you could have prevented. There have been instances within my lifetime where a particular species got down to single digits—that is, you could count on your fingers the number of these animals left in the entire world. If that isn’t terrifying to you, well, think of there being only 7 pizzas left in the world, 5 donuts, 4 beers. When those are gone, what the hell are we going to have for breakfast? (Hey, don’t judge.)
I could try to tell you the ecological importance of making sure we don’t wipe any more species off the planet as much as we can help it, but I have a feeling I’d either be preaching to the choir or singing gospel to people with fingers in their ears. You either think this is important or you don’t. If you don’t, and you’re still reading, well, thanks I guess, and, um, bye. If you do care, make sure you pay attention to any buzz involving the Endangered Species Act. This Act was signed into law by President Nixon in 1973—yeah, Nixon, so let’s not turn this into a bipartisan thing because as far as I’m concerned it doesn’t matter if you lean left or right or upside down. This is something many of us can agree upon, and do something about, and do right by the natural world—which, in case you’ve forgotten because you’ve come to see nature as something gross that poops all over the place, we are in fact part of.
I know there’s kind of a lot going on politically right now. I know it can be overwhelming. I also know that what I’ve discussed here isn’t just a superficial matter of saving cute animals. Saving a wolf or a bird is not the equivalent of putting a pretty coat of paint over the more serious issues in the world; if I may continue the admittedly stretched new old house analogy, it’s part of the foundation of life on earth.