Wednesday, June 01, 2005

Cultural notes: Three years of substandard living

Before my wife and I bought the house I now own and live in, we lived in a shack in the same general vicinity as our present house, but perilously close to Onion Creek, which floods dramatically and often. FEMA flood plain maps used to show 100-year flood plain contours, and the boundaries of the 25-year flood plain--but this was in what you would have to call the one-year flood plain.

We lived in the shack to recover financially from bad investments and worse personal money management. The shack, which was tiny and out of plumb and whose roof leaked, and which was in perpetual danger of being carried off by floodwaters, along with its contents and occupants, was offered to us essentially free. So we took it.

We rented out our house in town--which we later sold--and moved to what was then the country. We lived there three years. Our finances healed. We loved it there. Life was primitive and we were happy. We had no air conditioning in the hot Texas summer, and we had only a butane wall heater that heated two rooms of the four, for cold weather. The house had no insulation at all, as far as I could tell. The coldest winter that Austin had had in a quarter of a century froze our houseplants inside the house, and the water in the dogbowl in the kitchen, though we had the wall heater and the kitchen stove burning all night. We had two major floods, and a third the day we moved out, in the nick of time. The first flood Kay was at home and called me at work saying she realized the water was rising when she saw something moving down by the creek, she couldn't make out what it was but it scared her, it seemed like a big powerful muddy animal moving and heaving in the creekbottom brush and then she knew it was the creek itself.

But the floods were exciting. And living on the creek was beautiful. We had a big shady porch overlooking the pecan bottom. Onion creek rises in the limestone hills west of Austin. In its middle course it is a clear, cool stream flowing over white rocks shaded by big baldcypress trees. On our side of the creek was a wild pecan grove, with old, tall native nut trees. On the other side of the creek was a 100 foot cliff of eroding gray and yellow late-cretaceous chalk with ammonites eroding out, and occasional mosasaur bones. Our house sat 100 yards from the creek on a small rise overlooking a field of weeds between us and the line of pecan trees.

Crows would drift down the creek in the mornings cawing loudly, flapping only when forced to by the imminence of aerodynamic stall, a ragged and insoucient manner of flight, birds with attitude. The great blue herons would fly slowly along the creek in the mornings also, with a kind of powerful sucking lift to their wide and curved wings. A meadow a quarter mile down the creek always had a morning mist hanging over it, a local and mysterious meteorological regularity. Our house was in a grove of small, hard-looking, wild Mexican persimmon trees, that have smooth bark like a crape myrtle, but white. In another post I have mentioned the marble sized fruits that contain a substance like a partially coagulated black paint which is edible and mildly sweet but ruinous to your social acceptability if it gets on your face or your clothes.

The horses on the 12 acres had eaten everything palatable leaving only high and vigorous stands of broom snakeweed, thistle poppy, false ragweed, camphor weed, with ropes of coyote gourd running along the ground. When I would go out to go up to the gate to get the newspaper it was usually before sunrise, and the head-bobbing curious horses would come looming up to me out of the dark, checking to see if I had a bucket of feed.

One summer two of the horses died of colic, nearly grown colts that did not have the sense not to eat the dried stubble of some mowed weeds. One keeled over and died in a couple of minutes as the woman who lives next door watched. I am told she tried to resuscitate it. She had no success. Since she was seemingly grief-stricken over the event, I did not ask her how you apply CPR to a horse. The horse had to be buried with the help of a tractor.

The other horse went missing a couple of days later. It was a bad time for horses, for some reason. We walked over the property, but couldn’t find the horse. Maybe it got out. We alerted neighbors to look out for it.
We had some friends over and one of them asked suddenly "What the hell is that?" I looked up and saw a turkey vulture, looking enormous, glide by six feet outside the window.

"One of the horses died" I said to our guest, "And we got this neighbor kid with a tractor with a blade on it to come over and scrape out a hole deep enough for it and cover it up. I guess the buzzard can smell it." Turkey vultures, unlike black vultures, have the ability to smell.

My guest accepted this explanation.

About 30 minutes later, it dawned on me that the dead horse was completely buried, and you couldn't smell anything even if you were standing on top of the grave mound. And the buzzard was circling here, not down by the creek where the horse grave is. So there must be something dead.... around here.

"Goddammit!" I concluded at the end of this bit of belated chain of logic.

I walked out the back door and pushed into a dense and thorny thicket of chittamwood (usually now called bumelia, owing to the intractable problem of pronouncing the older name in way acceptable to churchgoers) west of the house and sure enough, about 200 feet away by the fence, found the missing horse, very defunct, inflated like a 600 pound leather beach ball with legs.

The kid with the tractor had had his fill of burying horses, so it turned out to be a lot harder to get rid of the second dead horse. The ground where it lay was too rocky to dig a hole without dynamite, so our neighbor Alan found 5 illegal aliens who had a pickup truck to haul it away to who knows where for a hundred dollars. But when they came they said the horse was _way_ too far gone.

"Not for no hundred dolares." they said. "No es suficiente."

They were adamant, and drove away without further bargaining. Alan, who owned a cabinet-making shop, had a huge pile of scrap lumber behind it. So after first hauling the carcass a short distance to a clearing with his own pickup and an expendable rope, he spent the afternoon piling up his scrap wood and dead branches from the creek bottom over the horse, and on Saturday morning he set the crematory pyre alight as I stood on our porch and watched while the great bonfire crackled and roared and sent a column of black smoke high into the air, like we were burning a stack of tires. It made a terrible stench, and it basically did not work.

We were left with a charred horse skeleton, gruesome and hard to explain to visitors. But it seemed to add to the ambience, as far as our friends were concerned, as if horse cremation were now an accepted part of our quaint country lifeways. After that we had even more friends from town coming out to visit on weekends, bringing their children, to learn about life without air conditioning.

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