HIVES, HORNETS, HURRICANES“Please allow me my PTSD.” One of my favorite storm comments comes from former colleague Tamara Fish in response to someone’s dismissal of Harvey, “It’s only water. . . . .” Not only Harvey but my friend’s feelings were invalidated because she had already experienced water intrusion in Houston’s previous floods, and the waiting, watching, wading game is no fun.
You don’t know until you’ve been there, and after this hurricane season, a lot more people will know.
I started NOLA DIASPORA as a last-ditch effort to stay in the field when I found myself for many years after Katrina and the levee break trying to get by, just trying to cope, and completely blocked from writing. The journal, a forum both for those who had recovered sufficiently to speak out and for those who could articulate anything—at any stage of recovery, was my small tribute.
Without writing, gardening became my only outlet. As Joyce Zonana pointed out in our first issue, (to me, as well as readers), my intensive gardening effort along the banks of the Appomattox was an attempt to heal the earth as I attempted to heal. As I removed invasives and restored native plants to the river bank, I felt a sense of satisfaction and a sense of accomplishment. Plan, dig, place, plant, water, tend. Watch, wait, and repeat.
I learned a lot about the climate, topography, and soil of central Virginia--all very different from that of the Gulf South. Studying and gardening were slow processes that brought some successes. Northern sea oats, chokeberry, elderberry, mountain mint, paw paws and sassafras came back to the burn-cleared land on their own. Bloodroot, May apple, and Trout lily reappeared when the choke-hold of English Ivy was lessened. I added Witch-hazel, Beauty berry, Henry Garnet sweetspire, forsythia, Booby bush, and Flame azalea.
There were also failures. I lost a contorted filbert and a Richmond cherry. Winterberry failed to establish. A local nursery sold me a Long-leaf pine infected with scale. My native persimmon is still recovering from being struck first by a neighbor’s falling tree limb and then by an escaped landscape timber, and my cucumber magnolia has not grown an inch in four years. It has had increased foliage each year, so maybe it’s debating what to do, or maybe it will have an adolescent growth spurt.
I have a Bay Magnolia that has lived in a pot through the past two summers because of an ironic turn of events. The gardening that was my recourse has been mostly impossible since a fall in May 2016. I have had mobility trouble with my right leg and femoral nerve pain since then. Walking and sitting are painful; working in the yard, out of the question.
So I have watched a lot of loss. Last year, Japanese stilt grass covered the backyard and the hillside. This year, it has spread and thickened, and Mimosa trees have joined the onslaught, coming in colonies into my front and side yard. Native stinging nettle has swept in with a vengeance, much like stereotypical witches on broomsticks.
My property is not a pretty sight, and this summer has been consumed with dealing with these and other plagues. First, there were the three dead trees that fell—and not all at the same time—from my neighbor’s yard into mine, striking a staircase and a footbridge. Why they fell sideways instead of downhill remains a mystery.
Then there was the second plague of skin rash that started late one night on my torso and marched down my legs military-style over the next several days. I went through an entire bottle of clear nail polish and an entire bottle of Tee Tree Oil along with oatmeal dressings, clay poultices, and ice compresses to try and stop the relentless itch.
The rash prickled most at night. Not knowing whether it was caused by red bugs, ticks, fleas, bed bugs, poison ivy, or a food allergy, I washed my bed linens, pillows, and mattress pad. I washed them all repeatedly in hot water, running up my electric and water bills. I doused the yard with diatomaceous earth and my dogs with herbal flea and tick repellent. I combed them with flea combs twice daily without ever finding dust or a single flea.
Whatever it was was still not showing.
After a week, I went to a doctor who diagnosed poison ivy, although he admitted the malady lacked the blisters that usually characterize it. Somewhat reassured, I bought Rhus tox and finally started sleeping.
Then came a third plague: European hornets, large and aggressive. (My Chihuahua was stung by one six years ago. The veterinarian said the sting was as harmful to the small dog as the snake bite I had first suspected of laming his leg; so in our house, both canine and human fear the species.) The first hornet flew in around 9:30 one Sunday evening. I tried opening the upstairs door to let it out. When that failed, I trapped it in the bathroom while I hunted for my flyswatter. When I finally prevailed, it seemed the hive sent scouts—two more to be exact--in search of their compatriot.
I didn’t sleep at all. Such visitations happened almost every night for a week, until I could no longer think it was random; and I decided to figure out where the hornets were coming from and why. Attracted to light, they were coming at bedtime, when I switched on the overhead fixture with three sixty-watt bulbs.
Some nights I could lure them out and shut them out; other nights the stand-off ended badly for the creatures, but it could have gone the other way. Trying to corner and kill a large hornet in a small space is a complicated and time-consuming task.
Finally, the brave (and handsome) landscaper who had mowed the slope in my back yard and installed a gravel driveway in the front agreed to come back and help. He determined that the hornets were nesting in the exterior cinder block walls and spent an hour spraying them with precise streams of poison from a black aerosol can that guaranteed a twenty-seven foot reach. (This part was kind of fun and made the ordeal feel like an Alien parody—especially when he plugged the hole with silly putty.)
After a one-week respite, the hornets returned. This time, to guarantee safe sleep, I moved my mattress from the open loft to the study downstairs, a room with a door, an added layer of protection. However, that very night the rash started again. I panicked. The doctor had to have been wrong. This had to be bugs. To be safe, I threw out sheets, mattress pad, and pillows, and I applied diatomaceous earth to the mattress itself and left it for several days. During that time period, I used a sleeping bag and flashlight, and I combed the dogs until they avoided me.
It was exhausting. Finally, I figured out that there was another patch of missing mortar and that the hornets had rebuilt their nest. For an entire weekend, I watched that hole and sprayed my own foamy white chem-trail at every hornet—going or coming. I even saw the final four as they exited, conferred to the right of the opening, and agreed to abandon ship. I knew that I had eradicated them, and I was relieved. Nothing like Ender’s Game. My handy-rescuer came back, saw the number of dead hornets on the ground, and plugged the second hole.
Finally, I had time to research the rash. Why? Because it came back a third time, and reasoning prevailed over panic. Nothing could be in the house after my rampaging cleanse. It had to be caused by something in the yard.
Weeding, the light duty I had settled upon as a compromise for honoring my injury but not neglecting the landscape, provided the timeframe: Three times I had made such forays: down by the river, on the upper slope, by the side of the house. Stinging nettle was the only constant in each of those locations. While Rhus tox had helped, Urtica urens, the homeopathic remedy made from this nettle, worked better. (You can bet that I am stocked up now and that I am also wearing long sleeves and gloves no matter how hot it is.)
The most painful of my summer mysteries are solved, and these events have taught me something. They have not dimmed my enthusiasm for gardening or for nature, but they have made me more understanding of my friends who do see a split between the built human world and the natural environment, even those who see that as an unfriendly divide and routinely spray when—or even before—they first see caterpillars and other insects in the spring.
I did not rest well for all of July and August, and I got pretty absorbed by my little problems and discomfort. I have no idea if there is a deeper lesson. Gaining a bit more compassion is enough. Laughing at my attempts to read natural events as signs and portents and to anthropomorphize nature are delicious lagniappe. By the end of August, it was over. All’s well that ends well.
My summer siege ended just as school started and the 2017 hurricane season ramped up. Analysts note how Harvey and Irma triggered PTSD symptoms in many people affected by Katrina and the levee break. This fall does seem like a siege of storms, and I have been visibly, both to myself and to my friends, affected: shaken and sad, sleepless once again. So allow us our PTSD, but please also help us all find ways to pay back and pay forward all the good that still surrounds us, all the kindness and brightness of our world.
This issue was initially planned as a tribute to friend, colleague, and outgoing editor Jim Capozzi. In his honor, the team decided to make it an all poetry issue; and when the majority of submissions came in from male writers, we decided to feature an all-male co-hort. (That decision marks another lesson for me because I had originally designed the journal as an all-female project, and friends had coaxed me into expanding its focus.) Thus, I am extra-delighted that we are sharing the work of great poets and great people, James Capozzi, now in New Jersey, Brad Richards and Dennis Formento, both from New Orleans, and Harvey L. Hix of Wyoming. I believe that readers will appreciate the range and variety of their verse.
I do want to note that poet Annie Rudy is replacing Jim as an editor—and that we are thrilled that she has joined us, and that the social media journals of Tamara Fish (Harvey/Houston) and Susan Dauer (Irma/Orlando)—which include both illustrations and written updates—are featured in our ARTSPACE.
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