This fall I’ve found myself in the Midwest, taking a break from the cold of Alaska, working as a hospitality person for a place I’m going to refer to as Angevin Hunting Lodge. I got here around the end of September, where the high temperatures were peaking in the 80s and 90s. Most days it was even warm first thing in the morning, and it has rained exactly two days in the three weeks I’ve been here. The climate has definitely been a welcome change from dealing with rain and cold most of the summer in Alaska - I’ve seen warmer temperatures here in the past three weeks than I have in the past five years.
The staff house is near a small riparian corridor where a seasonally intermittent creek flows for part of the year. Right now, its home to a series of scummy looking ponds with marshy areas in between, loosely bounded by creek banks. It seems like the only place on the property that’s wet enough to allow trees to grow, and it seems to be a huge wildlife magnet. I’ve seen white-tailed deer down there, as well as foxes, rabbits, wild turkeys, pheasants and a grab bag of smaller birds, including red-tailed hawks and harriers. There's also a beaver dam, which accounts for some of the ponds, and I've seen recent evidence of their handiwork on several freshly gnawed trees, but haven't seen the beavers yet myself. The rest of the property is a mix of open grassland and planted crops - mostly corn and beans, and also full of birds, and Old-Testament Plague numbers of insects, mostly flies and grasshoppers. Since Angevin is a hunting lodge, I haven’t been able to explore much of the rest of the property for fear of being mistaken for a game animal, but going by the creek bottom has become part of my daily walk to and from work.
There is very little artificial light here, and most nights are clear. The most prominent landmarks after dark are the cell phone towers, which are all topped with a bright red light, and they can be seem from miles and miles away. I actually got up in the morning to see the lunar eclipse a few days ago, which is the first time I’ve been able to see something like that since college - clear, dark skies not generally being a feature of Alaskan summers. Often I use my headlamp when I’m walking back to the staff house after evening shifts, and I’ve seen a lot of cool wildlife on those walks. Mostly I just see a speck of eye-shine that blinks and disappears in pretty short order. I’ve been inadvertently headlamping a lot of deer this way. Also, rabbits are never scarier than when six of them are running pell-mell towards you out of nowhere because they’re disoriented by your light.
I’ve also taken to jogging around some of the farm tracks in the immediate area - whenever I can time it so that I am doing so around guest dinner - a pretty safe bet that no one is still going to be out hunting at that hour. I discovered that if I get off of the most heavily used farm tracks, parts of the property are covered with sand burrs. The burrs around here are not screwing around - these are serious darned burrs. The first time I got covered, I made the mistake of trying to pick them off with my fingers. They hurt; and I got a few spikes that broke of inside my finger for the trouble. I pulled the rest of them off with tweezers when I got back to the house. I’ve taken to carrying the tweezers with me when I run now, so that I can deal with them as needed while I’m out.
It’s also very windy here - gusty enough that the wind could legitimately knock you over if you weren’t paying attention. One warning you get is that you can hear the wind in the grass get louder a few seconds before a big gust moves in. The terrain in some ways reminds me of the ocean - big, gentle rolling hills, like someone had taken a sea full of big, glassy, forty-foot waves and frozen it, and then planted grass.
I was here for a week at Angevin before the guests arrived, and the first few days at work was a lot of deep cleaning, getting things ready for the guests to arrive. There is a huge fireplace in the main room that is absolutely covered with taxidermied animals and mounted heads - deer, elk, bears, coyote, pheasants. Most of them look pretty impressive - except for one animal that I think must be a badger, that’s been set with a snarling, distinctly un-badger-like look on its face. Like whoever was mounting it really wanted to be working on a bear instead. There’s also one deer that was mounted with its ears in a weird pose - sticking straight out from each side, with an open-mouthed look that I more associate with long-eared dogs sticking their heads out of moving car windows. Otherwise, they look pretty classy. And covered with cobwebs. So I spent an hour with a dusting cloth on a pole, swatting away at the antlers and ears. Some of them were pretty high up, and I have absolutely no idea how they’re attached to the wall, except that they seemed to be swinging around a lot while I was working. I kept picturing in my mind the headline if one of the elk heads fell off the wall and gored me as I was cleaning it - Trophy Animal’s Last Revenge?
The rest of the time was spent vacuuming, mopping, and rubbing wood polish on every piece of wood-furniture in the place. And waging an on-again, off-again war of attrition against the local insect population.
The first week I got here, I was sweeping between 80-100 dead flies out of the staff house every single day. Thankfully the population of insects seems to have diminished with the cooler temperatures, but I estimate that I personally have vacuumed, swept, dusted, mopped, or squashed into oblivion between 1500-2000 dead flies in the past month. At least they don’t bite, which is an advantage they have against the mosquitoes. There seem to be way more dead flies in the house than live ones, and the overall population of live flies never seems to diminish. In addition to being sort of creepy, this raises all sorts of questions about their replacement rate. Is 80-100 the number of flies that are entering the house daily? Are they breeding inside? Where were today’s crop of dead flies yesterday? Were they already inside buzzing around? If so, why didn’t I notice some huge fly horde migrating through the house? Why do they always want to die on the windowsill in the kitchen?
I’m beginning to understand why people in the Middle Ages thought that flies were born via spontaneously arising from rotting meat. I really don’t see another explanation.
Going through the guest rooms a few days before the first clients were arriving, I found a small army of wasps in one of the downstairs rooms. They were all hanging out in between the window and the window blind, so I didn’t actually see them until I’d left the room and saw them all crawling around. Can 12 wasps count as an army? Maybe a brigade. Or a division? Certainly 12 wasps can comprise a wasp SEAL team. The were enough in there that I worry their presence is going to be a persistent issue until we identify and block up their exit. Girl who’s faced down bears afraid of a two inch flying insect? Oh yes.
The day before the guests arrived, I went through all of the guest rooms with another housekeeper and did some last-minute cleaning - including taking on all the wasps. It would not have been possible if the weather was any hotter - it was cool the night before and the wasps were not moving too fast. They were all congregated around the windows and doors. They kept falling out of the window frames as I moved the curtains around and I just hoovered them up as fast as I could. At the end of the day, we had two vacuums filled with angry, pissed-off, wide-awake live wasps. The dust bag on one of the vacuums was see-through, so we got a rather disturbing view of what they were all doing in there, which was mostly crawling all over the place looking angry. World’s Most Disturbing Terrarium. It was very red in tooth and claw in there, and we had no idea how to empty out the vacuum bags without precipitating a mass escape. Eventually, we left the vacuums sitting in the walk-in fridge for a few hours, figuring that if the cold didn’t kill them outright, it would at least slow them down enough that we could deal with them before they attached en masse.
When we got the vacuums out, the wasps were motionless, which was good because we ended up accidentally dumping out the entire contents of one of the vacuums on the floor of the downstairs hallway while trying to figure out how to empty out the Little Vacuum Bag of Horrors. (It was a Dyson - they’re great vacuums, but they are super confusing to operate sometimes.) We ended up using the second vacuum to suck everything back up, and then emptied it out, again.
The wasps are also a feature of life in the staff house. There are at least fewer of them in there, but the vacuum we have doesn’t have enough suction to suck them out of the air like the Dyson at Angevin Lodge, so I’ve mostly left them alone. The wasps have for their part returned the favor - except, apparently, when I cook orange food for lunch. I’ve heard about bees being attracted to the color blue, and I know that the color red can set off seagulls like you were waving a cape at a bull, but I’ve never heard of wasps having anything similar.
I heated up a bowl of tomato soup a few days ago, together with a side of baby carrots and a glass of orange juice. I put the plate down on the kitchen table. Immediately, a wasp comes zipping out of the crack at the top of the windowsill, and starts circling my food, apparently enraptured by all these orange things. I swatted at him a few times, which did nothing to get him to leave. Eventually, I just grabbed the plate and ran outside, hoping he would content himself with the orange juice and let me eat my food. At least outside its generally windy enough that the bugs have to lie low.
The staff house is interesting in other ways as well. For instance, there are two mounted heads in my room - a deer head and a set of caribou antlers. I almost moved rooms to begin with because I found the deer head was creepy - especially waking up with him looking at me - but I’ve sort of gotten used to it. I’m still tempted to use the mounts as towel ‘racks’ every time I come back from the shower…