January 2014

Practical jokes

By David Feela

In the middle of the night I woke to a snickering outside my bedroom window. I lay very still, listening, ransacking my brain for an idea of who might be out there, about to play a trick on me. Then I smelled it, the distinct odor of fresh excrement, then the snickering again.

I reached for my flashlight and slipped out of bed. With one hand I yanked the curtain aside and with the other I flipped on the switch. The beam caught the glittering eyes of two intruders staring back at me.

Raccoons in my olive tree.

I still don’t know why they raised such a ruckus. In that spot where the greatest limbs converge about five feet off the ground, I habitually find a mound of pooh. It accumulates until I decide to blast it loose with the garden hose, careful to stand clear of the splatter. This has been going on for quite some time, though I had never until this night caught the raccoons in the act.

It’s a giant Russian olive, maybe 50 years old, spreading a canopy of branches over my front yard. When I stand back to look at it I sigh, because the Russian olive is considered a trash tree, an invasive species that along with the tamarisk, thrives beside riparian corridors and is slated for extermination in many regions of the West. This particular tree, however, is gorgeous, a stunning example of how maturity translates into good looks. How it survived for half a century in what is now my front yard is beyond me. Literally. Its roots must be stealing water from my neighbor’s cow pond.

In late summer when the tree is laden with olives, the limbs are alive, bouncing to a bird rhythm as squadrons of feathers land in the branches and rip the ripe fruit loose. The lawn suffers, littered with the residue of their enthusiasm – the olives that fall, and of course, the bird poop, whitewashing the nearby fence posts and spattering the lilac leaves.

The olives themselves are pitiful specimens, a misnomer for what we normally think of as companions to the martini. Mine are about the size of lima beans, and bitter as turpentine, hard seed casings, but the tree has found its niche. Once established, Russian olives can eke out a living nearly anywhere in the arid West. Squirrels gather and store the seeds. Birds, blackbirds especially, devour them, though the experts claim there is little evidence to support the conclusion that multiple bird species depend on the fruit. Hardly the makings of an endangered anything. And I don’t think the tree’s status will be updated if I add to the scientific record that raccoons eat the olives too, a wildlife fact for which I have irrefutable poop.

If the Russian olive wasn’t so aggressive, crowding out the cottonwoods, willows, and other native vegetation, sometimes even obstructing our irrigation ditches, it might be cultivated for its benefits. When it was imported to this country in the early 1900s, ranchers tried to employ the tree to curb erosion and deploy it as a windbreak in every wide-open space. So much for the fortunes of time. Now I keep one tree standing as a year-round habitat toilet. I can’t think of any other use to justify its existence.

Of course, I can’t think of any reason for most of the improbable metropolitan drainages like L.A., Phoenix, or Las Vegas to exist in such a barren and inhospitable climate as the West, but sure enough, they do. And they thrive, just like the Russian olive. The roads like roots supply the core with nutrients, the municipalities with their utilities grow thicker and tap into the water supplies, damming and diverting the precious liquid we depend on to produce our fruit.

The process repeats itself, our edifices going so far as to choke out much of the natural vegetation, and civilization emerges to shape its own little monument. So as not to gloss over the obvious, let me just say this: not everything we create is a marvel to look at.

History is digestion.

All of the silvery leaves of my Russian olive which yellowed have been scattered by this time of year, its thorny limbs stripped and bare, but for raccoons, it seems the night contains more than enough privacy. I don’t even provide toilet paper, but still, the raccoons show up. Habit is, after all, how habitat begins.

David Feela, an award-winning poet, essayist and author, writes from Montezuma County, Colo. See more of his works at http://feelasophy.weebly. com/.