The Village Idiot: In the Woodpile

by John Hopkins

On a chilly afternoon last winter I was bringing wood into the house when I was startled to see a long, thin, black animal darting out of the woodpile outside the house and make a feverish beeline for the river. It was too big to be a squirrel, and based on its size, and the direction it was heading, I surmised it must have been a mink or an otter. Whatever it was, I had obviously disturbed its winter nesting spot, and I felt a little sorry to have disrupted a quiet, Sunday afternoon for this little creature.

Little did I realize that as soon as I stacked firewood outside our house I was essentially constructing a condominium complex for our neighbourhood wildlife. But really, I shouldn’t have been surprised. After all, what could be more appealing in the chill of winter than establishing a seasonal home in a warm, dark, quiet stack of wood. That is, until the builder starts tearing down your condo piece by piece.

As we had some wood left over from the past winter, I found that certain creatures also enjoy the comforts and convenience of a woodpile in summer as well, in particular large black spiders. When I was a kid we called them dock spiders, and they had an amazing ability to spoil a perfectly good summer’s day by the water.

Our 22-year-old niece Haley first alerted us to the presence of dock spiders in the wood pile when she was visiting us in July. After retrieving some fishing equipment from our porch she informed us that there was a “very large spider” perched on the side of the house, beside the left over firewood. I was not terribly alarmed, as Haley has quite an aversion to spiders of any size, which is ironic as she has travelled through Africa and Asia over the past few years and probably come in close proximity of jungle creatures that would make my skin crawl. Yet, she refuses to open a screen door that has a Daddy Long Legs clinging to it – we all have our anxieties…

So, with Haley’s aversion to spiders in mind I calmly walked up to the house to see what “horrendous” creature had caused her alarm. What followed was a scene reminiscent of the movie Annie Hall, when Woody Allen visits his ex-girlfriend’s apartment to kill a seemingly harmless spider in the bathroom with a magazine – “Darling, I’ve been killing spiders since I was 30” – only to find out the job requires a little more artillery, and chooses a tennis racquet, leading to the classic line, “Honey, there’s a spider in your bathroom the size of a Buick.”

Yes, the spider by our woodpile was a little larger than I had anticipated and Haley’s misgivings were truly justified.

In winter, the creatures in the woodpile are not as unpleasant as dock spiders, and the inconveniences are somewhat different. To be fair, I probably should have been aware of the presence of visitors before my encounter with the mink or otter that January afternoon I mentioned above. For one thing, there was the spike in my internet data usage around the middle of November. At first it was fairly easy to explain – with the shorter days and cooler weather we were inside more and watching TV – but I noticed the wifi usage was high even on days we were away.

Then there was the satellite dish mounted to the side of the house and the late night pizza deliveries. And the garbage! I came outside one Sunday morning to find chip bags, pop cans and peanut shells scattered all over the porch, and a squirrel passed out sitting upright against a fence post, with three empty root beer cans crumpled beside him. On another occasion we were awakened to a chorus of chipmunks, leaning groggily on each other’s shoulders belting out “Louie, Louie” over and over.

I don’t think I would have minded so much if we would at least have been invited to one of these parties. I mean, that’s rule one of having a neighbourhood shindig, right? You invite the neighbours. But not us. On Super Bowl Sunday all manner of beaver, chipmunk, squirrel and rabbit came hopping and running over to the woodpile condo armed with chicken wings, potato skins, battered shrimp and cream soda, but Nancy and I were left to sit in our lonely house and listen to the hooting and hollering going on outside our front door. I think even our two cats were invited out to the woodpile, but discretely chose not to attend and further embarrass us. At least there is some loyalty left in the world.

Looking back on it now, I’m not so sure that skinny black creature I sent scurrying off to the river last winter wasn’t so much running for shelter so much as grabbing some more refreshments before the second half kick-off.

I’ve just about had it with these party animals.