Wildlife in the Home

by Ianto Evans

from The Hand-Sculpted House

In the villages where I lived in Africa, the boundaries between house and farm and wild places were fairly arbitrary. My neighbors' houses always seemed alive with an odd menagerie of humans, farm animals, and wildlife. The plants that grew in their compounds were often those of the surrounding forest, and sometimes these plants grew inside their houses too. It wasn't at all unusual to share a house with pigs, monkeys, songbirds, and bats. All of them trotted and fluttered and swung in and out at will, as did neighbors and family, so that it was impossible to distinguish what was intentional and what was just tolerated. In general, the householders seemed to enjoy their interspecies visitors, and after several months I realized that they directly accommodated both the domestic and the wild through the design of their buildings and yards and by daily management.

Why would anyone want bats in their bedroom or guinea pigs in the kitchen? Well, bats eat mosquitoes, in huge quantities; guinea pigs are living composters, snatching up vegetable scraps on the floor and making meat and fertilizer. Additionally, chickens in your house eat ticks that carry fever; snakes eat mice; and toads gobble up flies, moths, and beetles. Not to mention the cricket in the hearth, birds singing, the scent of wild herbs, or the reminders of seasonal change that deciduous plants or hibernators bring. Our own ancestors knew these truths -- in medieval England and the colonial United States, the house itself was a balanced ecosystem of many species, each regulating and supporting the others.

In the overdeveloped nations we have suffered more than a century of being sanitized. The purveyors of soaps and disinfectants and the giant cleaning industry that sprang up in the 19th century conspired to persuade our grandparents to banish all signs of life from their homes.

We still carry residues of their attitude that a house is a tightly controlled territory where all visitors, human and otherwise, must be carefully selected. We feel that Nature and houses are mutually incompatible, that the perils of wildness must at all cost be kept at bay. Even domestic animals are more often prisoners than guests, and wildlife of any kind is expelled, or worse, executed without trial. Nature, increasingly, is something distant that you drive to see on the weekend, becoming significant only when we photograph it and only catching our attention if it's big.

For those of us who are trying to build with Nature, are there ways we can welcome wildlife, both plants and animals, into our daily lives? Nature needs no persuading; she is ready to occupy every available niche, immediately, no matter how humanized it seems. We don't need to "attract" wild things; merely removing barriers ensures they will move in and live with us, a daily wonder and joy in our more and more mechanical world.

The cottage I live in is an example of my own changing attitudes. Slowly coming to terms with the animals in my house, I learned to like them all for who they are, while struggling through a personal need for control. Now I open my house and heart, enjoy them for themselves, valued neighbors who were here before me, whose tribe hunted the nooks and crannies of the earth long before humans ran upright. They close the circle of life and death, remind me of my own mortality, and by comparison reinforce my humanity.

Soon it will be evening. The bats who live in my roof will remind me that it's summer by squeezing out of the eave cracks and hunting down mosquitoes. They're tame, and if I whistle in a high monotone, they come to make sure it's really me, tumbling within a foot of my face, saying bat greetings I can't hear. The open door invites them in, and most nights a furry presence flutters in, flitting around the room so fast I can hardly follow, and is gone. Mosquito patrol done for the night.

We have no fly screens. Not that there aren't flies; there are plenty, but the spiders get them. Nature is at once profligate and precisely economical, siting her flytraps with exquisite care just where they will be most effective. Daily I watch the struggles of hornets, yellow jackets, and houseflies, as a spider rolls and tucks, gift-wrapping her catches for eating at leisure, later. Every night when I leave the door open, a skunk comes by. He's a wily little fellow with spots and beady eyes, and he knocks the floor as he searches methodically about the room. Over the years we've learned to hide eggs or he'll eat them up, so now he comes to check on what else we have. Next comes a house mouse, good, with sounds of careful chewing, then of cleaning up the floor, crumbs, seeds, anything left around.

There's a gopher snake who comes in sometimes, sliding silently over my bare foot as I sit at the open door. He's very thorough, working his systematic way around the corners of the room, looking for an opening. Here's a knothole; in he goes, all four feet of him, inching into the wall cavity. He'll be in there for hours, checking for mouse nests, termites, mud-wasps, anything to swallow.

We've come a little further than bird feeders and potted plants, not stopping at the cute, the warm, or the furry. Now there are microponds in the garden to support frogs and garter snakes, tangles of uncut grass for the praying mantis. We've dug holes, made wet places, heaped brush piles for the birds to nest in.

But, I am asked, what about them Getting Out of Control? Look at it this way: like all biological control, the key is in understanding habitat. If you don't want cockroaches, don't feed them; if termites are eating your foundation, examine the drainage -- termites dislike dry wood.

Encouraging other life-forms is more than just biological control. There are more profound reasons for associating ourselves with nonhuman life. As cotravelers we all evolved together, we codepended for our existence on many levels, some quite unexpected. Some wild animals seem to seek out human fellowship, while in some places humans eat dogs. Once a friend watched a fox with a young bear hunting together and playing in the rain. Most significantly, other species provide lenses through which we see the world differently. The organisms around us are continuously aware, not merely through their own senses but by being plugged in to the collective sensitivities of whole ecosystems. For us humans, this is a reservior of information background that enriches our lives and may in fact be essential to maintaining our sanity.

Without sanctimony, I would label our need to co-associate as a spiritual need: the undefinable satisfaction we get from petting a cat, watching a spider spinning a web, growing out seeds on the kitchen windowsill, or hearing the first songbird in spring.

We now know three truths about the direction of Universe, three basal laws that govern everything. First, that the Universe constantly diversifies; second, that each thing is unique and cannot be replicated; and third, that communication develops wherever possible. Nature strives for infinite diversity, individuality, and intercommunication. Without continuous human interference, even the most barren of our creations quickly develops an ecosystem that is complex beyond our imaginings. In complete opposition to these three laws the world we have tried to create since the end of the Middle Ages has striven for regularity, uniformity, and isolation.

We may note that in the whole of the British Isles, the greatest concentration of bird species is found in the densest concentration of architecture -- within a fifteen-mile radius of central London. Over the centuries, through a slow accretion of buildings, parks, gardens, and abandoned industry, London of all places has developed an unparalleled richness of habitat.