My dad helped me build my first studio, out of scrap lumber, when I was in my teens. Our neighbor Elmer, who used to help us haul in hay when he wasn't a junkman, found out what I was doing and searched for building materials on his rounds. Studio one was a shack, really, with a loft to sleep in - situated on the wooded western slope of the hill. I had my paints, brushes, canvas with (homemade) stretcher frames, and a mattress. I thought it was paradise and so Zen. Then a friend moved in with me and brought his extensive driftwood collection with him. Installed, the baroque complexities of the worn and twisted roots and branches arranged in every nook and cranny fairly well expelled the Zen thing. I was living in a faux coral reef, but I was in love and willing to accept aesthetic compromise.
Maybe it was the reef effect that attracted all the creatures who moved in. In no time wrens built a nest in the bookcase, in between Yeats and Rimbaud, and flying squirrels started a colony in the ceiling. One night when we were working on taping a video I looked over an saw a black snake climbing across the Elvis calendar, probably headed up to swallow the flying squirrels. Once I had to tactfully bring up the subject of arachniphobia to a girl who was visiting the studio, because she hadn't noticed that on the wall a few inches from where she had her head leaned there was a wolf spider the size of my hand, one of a pair that usually stayed behind a painting. And then there were strange noises late at night in the uninsulated walls that sounded like a muffled ape.
When I moved into my new studio, in the edge of a clearing not too far from the old studio, I said "You can have it." to all
the animal occupants. It had started to feel kindof densely populated. The spartan and spacious look of my new space was so refreshing. But within a day I heard rustling sounds in the ceiling and discovered that the (now large) colony of flying squirrels had moved too! In a weeks time the wrens were constructing one of their large and complicated nests in the new built-in bookcase right by my sleeping nook, and in no time everything that had lived in the old studio had moved in. The rush to new digs must have spread like wildfire because the old regulars were joined by a host of upwardly mobile critters - a shrunken dinosaur contingent of blue-tailed skinks skittered across the new porch, a colony of little brown bats installed themselves on the ridgepole and began dropping gauno for me to sweep up. When I reached for a French dictionary and felt the soft and unsettling coils of a cowsnake instead, I knew the move was complete. In one way I'm glad, and even a little proud, that they find my company so attractive.
Not every visitor shares that feeling however. One evening a couple of art collectors were visiting my studio for the first time.
They were sitting on a couch, facing the center of the big room where I paint, and I was answering their questions about my work with spun out tales like this one when I heard a plop-like sound on the floor behind me and saw their faces blanch and fossilize. I cut off my spiel and spun around to see that what had fallen from the ceiling was a cowsnake with a half-swallowed bat in its mouth. I jumped up and cried out "My bat!" - picked the snake up in a huff and escorted it outside. The couple made quick goodbyes and left.
Sylvia Townsend Warner, in one of her marvelous stories, had a character suggest that the ten commandments might be better replaced with one - "Thou shalt not interfere." This was brought home to me when I came downstairs one morning and noticed something on the floor that looked like a naked bumblebee but turned out to be a baby wren, fallen, or so I thought, from a nest in the rafters. A wave of feel good compassion swept over me and I got out my step ladder and climbed up to place the little cheeping tot back in the nest.
In an hour it was back on the floor. I climbed up again and looked closer. The bigger nestling was actually a cowbird chick, with a little hoist-em-over-the-brink hook on its bill to throw out the intended children of the deceived parent wrens. I remembered that there had been a cowbird inside the studio, but I had no idea at the time that it came in to deposit its opportunistic egg. I'll admit that the thought of tossing the bum out went through my head, but after all, it was a baby too.
So instead I constructed a second nest beside the first (and if you think that's the task of a moment then try it sometime) - and gingerly placed the tiny birdling in it. I felt good about myself. When I returned later in the day, it was back on the floor, this time with a broken leg.
It wasn't until I had cut a toothpick into tiny splints and was vainly trying to be a micro-bonesetter that I realized the vanity (and futility) of my hubris. I took the baby bird and placed it gently in a nookish spot amidst the plants in the garden by the studio path, just beyond the range where I could hear its pathetic cheeps of doom. I washed my hands of the affair and vowed to stay out of the Peyton Places that nature ceaselessly proliferates.
And I thought it was over, or soon would be, but then I noticed that the parent wrens flitting into the edge of the garden with worms in beak. It seems unlikely though that the crippled baby survived long and to preserve what was left of my sanity I avoided that part of the garden for a few days.