Over the years I have wondered what form the end will take for our Camp Ground cottage. Since I began seeing the cottage through adult eyes, I’ve eyed it with the trepidation of watching a truck turn off Main street in Vineyard Haven. It’s not going to make it.
The medium ants have wings. I think the carpenter ants have molars. The skunks are multiplying under the listing floor (heaven forbid a foundation) and giant oak tree limbs gyrating above the skylights over our bed pillows look more than dangerous. The early summer’s campaign to regain the house from nature is failing spectacularly.
Mice nested in almost every closet and drawer. They chewed textiles into fluffy nests, then left what a brave cleaning lady called “mouse dropping and urine.” My daughter and I would like to believe the opening in the eaves (to free a cat) is the only entry point for the ticks, wood and deer variety. I stuck a paper cup of ticks in the freezer but I expect they’ll thaw if removed and resume crawling across our bedspreads. Although a tick or mosquito-borne disease won’t be pleasant, it’s not my end I’m most worried about this year. It’s the cottage.
My creation story about the proliferation of cottages that sprouted like fungi during one of those Methodist revivals is that it all began with heavy rain and mud. How smart to build a platform for the already moldy canvas. Then each cottage grew, room by unplanned room. I’m positive that our only bedroom with a door was just a woodpile in the back until some uncle came to stay. A few boards, some newspapers and paint and voila it’s Uncle Arthur’s room off the kitchen. So here it is, pushing 150 years later, and families are paying considerable property taxes, insurance premiums and annual leases on beautifully painted wood structures perched on land they don’t own.
When the Oak Bluffs postmaster suggested an exterminator, I laughed. We’re the trespassers. The clerk at Hinckley’s had a very positive take on the situation: “Very healthy ecosystem.” The termites chew, the term dry rot confuses, the pilot in the oven dares us to light it, grandchildren jump off the upstairs beds without realizing the floor may not hold. Somehow the cottage has survived our 50-year tenancy, outlived previous owners and my grandparents. It has endured vandalism, electrical short circuits and a who’s who list of contractors who never should have been hired (see wall at the post office).
Yet I’ve realized the end of the cottage may come from below, not above. It won’t be the septic tank or an earthquake. On an Island named for its profusion of vines, the unbeatable enemy will be the Asian bittersweet, Celastrus orbiculatus. It tries to swallow us at ground level but has also burrowed its tree-sized roots to attack from below.
In 50 years beneath these eaves I’ve listened to the crack of thunder and felt the cottage shudder. I’ve listened as my grandfather checked on my grandmother with a flashlight, afraid that she had stopped breathing. I’ve heard the oak trees cracking during hurricanes and held my breath waiting for impact. But I didn’t hear the vines as they created red root trails all across the yard and garden, strangled the privet and hid perky sprouts between raspberry canes.
In the last days of June I have followed the roots, overturning as much sod as a rototiller on high. The gnarled root that I thought belonged to a pine tree? Bittersweet.
We can try to caulk out mice and ticks. We can try to discourage the skunks and the termites, but we cannot win against the bittersweet. Odd how much we’ve survived here, my father’s fall from the roof, the night the Franklin stove cracked, the pipes bursting, the flimsy cottage sheltering us after all. What will swallow this cottage will be a simple vine. The end will truly be bittersweet, proving once again that we are all the trespassers on this Island.
Peggy Sturdivant is a freelance writer who lives in Oak Bluffs and Seattle, Wash.