Going home again, pt. 2: A feature, or some bugs
The story of how I went home again––and found myself in my own backyard.
By Lisa Brunette
Ed. note: Today’s piece is part of “Going Home,” a regular series.
St. Louis hosted the 1904 World’s Fair, a moment that has been immortalized in film with the movie Meet Me in St. Louis. This was the river city’s claim to fame at the turn of the previous century, and folks here have never forgotten it. The vestiges of that boom time dot the city as remaining relics of its glory days, when St. Louis was fourth in the nation in terms of population, and we were on par with our chief rival to the north, Chicago, in terms of wealth and prestige. Our ‘farmhouse’ is one of those relics.
Certainly there are more impressive examples of 1900s architecture, as this house and our town as a whole were designed as a budget-minded, middle-class, trolley commuter’s option for those trying to escape the dirt and grime of the city proper. But the house has a lot of character in the form of features you can’t get in any new build today, from the custom cabinets and transom windows to the glass doorknobs and whimsical ball finials running across the top of the front porch.
These stood out to us as major selling points. But the most important attribute was the 1/4-acre yard, a tough thing to find this close to St. Louis, as the house is mere steps from the city line. Most yards in St. Louis are tiny; in fact, a wealthy benefactor paid for a park full of stone, turtle-shaped climbing sculptures in my old Dogtown neighborhood, citing her sympathy for the children there, as they had such small places to play in at home.
Let me back up and explain our reasons for choosing St. Louis in the first place. My family is in the area, but none of them actually live in the city. My mother and two brothers are across the Mississippi River in Southern Illinois, and my sister’s family is in St. Charles, 30 minutes in the opposite direction and across another river, the Missouri. St. Louis is equidistant between them.
While the chance to reunite with family was a guidepost for this major relocation, we’d been brought here by an opportunity.
In the summer of 2017, I was offered a job at a university in St. Louis, to join the faculty in their burgeoning game design program, where I would teach narrative design and game writing, drawing on 15 years’ experience and expertise. The ‘farmhouse’ is a short distance from campus.
So, a large yard for gardening, character in spades, and proximity to work and family—all advantages to buying this house. But as I mentioned previously, there were also noticeable flaws.
When you have a limited budget, flaws are good. Flaws can help bring the price down into your range. As long as you think you can live with those flaws, you’ve got yourself a deal.
The first flaw is that the house is across the street from a major rail line. Cool, if you like the sound of trains, as we both do. But I think a lot of people don’t, or even if they do, they see train tracks as a child hazard. Our front yard is tiny, with the bulk of the 1/4-acre in the rear, so those tracks are right outside our front windows. But our kid is an adult now, and if that train is a threat to him, we’ve got bigger problems.
The second was a serious drainage issue. We had to have mold remediation done to our basement as a condition of purchase, and that’s because the basement, like most in this humid subtropical city, leaks like a sieve every time there’s a rainstorm, which is often.
The third is that we’re flanked by two apartment buildings. Our street, in fact, is zoned for mixed use, with several storefronts and businesses slipped in between apartment buildings; single-family homes like ours are the minority.
As I described the situation on our old blog, back in October 2018:
Right now it’s a gargantuan amount of turf for
usmy husband to mow (seriously, he wants to be the mower in the fam), but in the future we hope to transform it into an organic garden of vegetables, fruit, nuts, herbs, and native perennials. It’s a long game that involves removal of a crazy-ugly zigzagging chain link fence, planting screen trees to block the double-decker balcony apartment building that looks down on us, and eradication of invasive honeysuckle and some awful tree called “stinking sumac.” The two evil villains have formed an alliance and keep trying to take over.
My quote here points out the fourth flaw: The overgrown, neglected state of that 1/4-acre. I told you that the flaws formed the basis of our six-year project, and that was a hefty one: invasive plants.
But when we bought the property in November 2017, we didn’t know most of the plants in the yard were actually invasive. I had fond memories of honeysuckle from my previous life here, and I didn’t know anything about winter creeper or the rest.
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That first year, we just sat with the house, not making any changes. It’s good to get settled into a place first, we thought, especially since the move itself had been… rough. We’d spent three months apart as Anthony dealt with our home back in Chehalis, which we couldn’t sell and decided to rent out. I started a new job, which turned out to be quite challenging…
It was a lot to do in your late forties and… fifties. Every time we gazed out at that expansive backyard, which Anthony chivalrously took on the burden of mowing, we didn’t know where to start.
When I spotted an announcement for the St. Louis Audubon Society’s Bring Conservation Home program in our Maplewood city newsletter, I realized it could give us the jumpstart and guidance we needed, especially if we wanted to do this right.
As I wrote on our blog in September 2018:
One of the great things about being back in the Midwest is that there seem to be more insects here. It was actually something Anthony and I thought about when we contemplated moving to St. Louis in 2017: The bugs. Living in the Pacific Northwest, we certainly didn’t miss mosquitoes. Or chiggers.
But butterflies are something else. Not that there aren’t any in the PNW; there just aren’t as many, or at least it seems that way to me (likely due to all the rain and cool weather). Above all, I missed that most royal of lepidoptera: the monarch. Missouri is prime monarch breeding territory, where new caterpillars gorge themselves until they turn into the gorgeous, black-vein-and-orange butterflies recognized everywhere. After that, they fly to one small forest in Mexico, a 2,000-mile journey, to overwinter, a feat made even more amazing by the fact that they’ve never been there before. The trip the previous year was completed by their kin five generations ago.
I have fond memories of hiking at the Shaw Nature Reserve and getting dive-bombed by swarms of monarchs, and their lookalikes, viceroys. While twenty years later I have yet to experience that again, the butterflies I’m seeing while hiking and just hanging out in my yard are a truly happy sight.
There’s a Butterfly House here in Missouri, a colorful museum/info center/tribute to the lepidoptera, and perhaps more importantly, there are huge campaigns to bring back their waning food sources, the vast prairies lost to agriculture and development. Prairies here used to cover a territory the size of California, but they’ve been reduced by 96 percent. Which means that the very beings we rely on for our own food source—without pollinators, our crops won’t grow—are getting starved out.
Anthony and I are working up a plan to remove invasives that do little to help the ecosystem that butterflies and other pollinators thrive in. We also want to include native plants in our revamp of this overgrown lot of boring, ecologically suspect grass and outdated ornamentals.
That’s why Anthony and I spent a recent Sunday afternoon with two people from the St. Louis Audubon Society, who answered our questions and shared their expertise with us. Through a program called Bring Conservation Home, they are giving our yard an assessment, with recommendations to make it more friendly to pollinators and other critters.
When we nerd out on something, we really nerd out on it. So when our Audubon folks showed up, we met them with a list of questions and a paper copy of our property survey with some of the preliminary design sketched out. (I know, right? Overachieving even in the hobbies.)
It’s a good thing I took notes, because some of what I thought about the yard turned out to be totally wrong. I’d been pulling out native milkweed, which monarchs love, and tenderly making room for a white clematis that, while pretty, acts like an invasive thug here in Missouri. It’s not entirely my fault; some of the misinformation actually came from fence and landscaping contractors who bid on projects.
One of the things our Audubon experts talked about was that insects should be welcome in a yard, not just pollinators, but other beneficials as well, from spiders to lacewings. A diverse crop of such insects is a sign of health.
When we moved in last fall, there were ladybugs everywhere. And this spring, when I saw the first firefly wink on at dusk, I knew I was home.
Comments from all are welcome.