” A family narrative. “
By Tala Fehsel
My dad grew up dividing his time between the suburbs of Los Angeles and his grandparents’ ranch. He moved into a dormitory in college, and then a mobile home, and then a downtown hotel in Portland, Oregon. Later, he taught himself to sail and lived on his sailboat, renting dock-space by the month in San Pedro and sailing out to the island on weekends. He lived in condos in Maui and Kaui, renting out motel rooms while working everywhere from New Orleans to the Virgin Islands. He lived in a tipi with a cat and a rabbit while traveling from McCall all over Southern Idaho. Later, he turned north towards Sandpoint, repairing an abandoned home near the train tracks for rent.
After he bought his own property, closer to the Montana border, my dad built our house. He did it himself. The braces underneath the window ledges in our house are shaped like my mom’s legs. My dad traced them when he was building the addition, expanding his little workshop to suit his expanding family. He made her lay down and traced all around her legs from thigh to heel (toes pointed, knees bent) and sanded them so they were smooth to the touch. They’re part of the house—it took me years to realize they were there, holding everything up. Until I finally left for college three years ago, the house he built was my only home. He has had many.
When I go “home” now, I go to him.
Without a breath, it all falls back into the old routine. We take ourselves out of rhythm but we fall right back in like a hitch in a circadian cycle, like the flow of seasons. He would always wake up early. Every morning. I would hear the front door open and close and by the time I was up—around 10AM— he’d have come back from the forest. He was always busy with something.
One spring, when the tulips were first butting their heads through thawing topsoil and the air was growing dense with moisture from the last of the melting snow, it was slugs.
“I killed twenty slugs today,” he’d tell me. If I asked why, or what good he thought it would do, he’d cross his arms and shrug his shoulders and frown at me. “Look,” he’d say, “The way I figure it, every slug I kill out there is one slug that won’t be able to reproduce. If they can’t lay eggs, they won’t make more slugs. If I kill twenty slugs a day, that’s a hundred and forty slugs a week. If I do that for a month, that’s…” he’d trail off, thinking, “… four times that. Way I figure, at this rate, there won’t be any slugs left to reproduce at all.”
And it worked. For years, I never saw a slug around our house. Gone were the times of leaves like lace, like swiss; the plants unfurled their petals without fear.
Victory through persistence. It should be my dad’s mantra.
In the summer, when the wailing of grasshoppers in the field filled the air and the sun burned brown holes in our patchwork-quilt lawn, he would turn to the knapweed instead.
Spotted knapweed, the variety “native” to North Idaho, is practically impossible to control, much less eradicate. I studied noxious weeds of Idaho in seventh grade, which was enough background for me to know it was a landowner’s curse. The plant is carcinogenic, inedible to practically every species, and can regenerate from any portion of the root left underground. The seeds are viable for up to seven years. Seven years ago, my dad began digging them up by hand.
“I dug up seventy knapweed today,” He’d tell me when he came back inside (at 10AM) after I’d already gotten up, slicing up a pear for breakfast at the kitchen counter. He’d be sweaty but triumphant, covered in dirt. “I’ve been out there all morning. Digging knapweed.”
My dad tells me the weed, which resembles a small, neon-purple tuft on a long stem with spindly gray leaves, was introduced intentionally to America by a European immigrant who loved the bright blossoms covering up his hillsides. “One guy,” he emphasizes. I can almost see him shaking his head. I can see his thought process—if one guy can introduce an entire invasive species, who’s to say that one guy can’t get rid of it as well?
“Look,” I remember him explaining to me when he first began his project, much in the way he had with the slugs. “The way I figure it, even if I don’t get all of the root, even if I just cut every one off from the top, it doesn’t matter if I can’t kill it. If I dig it up before the bloomers go to seed, it can’t reproduce. If I dig up seventy knapweed every day, that’s four hundred and ninety knapweed this week. That’s all knapweed that isn’t spreading its seed.”
When I ask him again, he explains to me how he first began the process; piling five or six pickup loads onto black plastic so that the deadly seeds—each individual plant can produce thousands—wouldn’t hit the ground. He began digging them out around the house to keep them from spreading and observed within two years that most of them had disappeared, at least until they “got ambitious” on the far side of the gulch. He claims he observed annual success, estimating a drop from over 2,000 flourishing noxious weeds on the property to about 200 “puny small ones.”
And so it worked. Those bright violet starbursts I used to see dotting the dry grasses winked out one by one. “I have won,” my dad officially states. The meadow is full of harmless daisies now. He doesn’t seem to believe it. Knapweed haunts him even now. “I never pass one without coming back to eradicate,” he tells me. “I win. Till I miss one.” He still gets up early in the morning and ventures deeper into the woods, searching for neon purple blossoms.
In the fall every year, when the musky smell of damp leaves filled the air and the mornings leave frost on our windowpanes, his focus would shift to the orchard.
“Now, I don’t want the bear to come by and knock down the tree this year,” he’d warn me as we stacked up piles of brown paper grocery sacks at the base of each tree and wrestled the pear-picker out from behind rows of rakes and gardening shears. The pear-picker, which lacks a more formal title, is a hooked set of claws over a wire basket on the end of a long handle. “So we have to make sure to pick every pear. If we leave even one on the tree, the bear will smell it, and he’ll climb up the tree to get it and bust it. Because he’s stupid.”
The bear was stupid. Unlike the slugs and knapweed, persistence (in this case) never worked. We’d take turns hugging the trunk around the middle and rapidly jerking back and forth until the branches shook and the ripe pears tumbled down like speckled grenades. After that, we’d circle the trees, eying the branches covered with green pear-colored foliage in search of real pears to hook down. We could spend hours balancing on the top step of a rickety wooden step-ladder, swinging at a hard-to-reach fruit at the top of the tree.
Every year, we’d pick the pear trees clean. Every year, the bear came around, smelled pears—the whole tree smelled like pears, because it was a pear tree—and tried to climb it. Every year, he broke off a branch, or pushed down the trunk, and walked away with nothing to show for it. My dad would get up early in the morning and walk out to the orchard with all the broken twigs and leaves on the ground and survey the annual damage. Some battles just can’t be won.
We waited for the pears to turn yellow before we cut them up to make chips.
I have pear chips from 2012, the year I graduated high school and the first year my dad shook the pear trees and cut up the pears alone. The pear chips from 2011, the year my dad committed slug genocide, are gone because he began packing them in my lunch every day during my senior year. The pear chips from 2010, the year my mom died from cancer, are also gone. The pear chips from 2006, however; approximately when my dad formally began his knapweed extermination project, are still there. Nobody wants to eat them. They are black.
We keep things like that. Our family always has. When I was very young, my mom found a perfectly heart-shaped potato chip in the bag of Lays she was eating. She was thrilled. We put it in a crystal case. It’s still there. It hasn’t turned black—it seems strangely preserved by salt and, frozen in time with its signature combination of flavors and seasonings. Beneath its crystal lid it remains unchanged; as impeccably heart-shaped as the day my mom found it.
In the winter, everything is dead. There are no plants to kill and no plants to harvest, but my dad still gets up early in the morning and makes a fire. Before the snow gets deep and the icicles stretch all the way from our shingles to the flowerbed where the tulips used to grow, he stacks wood.
When I was younger (back when the black pear chips were still yellow) he used to chop the wood himself. I would stand outside with him in hat and coat and gloves and stack the split logs in the bed of his pickup. He would tell me about red fir and tamarack and birch and how they burned at the highest grade and I would tell him about the book I was writing. He has always burned what falls on the property regardless, breaking his back over each cord of wood to heat our home.
Now he is older. He can spear a slug and dig up a root and shake a pear tree, but he can no longer swing an axe. He buys “Pres-to-Logs” instead. The log mill in the next town makes them out of sawdust. They’re sold by the ton and priced by weight, running at about $225 per pallet. My dad buys boxes of the broken pieces for a quarter of the price, filling the back of his pickup with a bizarre mixture of lengths and widths too chaotic for commercial market. We have to sort them as we stack, log after log, so they fit snugly end-to-end in their container. It’s like a jigsaw puzzle. Sometimes I still talk about writing with him. He always listens.
I am older too. I am only home in the summer, and so is he. I study and he travels. His house is mobile now, a travel trailer circling Lake Havasu, Arizona. He’s lived on the waterfront in four states. He tells me it’s his favorite. He currently writes to me from the Sea of Cortez, where he can see the ocean. I live off the college campus and commute each day to class. I still can’t really swim.
We are home when we are together. The tulips are done blooming by the time we return. So are the pear blossoms—the bear never knocks the trees down for long. Other trees are always falling down in wind-storms and my dad will find some way to cut them up. He throws our compost down the jagged holes where their roots used to be and I see thick slime-trails glistening around them when I go outside after 10AM, when I wake up. The slugs are back. The knapweed is gone. On rainy days, which are cold, we burn Pres-to-Logs.
The house seems unchanged. The potato chip is still there. So are the pear chips from 2006. My mom’s legs are still there, holding everything up. We’ll always come back. We’re persistent.