When we moved to Amherst five years back, I could hardly believe my good luck. I had dreamed of living in a valley in America, and there I was, blessed with life on the Pioneer Valley. The Holyoke mountain ranges stand like resolute soldiers in the southern horizon. The new home is like a story coming alive from a storybook I had read in fifth grade by Johanna Spyri. It was about Heidi, a girl growing up in America. The book cover had a smiling girl standing against the backdrop of mountains and valleys. Since Amherst is cradled in the Pioneer Valley, life here is about having my aesthetic senses feast on the surrounding scenic beauty. In winter, the mountains look bluish, summer adds shades of green and when autumn comes, there unfolds stories of orange and yellow colors. The presence of some wildlife in the mountains adds a pulsating excitement to life in the Pioneer Valley. Cougars, deer, bear, and others, are like the far-away neighbors, we share the landscape differently, rarely we read news of bears checking on bird feeders but mercifully so far, no news of cougars!
Our Amherst home gets unannounced yard- guests from the wilderness around us, but human friends seldom visit unannounced. My Dhaka home in Bangladesh was marked with sudden guests, people dropping in because they happened to be passing by or just was missing me. American life is sanctimonious, a balance of work, and home and socializing is a planned long ahead. To me life is more vibrant with its imperfections, more natural. Who doesn’t want to laugh and talk away with friends at every possible chance? Putting them in time slots, spoils all the fun. I guess I will get used to American ways and not wait for ‘her’ and ‘him’ to drop in.
In case of our other visitors though, we have to be careful about field mice and squirrels sneaking into the house for warmth before winter. When birds start migrating to warmer lands the rodents take shelter to be out of the snow and cold. Two winters back, we found a mouse family in the grease tray of our grill machine in the backyard. The pink mouse- babies were bedded upon bits of foam and wool. I could never solve the mystery of how a mouse, spending whole summer outside could come to gather those human essentials. Amherst is not a place to have garbage lying around and so? It’s the mystery of how life keeps living things going. In the summer, the rabbit and chipmunk population around the house goes up. Bees come down to feed on the flowers that keep them well fed with honey. The perennial and annual flowers come in waves of colors. When the daffodils are leaving, irises and tulips enter the stage, next come to the lilacs and so on. Bees and butterflies hovering over the flower beds look like seasonal shoppers in the nectar market. I suppose they have no choices but to be make hay while the sun shines.
Wait, the world does not sleep. While I dream away of having a book on the best sellers’ list on my pillow, we have occasional nocturnal visitors who come to feed on plants in the yards. In winter, the pristine white landscape gets marked by deer tracks on the snow. At times the tracks are round and closer spaced, suggesting an animal with paws like a bear or a cougar. Brrr..goose bumps! The bay window in our dining room opens to the backyard and offers a beautiful full view of the Holyoke Mountains. On some nights I sit on the window seat and gaze at the star lit sky for hours, and if I am lucky I catch a fox or a deer passing through the yard. Hi, it’s nice to see you…, I wish I could say. There are some wild turkeys that come to feed in the backyard ever since we moved into Amherst. If the year 2019 has the Americans on eggshells under the administration of the President Donald Trump, the turkeys gave me a bigger example of how out of the world they were too. The other day three of them were up on our apple tree, one as high as top branches! For the life of me, in the last five years I had never seen turkeys in the apple tree, wonder if there was a sign in it all?
In spring and summer, occasionally a bee, a fly or a beetle enters the house on accidental visits, they do not plan winter vacations at our place though. On a note of gratefulness, I guess they are aware that wasps, bees or other insects are not exactly welcome inside the house. One day a house sparrow from the nest in front porch lost track and flew into the house. What followed was a drama of humans running around with raised hands, shooing the bird as it flew from room to room until it came to the front door and flew out. Round the year, the sparrows live in our porch, their nests are built into the space around the light bulbs of the porch roof. Day or night, winter or summer, they raise a hue and cry when we make noise under their nests. Guess they started living before us and so have more rights.
My other guests in Dhaka, Bangladesh: One day in my Dhaka home, I was washing my face when I spotted a lizard in the middle of the sink, staring at me with bulbous eyes. The sink was deep and the poor thing was trying to climb up but was unable to do so on the slippery surface. I could imagine it shouting for help and could grasp the panic in its eyes. I got a plate from the kitchen and held it out to the frightened creature. After several trials, it finally crawled onto the plate and I was able to rescue the lizard from its peril. I was late that day at my office. My boss glared at me as I entered through the gate. I just couldn’t tell him about my adventures with the lizard. However, I had a good feeling knowing that the lizard was roaming around the walls of my home. I had a vision of other lizards hearing the story of their friend’s adventure. And why shouldn’t I help these quiet inhabitants of my home? After all, the Lord made them all.
I had a pot garden on the balcony of my Dhaka home. There were a number of hibiscuses, bougainvillea, and other plants. One spring they started losing their branches and there were twigs left around the pots either, mysterious it was. Then one day while I was sitting in my room, reading and occasionally looking out through the raised curtains of the windows. I noticed some robins flying in and out of my balcony and so I hid behind the curtain and watched the birds, They were flying to the flower trees, breaking twigs and carrying them away. At first, I was annoyed that they should choose my pot garden to take nest building materials. But and then I felt sorry for them, what could they do? Dhaka had all trees cleared to make space for the high rise buildings and had turned into to a city of concretes. After all, they needed to build nests in the mating season and lay their eggs. The Lord made them all.
One day I left a mirror on the window sill above the garden. The window was open and I sat at my table, quietly writing away. Suddenly two sparrows flew in and settled on the windowsill. Together, they inspected the mirror first and then one of them went very close, chirping and hopping around it. Amused, I stopped writing and sat watching the birds. One of them stood in the front and inspected his reflection. The waiting sparrow moved up and pecked the other bird as if to ask it to move. The first one the moved away, giving space to the second one and in its turn, took a good look at the reflection. The birds continued their exploring until I came up with a loud sneeze and they flew out with much alarm.
Mosquitoes were the regular visitors to my Dhaka home and they came in large battalions. They waited patiently till lights were out and I dived into the bed for sleep. The mosquitoes came to test every thread of patience I had in me. In the middle of the night, one or two would hum and dance over my body and then start drilling my blood out. Those tiny insects had my blood boiling. I would jump out of my bed and start hunting for the creatures, and often ended with two hours of lost sleep and no mosquitoes. Only God knew where they vanished.
While the mosquitoes made life hell on some nights night, the ants invaded my sugar pot and at times came to sleep on my bed. When the black ant’s bit, the burning sensation could be enough to keep me awake through the night. At other times I really enjoyed observing the ants. How disciplined they were when they marched in long lines, and how social. They nudged each other in their endless marches as if to say, “ Oh hello there!” They did not choose friends, everyone got a greeting.
That’s not all. The charm of other guests continued. One day a small bat flew into my living room. When I put the light on I jumped at the sight of it hanging from the roof. For a second I was transported to ancient houses where bats hang from the roofs and it felt as if something sinister was going to happen. I ran out of the room and our kitchen help came to drive the bat out. I never asked her how she did it. Just told her that she was brave indeed.
Amherst or Dhaka, birds are forever a wondrous sight. Last summer I often sat in the park of Amherst center and watched the birds frolic around the birdbath in the fountain. For some reasons, the sparrows were the only ones to touch the water. One sparrow would fly in and sit on the edge of the fountain and then take a quick dip of the head in the water and fly out, twittering all the way. The book I took to read in the park would stare at me, closed. On weekends children played around the park. Their laughter, all the flowers and the delicious warmth of air do not make only one summer, but linger on my mind all the while.
And the others: A night spent by myself at home was to be filled with suspense, to think of all the Agatha Christie mysteries and the Hardy Boys too. There were invisible guests, dear readers! On that night, as my petite-self retired and tried to sleep, I remembered Emily Dickinson and her poetry. I like read some pieces from her at bed time. Somehow, I can feel her spirit in the silence of the sleeping world. Did she not find Amherst beautiful, the nature around her captivating? And as a poet, when I feel likewise, a close affinity grips me and I feel happy, a part of me appreciates the self that I am, the life that I have.
However, remembering Emily Dickinson Museum, ten minutes’ walk from our home comes with thoughts of her brother’s house too. The brother’s house is said to be haunted and people say that there is always the smell of baking, as if invisible beings were busy eating and taking care of their lives. At my home alone that night, I distinctly felt the smell of freshly baked bread and could not imagine where it came from. We never bake bread in our house, we are the rice people. But I was not afraid of ghosts, spirits or fairy, the other guests that I could have gotten without opening the front door. After my family came back, there was no smell of baking anymore. I guess the spirits came to take care of me and were baking bread for their dinner. Hmmm? When someone believes in the good and positive things in life, life tends to be likewise. For that matter, Casper the friendly ghost is the one the one I am definitely waiting for.
Tulip Chowdhury writes from Massachusetts, USA