Column: Sharing a big, old house and staying loose


For the Valley News

Published: 01-22-2023 3:37 PM

There is a term in ecology used to describe the sharing of scarce resources by various species. This survival strategy, resource partitioning, occurs across the animal kingdom, and I suppose, if one looks at fungal connections, between plants as well. This explains how for example, five species of mostly insectivorous warblers can share the same spruce forests during breeding season, when the success of their young depends on good food supplies. Robert H. MacArthur and other ecologists looked at their foraging habits and found that by adapting where on the spruce the birds feed and when they feed allows for all to find food.  

These warblers, the blackburnian, black-throated green, Cape May, bay-breasted and the yellow-rumped, all were able to successfully forage, with the Cape May at the top, the yellow-rumped on the bottom, and the others, somewhere in the middle or on the edges. Competition for resources isn’t always the best strategy, as sharing may benefit the larger group. Removing one of these birds could have a negative effect on the whole forest.

Every morning, before we feed, I go out with Luka and Annie, the little brown dogs, to trek or ski through the horse fields where the two of them, noses down, tails up, sniff and taste the leavings of deer, coyote, fox and mouse. I, the taller one, quiet my mind and watch the river, her swirls of blues and browns, her waterfalls and eddies, beaver dams, and icy islands. My muscles relax as we stretch out traversing our imaginary tundra.

It is a morning ritual that helps the three of us stay loose while tightening our bonds. Returning home in the kitchen for breakfast, I sometimes notice things, maybe crumbs on the counter, or a sticky pot soaking in the sink, and I am reminded again to stay loose. It is not only our muscles and tendons that tighten with age, but the erroneous belief that we have control over our lives, over our resources, over the crumbs on the counter.

After 2020, I found myself alone in this big old house. Claiming to be concerned about human wastefulness, my own carbon footprint was huge, heating a house for one. I decided it was time for some resource partitioning and to share this 180-year-old place, this half-acre-more-or-less, with a young woman who was thinking about going to college.

Cross-generational home shares are becoming more common. Those of us at post-retirement have had a lifetime to accumulate a house, a car, an education and hopefully some retirement income. The young, just beginning their independence, can use some support in figuring out that path, and we can benefit from having them around. Kitchen conversations often start with, “Hey, I was thinking about something.” They are often animated, ranging from why cotton kills when hiking the mountains (it holds sweat as one becomes chilled), to how shared community forests benefit everyone (bless you, Ashley Community Forest and the town hiking trails), to Greek mythology, the role of religions in the founding of our country, and to the very sad topic of young people and suicide. My daily information comes from The New Yorker, Science News, the Valley News and VPR. My housemate finds her way through the world through her classes, her family, her peers, a small bit of social media, and sometimes the newspaper. We fill in each other’s gaps.

My housemate helps with some things I need help with, like looking after those two little brown dogs, and shoveling snow, and I agree to give her a safe, private, quiet place to stay. The relationship that happens over time is always evolving, adapting to challenges, letting go of things that don’t matter, learning to communicate and negotiate hard things that do matter, learning to ask for help. I like to think of us as those warblers feeding on different parts of the spruce tree at different times so we can all succeed, by staggering our cooking times and partitioning our refrigerator shelves. I like hearing another human in the house. I like the smells of cooking and seeing her enormous salads. Hopefully, we never stop growing, and by staying loose and sharing our space might grow in ways we never thought possible. Resource partitioning is not just for the birds.


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