When the folks first left, and the evening of the first day came, the hunting cats slouched in from the fields and mewed on the porch. And when no one came out, the cats crept through the open doors and walked mewing through the empty rooms. And then they went back to the fields and were wild cats from then on, hunting gophers and field mice, and sleeping in ditches in the daytime. When the night came, the bats, which had stopped at the doors for fear of light, swooped into the houses and sailed about through the empty rooms, and in a little while they stayed in dark room corners during the day, folded their wings high, and hung head-down among the rafters, and the smell of their dropping was in the empty houses.
And the mice moved in and stored weed seeds in corners, in boxes, in the backs of drawers in the kitchens. And weasels came in to hunt the mice, and the brown owls flew shrieking in and out again.
Now there came a little shower. The weeds sprang up in front of the doorstep, where they had not been allowed, and grass grew up through the porch boards. The houses were vacant, and a vacant house falls quickly apart. Splits started up the sheathing from the rusted nails. A dust settled on the floors, and only mouse and weasel and cat tracks disturbed it.
On a night the wind loosened a shingle and flipped it to the ground. The next wind pried into the hole where the shingle had been, lifted off three, and the next, a dozen. The midday sun burned through the hole and threw a glaring spot on the floor. The wild cats crept in from the fields at night, but they did not mew at the doorstep any more. They moved like shadows of a cloud across the moon, into the rooms to hunt the mice. And on windy nights the doors banged, and the ragged curtains fluttered in the broken windows.
“The Grapes of Wrath” (2002) by John Steinbeck, pp. 116-117
If you haven’t read Steinbeck’s novel, it is about the Joad family’s exodus from their Oklahoma land to California. They were tenant farmers but were forced to move when the big banks were dissatisfied with the profit margins of the land in the 1930’s. Steinbeck moves back and forth in his book between the Joad family and the society as a whole- talking in general terms about the aridness of the land, the difficulty in finding water, or the hazards of traveling across the west in an unreliable car.
What struck me about the passage above was, “a vacant house falls quickly apart.” Steinbeck seems to be speaking about more than just an empty house in the 1930’s. He seems to be talking about the condition of a human soul which, if left untended, becomes wild.
A few doors down from my house is a vacant house. Under the cover of darkness two summers ago, our neighbors packed and left. It was complicated. The other neighbors and I look after the house- Jack has mowed the yard faithfully and locked the entrance to their backyard and I have worked in their front flower beds. But the heartbeat of the house is gone- no lights, no noise, no groceries, no tending, no shoveling and no movement except the wild that has crept in through the cracks.
The most wild part of the house was their expansive backyard filled with two small ponds, several vines, a stone pathway and every form of Midwestern flower and weed that you can imagine. My flower beds are weeded each weekend or, at worst, every other weekend. Weeding flower beds is therapeutic for me and I have debated breaking into their backyard to conduct some sessions but it would take weeks to restore order to the chaos.