Monday, January 17, 2011

Cats and Neighbors and Shoveling Snow

In which we learn something of madness, weeds, blue northers, and neighborliness.

The week of Christmas, we had a snow storm blow in. Yes, yes, that made for a White Christmas. Lovely. I don't mean to be facetious; it was indeed beautiful, especially since the spousal unit and the housecats and I could enjoy it from within the warm comfort of our cozy home, where we cuddled and cooed, drank hot chocolate, (warm milk with no chocolate for the kitties) and watched
the lovely flakes drift down. It's mezmerizing, watching as snow falls, shrouding the world in a blanket of silence and brightness. It's especially beautiful if you're inside, wrapped in a favorite sweater, listening to Christmas music with a steaming mug of hot chocolate cradled in your hands.

The feral colony was cared for as well; I've mentioned before the Kitty Palace of Hay Bales which was built for them on our "back forty" by others of their caregivers, and with our permission. What's not to like about that? The feral cats have a place to stay warm and dry; I get hay which, in the spring, goes into my compost pile, and eventually, into my garden. All this without me having to lift a finger. The looks of it may annoy some of our more fastidious neighbors. We try, therefore, to lessen their dismay by having the Kitty Palace out by the back fence, out back by the alley. It's also covered with a tarp, so it is no more of an eyesore than say, a covered car or motorcycle. Getting along with the neighbors is an important element in caring for a feral cat colony.

Taking into account the sensibilities of neighbors is not a skill that comes naturally to me. Indeed it's one which, since moving to the City over ten years ago now, I've had to exert some effort to cultivate. Much of my youth was spent on a ranch which spanned the borders of the Texas and Oklahoma panhandles. It's pretty sparsley populated up there. During those ranch years, my nearest neighbor was five miles away. The nearest town was a thirty mile drive which I made once a month for groceries and other supplies.

It was an idyllic life in many ways, though an isolated one. It was in the days before internet, so even that option for staying connected wasn't available. A monthly long distance phone call to my mother, three an a half hours away by car, was part of the household budget. I've heard tales and read stories about how many women, during the pioneer days, went mad from the isolation of the life. I can imagine it: a woman from the city, transplanted from that crowded environment, finding herself alone on the plains with the ever present wind like a living presence, tugging her skirts and hair, a constant dusting of sand blowing daily into her house or dugout, the wind shrieking and moaning as it does on the plains, never ceasing. I understand why so many went mad, or went back to the cities. Life on the Great Plains is certainly an acquired taste.

Still, in such isolation, neighbors simply do not complain about the height of your grass, whether or not your window sills are painted, what plants grow in the mix of your lawn. They're too happy to HAVE you as a neighbor, and besides, these things would be considered to be your own business, and no one would consider intruding. Such are the benefits of living in the unincorporated zones.

Living in a city, living closely amongst fellow humans, requires some adjustment. I remember the first time we received a notice from the city about the height of our lawn. "Mow it or else!" was the essential message. It was phrased somewhat differently, though no less aggressively. Included was a copy of some city statute about the allowed heights of weeds and grass. I remember a long conversation with a forrestry employee about what constituted a "weed." According the dictionary, a weed is "an unwanted plant." Unwanted by whom? I assured the beaurocrat that every single plant in my yard was wanted and loved, so, by definition, there were no weeds. Shortly thereafter, I received in the mail a long list of plants designated by statute as "weeds." So we adjust; thistles are dug up from the middle of the yard and transplanted to a flower bed, clearly marked as such by a brick or stone border. During the summer, I mow once a week, grumbling.

Caring for the feral cats requires us to maintain the good will, or, at least prevent the ill will, of the neighbors. Grumpy neighbors could make it difficult for the cats to survive. It is legal to trap and destroy them, or, rather, have them destroyed. So in many things, we conform for their sake.

After the Christmas snow storm, one neighbor hit our neighborhood email list with a rant about people not shoveling their sidewalks. I read with amazement over the next few days as the posters to the list divided into camps regarding the shoveling of snow. Despite an almost uncontrollable urge to log in with my own two cents worth, I kept silent, lurking, reading.

One camp was of the opinion it was nothing but sheer laziness keeping people from shoveling the snow from their sidewalks. And if they are old or infirm, well, they can hire someone to do it for them. (The issue of old, infirm, and POOR was not addressed.) If sidewalks were not shoveled immediately after a snowfall, well, police should be called and citations issued. Obviously, the clearing of sidewalks was of vital concern to this group of neighbors.

Another group maintained that yes, yes, it was all very well and good for sidewalks to be shoveled, but some neighbors were not able to do it. One compassionate poster even suggested that, if you are out shoveling your own walk, why not do it for your neighbor, too, especially if you know it might be difficult for them to get to it. I was impressed by that.

Yet a third camp logged in with the opinion that what's the big deal, the snow will disappear in a day or two, and the people in the first group should just keep their panties on.

Although I kept silent on the list, I found myself in agreement with the third group. I also found myself offended by the assumption of those lobbying for immediate snow removal (or else!) that I was lazy for not running right out in eight degree weather and shoveling my walk. References to city statutes were flung out and countered with news stories and meditations as to one's legal liability if someone was injured on your sidewalk. Is the liability greater if you have not shoveled, or if you have shoveled, and done a bad job? To shovel or not to shovel. The argument raged on.

Eventually, the temps raised slightly above freezing for a few days; nature took care of the snow, and the discussion quieted down.

Now, I grew up, as I've said, in the Panhandle of Texas, in the center of the Great Plains. We seldom had snow. The prevailing wind is a warm one, a scorching one at times. It is called the "siccoro", and it blows relentlessly from the southwest, up from the deserts of Mexico. So ever present is this wind, that visitors comment on how trees are bent over in their growth, limbs growing naturally toward the northeast. But of course! They were formed under the constant hand of the siccoro, and their growth is shaped by that wind.

Occasionally, though, the wind shifts. It shifts around to the the north, and the cruel north wind rages down from the arctic, straight down the great plains, no trees, no mountains, few cities to slow it as it comes. And with this wind, sometimes, comes blinding, even killing snow fall, and blizzard conditions. It's called "a blue norther" when it comes. Cattle and humans have died in its path, when caught unaware. Highways are shut down. All traffic stops, as humans and animals, cities and farms hunker down to wait out the storm.

Then, as quickly as it comes, it passes. Blue skies return and a blazing sun. Snowfall, which might have been six inches or more, melts away in a matter of days. The tawny golden scrub which is the shaggy fur of the land, pokes its dry head up through the snow in patches. The snow retreats almost apologetically.

No one shovels their walks. The snow is always gone before one might get around to it. So it wasn't laziness that has kept me, through the years, from shoveling away the snow. It just has never occurred to me to do so.

A couple of weeks later, another snowfall visited the City. I began to consider: to shovel or not to shovel?

As long as temperatures remained in the teens, the answer was easy. Shoveling? No. The best I could do was to get outside, feed the feral cats and make sure they had unfrozen water to drink. But as the temperatures rose, I fretted. The UPS man came to deliver cat food, and I watched with some guilt as he struggled on my icy steps. I resisted the urge to go into the basement and dig out the snow shovel. Like the cats, I dislike doing something because someone has said I should.

This weekend, the temps finally made it above freezing. I took my big broom out with me to the back yard and spent some time sweeping the snow from the deck. Why? Well, for the benefit of the cats, of course. With the higher temperatures, the snow was slushy, and easy to remove. I didn't want the cats to have to stand in cold snow while they ate, poor pawpads cold in the wet, icy mess.

It was then that the silliness struck me. Was I seriously refusing to shovel snow from my walk, an act which would benefit my human neighbors as they passed by my house, but here I was bundled up and sweeping the deck for my feline neighbors? Isn't that, my conscience whispered, a form of bigotry? Helping one group while refusing the exact same service to another?

I have to admit I struggled with my conscience for a while. I tried to squish it down and make it be quiet. After all, the people who had been saying we should all shovel our walks, well, they had been rude and insulting. "And what of that?" my conscience retorted. The taoist masters hold you should help when it is in your power, irregardless of whether the person who needs help is worthy or not.

In the end, I stalked out with the snow shovel and spent fifteen minutes making a path on my walk through the snow. Not a big one, mind you, but a passable walkway. The sun was shining and the light exercise felt good. I rewarded myself afterwards with a cup of hot chocolate.

Sunday, I noticed that, after I cleared my walk, my neighbors to either side had shoveled theirs as well. Today the fashion has spread all the way down the block; all the sidewalks have been cleared.

But I don't intend to post that to the neighborhood email list. After all, I didn't clear the sidewalks because I was told to. I did it because I wanted.


"With their qualities of cleanliness, discretion, affection, patience, dignity, and courage, how many of us, I ask you, would be capable of becoming cats?" - Fernand Mery Her Majesty the Cat,
found on the website


stlcatlady is a poet, blogger, and freelance writer of shortstories, news articles, and other such oddments, many of which center around her favorite subjecs: cats and philosophy. You may contact her by sending email to stlcatlady1 at gmail dot com.


  1. Living in a corner house, I have a lot of sidewalk to shovel and no one to do it for me. I seriously understand just not wanting to do so. However, as the Christmas snow aged, I realized that the long portion beside the house had become like sheet ice and it just wasn't safe, with people and dogs at serious risk. But I'd left it too long and all I could do was salt. The last one I did a shovel-wide path down the long side and it was enough - I didn't have to worry that someone would be seriously injured because I hadn't gotten around to it or didn't feel up to it. Given that we'll have yet more snow this winter, I think that's how I'm going to have to handle it. Unless one of my neighbors decides to just shovel it all for me.

    In terms of the hay - 'ware of the dept of housing conservation. They're not all that bad in the winter, but they will cite you come the first thaw of spring, esp. if you have a tarp over it.

  2. Just found out, if you don't shovel and someone slips on your property it's an act of God and not the homeowners fault. If you do shovel and miss a spot and they slip, you're liable......There's always salt, that's my solution!

  3. @ Kathleen and Robin: I'm thinking that I may, also opt for salt, especially as a preventative measure. Salt, I'm thinking, may have the added the benefit of helping to kill of the weeds and grass that grow up in the sidewalk cracks. Keeping that out is a constant summer chore, so if the salt can help with that, I'm all for that, too.

    re the hay: really? I had no idea HAY would be a problem. I wonder what the reasoning behind that is? At any rate, it'll be in the compost bin by mid spring, so hopefully it won't be an issue. Still, good to know. thanks for the heads up!