Not long ago, in the middle of the night, I woke to the sound of snickering outside my bedroom window. I lay still, ransacking my brain for ideas on who might be out there, playing a trick on me, though by this point I had a fairly good idea of the culprits.
I reached for my flashlight and slipped out of bed. With one hand, I yanked the curtain aside, and with the other I flipped on the switch. The beam caught the glittering eyes of two intruders staring back at me. Raccoons in my Russian olive tree. In that sweet spot where the greatest limbs converged about five feet off the ground, I habitually find a mound of the species’ feces. It accumulates until I decide to blast it loose with the garden hose, always careful to stand clear of the splatter. This has been going on for quite some time, though this was the first night I’d ever caught the raccoons in the act.
It’s a giant tree, maybe 50 years old, spreading a canopy of branches over my front yard. Don’t blame me for planting it; I inherited it. When I stand back to look at it, I sigh, because the Russian olive is considered a “trash tree” in the West, an invasive species that, along with the tamarisk, thrives beside riparian corridors and is slated for extermination in many counties.
This particular tree, however, is a stunning example of deciduous good looks. How it survived for half a century in what is currently my front yard is beyond me. Its roots must be stealing water from my neighbor’s cow pond.
In late summer when the tree is laden with olives, its limbs come alive, bouncing to a bird rhythm as squadrons land in the branches in order to rip the ripe fruit loose. The lawn suffers in the process, littered with the residue of the seasonal enthusiasm, from the olives that fall to the ground to the bird poop that whitewashes the nearby fence posts and spatters the lilac leaves.
The olives themselves are pitiful specimens, a misnomer for what we normally think of as companions for a dry martini. Mine are about the size of lima beans and bitter as turpentine, with hard seed casings, but despite everything, the tree has found its niche. Once established, Russian olives can eke out a living nearly anywhere in the arid West.
Squirrels gather and store their seeds. Birds, especially blackbirds, devour them, although the experts claim there is no proof that multiple bird species depend on the fruit. Some animals clearly make use of the trees – including, particularly, raccoons, which eat the olives. This is a wildlife fact I can add to the scientific record. In fact, I can say I have irrefutable poop.
If Russian olives weren’t so aggressive -- crowding out the cottonwoods, willows and other so-called native vegetation and sometimes even obstructing our irrigation ditches -- the trees might be cultivated for their own benefits. In fact, when Russian olives were imported to this country in the early 1900s, ranchers used them to curb erosion, deploying the trees as a windbreak in every wide-open space that needed protection.
Still, I don’t want to worry about the wrongheaded notions of the past. Even though many purists would say the species has no right to continued existence, I keep my one tree standing as a year-round habitat toilet.
Of course, it’s hard for a lot of us living in the West to justify our own existence here. I can’t think of any reason for most of the improbable metropolitan drainages like Los Angeles, Phoenix, or Las Vegas to endure in such a barren and inhospitable climate, but sure enough, they do. And they thrive, just like the Russian olive. Roads, like tree roots, supply the core with nutrients; the municipalities with their utilities grow thicker every year and tap deeper into the water supplies, damming and diverting that precious liquid we require for everything from hay to grapes.
The process repeats itself as our edifices choke out much of the natural vegetation. I don’t want to gloss over the obvious, but let me say this: Not everything that comes out of us is a marvel to look at, either.
History is digestion. As the leaves on my Russian olive gradually reappear, followed by blossoms that fill the air with a heady fragrance, I know my raccoons will also return to this trashy tree, the spring nights providing more than enough privacy. I just wish they’d keep their voices down.
David Feela is a contributor to Writers on the Range, an opinion column service of High Country News. He writes in Arriola, Colorado.