Backyard Wilderness

What I should be doing: Writing next week’s BYI Radio piece. What I’m doing instead: Enjoying a delightful night outdoors at the picnic table in the driveway at 909. Our entire lot becomes an extension of our quite small house once summer arrives, which it seems to have done. I could blog indoors, but why?

oak sprout

At the moment, the only visible and/or audible evidence of wild things in my yard are the June bugs (I think that’s what they are) flying blindly into the side of the garage. Over the last couple of weeks I’ve started paying more attention than I usually do to the creatures that share the neighborhood with me. Tales of wild things in this decidedly residential, in-town neighborhood abound:

  • A fox had the run of this area for awhile this spring, stealing several neighbors’ chickens and, I think, efficiently killing a mourning dove in my backyard – only a compact pile of feathers remained (foxes are known for carrying their prey to an undisclosed location).
  • There’s a groundhog that’s turned up one street over, I hear.
  • One night last summer I had the disquieting experience of seeing 3 animals that were not my cats – raccoons – walk past my spot at the picnic table as I sat there, a fourth nearly brushing my leg as it sauntered under the table to join its friends/relatives.
  • Opossums snurfling around our backyard are common.
  • A few weeks ago, our friend Douglas saw a coyote chase one of his cats out of the woodsy area next to his house, which backs up against a very busy Dart beverage cup plant.
  • Then there was the afternoon this spring, as I started clearing out the garden, when I noticed all the dead lacinato kale plants that had been standing about 3 feet tall when we left for spring break in March… had been eaten down to about 2 feet tall. Further investigation in the garden, followed by, um, googling various types of poop, led me to believe that, at some point, a desperately hungry (and possibly lost) deer was eating whatever it could find in the days before spring truly arrived. A DEER. It was either a deer or equally desperate rabbits taking turns piling on top of each other, with the rabbit on the top getting the dead kale. I would have loved to see either.

All these animals – in addition to the usual array of rabbits, squirrels, birds (including hawks and vultures), toads, snakes, mice, voles, bats, and the occasional chipmunk – are living with us here at 909. Some variation of them are living with you, probably, wherever you’re located. Dealing with them as garden pests and possible predators is one thing. Dealing with them as neighbors is another, to say nothing (if you’re me) of dealing with a basic, childhood-based fear of animals that are not cats or dogs. [Raccoons freak me the eff out, you guys. We had one living in our chimney a couple of years ago, and there is nothing as terrifying as sleeping peacefully with the windows open only to be awakened by the frantic screaming of raccoons fighting and/or gleefully chasing each other around your house and you’re thinking, either those are aliens or something has killed one of the cats WTF do I do?]

I’m working on that by trying to notice them and then to observe them, even the annoying squirrels and the boring old house sparrows. Reading Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s The Urban Bestiary has been a revelation (I highly recommend it), as was a “trip” to a park blocks from downtown Champaign with my friend, Rob Kanter of Environmental Almanac, where we saw a freaking muskrat going about its muskratty business in the creek (swimming upcreek, grabbing a huge wad of some beautiful green grass on the bank, then swimming downcreek back to its home, presumably to feed its family – not unlike when Jim makes a Mirabelle run on Saturday mornings, I thought). There were also an awful lot of not-very-exciting Canada geese pooping everywhere, but I didn’t care! A muskrat! In downtown Champaign! I doubt I’d have been as excited if I’d seen it in my yard, but I’ll get there.

There’ll be more about this experience in the aforementioned radio piece, which should be online by June 4. In the meantime, I’m going to do my best to co-exist and observe, but you can be damn sure I’ll also be protecting the food I’m trying to grow. There aren’t enough blackberries for all of us – at least not this this year.