Our Wild Backyard

When my children were babies I right away began to feel a sense of loss for them and what I could not offer in the way of exploring our natural world like I was afforded as a child. All I could see was urbanization and suburbanization wherever we lived, and I could only think of the memories I cherished running free without parental supervision through the woods, up mountain trails, sitting at a seasonal pond’s edge observing tadpoles, frogs, toads, catching lizards and snakes.

We neighborhood kids learned quick through word of mouth (not from the adults but amongst ourselves) how to stay out of danger – for example…stay on the trails, don’t wander too far into tall grass in order to avoid the rattlesnakes. They mostly sunned themselves on the trail and could be given enough distance to get around. But most of all, stay away from the baby rattlesnakes, we would all tell each other. The babies don’t know how to stop giving venom, we’d say. I never did see any baby rattlers, but I always stood in awe of the many adults stretched straight out across the sunny trails I traversed. Shed skins were coveted.

I spent many sunsets alone on a grassy hillside communing with the hoards of glorious dragonflies and their shimmering wings until dark, and on frequent occasion I’d share that sunset with a traveling mother fox and her kits, or a deer and her fawns. (I was lucky/unlucky enough to have parents that never checked in on me, because I very rarely found myself in any kind of trouble – this rang true for school and social circles so I led a very private life even amongst my own family.)

My own backyard was a wonderland with nesting robins (one baby I raised with the help of a local vet after a violent windstorm – it fell from its nest with a broken wing), a male and female cottonwood tree, and one of my most cherished memories, an entire community of praying mantises. I still feel the excitement from the days I’d search for their egg cases on the fence, and the curiosity over the largess of the females and gazing upon their fascinating, triangular shaped faces. I’d catch and release them just to watch the hunt of a grasshopper within my miniature terrarium. I could never keep any of the creatures though – I always had to give them back to their world.

There was one particular female “fence lizard” (western fence lizard) with an injured eye that would often get a grain of sand stuck in between her eyelids. I came upon her time and time again, and with each meeting I’d help her remove that grain of sand. My heart broke the day I found out the neighbor boys had got her and were keeping her for their own. No amount of persuasion would get them to change their minds. She did not live long after that.

And then the scrambling up the canyon, following of deer trails until I was too scratched up and bleeding to go further, listening for birds in the scrub oaks and brush, climbing until the trees changed to aspens and those changed to pines, and then only rocks and gravel with the occasional pika and it’s “meep” amongst the boulders, watching the turning of the seasons and the snowmelt roaring over the rocks in the spring, knowing full well that I could be washed away in a heart beat if I hopped one boulder too close to torrent’s edge.

Photo by Stephen Dudley – Alltrails.com

And let me not forget the geology – it is part of my soul. The granite, the slate, the colors, the scents in the dryness, in the moisture. It wasn’t a question of “if” I would slip and fall on my bottom at some point during my descent home, only “when” because the way back was covered in layers and layers of fallen sheets of slate from sheer canyon walls that changed colors dependent on the altitude from purples to greens to grays. And I delighted in that anticipation and skipped the entire way to my front door. Usually at last light.

I cannot give these same experiences to my children, but I already see them creating their own in the wildness of our backyard. We were doing some gardening this morning in the cooler temps when a tiger swallowtail swooped in to check out our first blooms of mistflower. They were foraging for all sorts of snail shells and discerning their similarities and differences. And what delight when a frog jumped out of the small pile of brush and sticks I’ve left in the corner of the yard for the birds to forage in. And aha! They observed two green anoles possibly mating!

Brother and sister were examining their regular collection of roly polies and earwig. They asked me what they eat so I reminded them “rotten stuff.” My five year old found a half eaten strawberry that was beginning to rot from our garden box and cheered when the earwig went for it!

There is not so much a sense of loss as a renewed sense of joy and discovery these days now. May it continue to grow within us all.

For a beautiful pictorial tour of my old haunting grounds, check out BackcountryPost.com’s Slate Canyon Loop: a local Backpacking Adventure! (Mind you – I used to do the hike they blog about in one day as a kid taking the Bonneville Shoreline Trail back to my door step. No parents and er… no permission. Good old free range, “don’t ask and don’t tell” days…)

(I was inspired to write this bit after reading Chris Helzer for the Nature Conservancy’s post “It’s ‘The Prairie Naturalist’ Too”.)

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