Backyards are the beginning of a bioregion for a child.
My backyard (and my front yard too, for that matter) in a rust belt city held all the wonders that helped make me the person I am today. Nature helped me survive to full adulthood and it began in a backyard.
For me the backyard was more mysterious and more deeply natural than the front. The centerpiece was a centuries-old apple tree. It was one of the wonders of that neighborhood. I didn’t realize it at the time. I was often more interested in the cherry tree two houses down where our neighbor, an older woman let the neighborhood kids sit and eat fresh sweet cherries while we socialized. Or the extremely overgrown yard in one of the houses behind ours. There were things that bloomed there, brushy plants and several trees. Neighborhood children who lived next door said a witch lived there. We were afraid to explore that yard. I expected that if the householder was a witch, she’d be ready to go on Halloween, but I never saw here even then.
Over the long haul, though, the apple tree was my friend. It was inconceivably large with cartloads of fresh apples and thick branches to climb on. It reached up past the balcony jutting from my parents’ bedroom. If I went out to sit on the balcony, I was in the midst of the tree top. When my parents had to get those branches pruned back I always was a little sad.
The backyard is where I had my first garden. It was where every spring, masses of purple woodland violets popped up in the grass. They made me happy. To this day, I make sure I have at least a few bunches growing somewhere, even in this desert. Even if they’ve had to be in a pot, I’ve kept them. At my old farm, they gladly grew wild in the edges of areas where I had to drip irrigate fruits and vegetables. Here, at RSF, the ground squirrels like to eat their rhizomes. I will figure out a way for the violets, the squirrels and myself to coexist. Hopefully without my ever-present poultry wire cages!
The back yard had a fort for my friends and I. It was an old lean-to sort of shed that was covered with some kind of wild grape. Maybe Concord, gone wild.
There were animals and birds. City animals and birds but they were as magical to me as any.
When I try to bring up my first memory on earth (I’m one of those weird people who remembers elements of my own birth, so we’ll exclude that for now), I see the interplay of light and shadow with green, green of all shades. Once when I asked my mother about that, she told me that it may have been when she used to put me outside, under the trees in the backyard, in my baby carriage. I’m old enough that I traveled about in a baby carriage, not a stroller. And I’m also of an age and time that I never experienced a wrap or a baby sling, like my children did.
Each backyard meshed into the next. Every one of them had a different character. Some had shrubbery to crawl into where we could play for hours. Some had a woodland feel. Some had interesting outbuildings to explore. One had a huge horse chestnut tree, even more imposing than my backyard apple tree. The trees gave me a sense of humility and the sure knowledge that I wasn’t the first to step on this land.
It wasn’t a far walk to the wooded ravines, with creeks at the bottom and mysteries to explore. It wasn’t far to the river. This was a river city and we lived nearby the water. All of this was my wilderness and it formed me. Hikes along the muddy riverbed. Borrowing a little rowboat to cross the river to a mysterious island.
As children we moved easily from the backyards through the neighborhoods and into the general ecosystem of the region. This was true whether I was living in Ohio or at my aunt’s in Connecticut.
When I lived in Houston and Bowling Green, I lived the same way. The campus became my yard and I moved out from there to learn the ecosystem. Brays Bayou. Corn fields upon corn fields and on to the oak woodlands.
This has been true for my own kids. The older kids flowed from backyards perched on a mountainside up through the fire roads and across our part of the east face of the San Gabriels. this was true for the middle kids as they explored a landscape very much like the one we inhabit now, on our first farm.
And the younger kids have experienced both city ecosystems and those here at RSF. It always seems to begin with the backyard.