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Backyard Observations

by Ferida Wolff

When the world frazzles me, whatever the season, I head for my backyard. It never fails to put things in perspective.

My backyard is a wildlife sanctuary. I once counted twenty-three different varieties of bird visitors. There are squirrels, of course, and rabbits, chipmunks, an occasional raccoon or skunk, a more than occasional neighborhood cat, even a stray groundhog. We all co-exist in a small suburban yard not far from a busy main road. I am the largest being in the grouping but my size doesn't seem to frighten anyone.

I've often pondered this lack of fear. Is it that these particular creatures are suburbanized? Have those gathered around the feeders somehow told each other about the inhabitants of this specific area? Or is it possible that they sense, in some kind of non-verbal communication, something about me that says I am harmless?

Today I found a groundhog vigorously enjoying the fennel in my herb garden when I went out to chase a stray cat that had a mischievous swish in its tail on its way to the bird feeders. Both the groundhog and cat reluctantly left at my approach. They went in opposite directions, each with a backward glare that indicated I had interrupted their perfectly legitimate activities.

When I work in my garden, the birds fly from the feeders to a nearby bush to wait for me to finish so they can return to their continual eating. If I take too long with the weeding, they start to chatter, scolding me for my inconsideration. As soon as I leave, they are back feeding. Every perch is occupied while others wait on the crossbar on top. One feeder looks like an apartment house for purple finches. Sparrows, goldfinches, and the fly in-fly out chickadees prefer the other feeder. The ground beneath is littered with broken husks and tossed out seed, most welcome by the ground feeding doves, redwing blackbirds, and the hairy beasts.

The rabbits tolerate me. They sit on the lawn placidly munching clover. They don't bother to keep me in view. They turn their rounded backs toward me as if I posed no threat to them at all, which is absolutely true although I don't understand how they know this. Once a baby rabbit came close enough to sniff the big toe sticking out of my sandal. "Boy, are you going to get a scolding from your mother when you get home," I said to it softly. No fear. Only when I moved my foot slightly did it scoot away.

Even the calico cat who shows up on a regular basis from somewhere up the street knows it has nothing to fear from me and saunters past my window quite without concern. If I want it to leave, I have to run outside, flap my arms and stamp my feet to show it I mean business. Then in one graceful motion, it hops the neighbor's fence and waits until I go inside.

That cat and I once had a head-to-head confrontation. It was bedeviling a chipmunk that was trying to hide behind the trunk of a skinny swamp maple and was yelling its heart out in terror. I shooed the cat over the fence but it came back. I shooed it again and waited. It found a hole in the wood and stared through it at me with perfect patience. As soon as I looked away it returned so I kept eye contact. We spent an hour in this standoff until the chipmunk worked up enough courage to break for its hole. But the cat comes back, not at all discouraged from the hunt. It looks curiously into my window to see if I am home and inclined to bother it that day.

My rescue didn't give me any points for power, however. The chipmunks scurry from their summer home in the herbs to their winter home in the woodpile. I might as well not be there as they hurry, hurry, back and forth, their cheeks puffed out with seeds. They run right past me, sometimes hopping over my feet if I am relaxing on the concrete patio, through the pachysandra, behind the arborvitae, and disappear into the ground.

I tell myself it means something that animals take me for granted. It feels important. I am glad that my yard invites rabbits even though I rarely have produce for my table. A fence is always an option but one I am not ready to choose. I can afford to be generous; I am not a farmer making my living from the land.

There is nothing that needs to be done, here, as my efforts at intervention proved; they were hardly noticed. The trees grow by themselves — or they don’t. The flowers bloom with or without my care although they thrive on gentle attention. But don’t we all? The animals come and go as they please, chase each other in turf battles, teach their young to survive. The bees visit flower after flower, sharing the pollen sites with magnificent butterflies that sometimes dwarf the beauty of their hosts.

And in mid-summer, the fireflies come out to light the backyard night with stars, making it a Milky Way the mind can comprehend. As a child I used to chase these lights, to capture a tiny star in my hand, to watch it glow up close before letting it go back to its own universe.

I feel calm spread through me as I observe how everything works even without my effort. In this high energy world, sometimes observation is all that is required.


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