The benefits of sloth to one’s fellow creatures

This Earth Day post on a New York Times blog, about why dandelions are ok and “Wimbeldonlike” lawns maintained in their sterile protection by a chemical arsenal are bad, left me nonplussed — not because I disagree; I’ve written before about my natural lawn care, my preference for wildflowers over grass and my thorough distaste for gas-powered lawn mowers. I was happy to see somebody in so mainstream a publication taking a stand, even a modest and polite one, against chemically-maintained lawns.

When we are not looking

Four deer are nosing through the pine straw for acorns the squirrels might have missed, barely shimmering against the background of russet-brown and dappled snow. Where have they been all week? I expected to see them out in the snow, but maybe some instinct tells them to stay hidden when the ground is pure white. What do they do, then? Huddle in the deep woods? Stare dumbly at the white stuff, trying to remember where they’ve seen it before? Sit by the fire, the bucks watching basketball on TV and the does working on their knitting? Grumble to each other that the weather is proof that global warming is just a liberal conspiracy to take everybody’s SUVs? Which would be a good thing for deer, because the small cars can more easily dodge them, but being only ruminants they are easily swayed by cable news reports?

I imagine up north they just suck it up. Like everybody else.

Just wait ’til you have teenagers.

One evening a few weeks ago I filled the front-yard birdfeeder, which had sat empty several days while I didn’t quite get around to fixing it. I put the feed scoop away in the shed, and by the time I had walked the hundred yards there and back to the front porch, a female cardinal had found the fresh seed. After eating a few morsels she sat and chirped — crowing over her prize? But the chirping was short and came at intervals, and in half a minute another cardinal arrived, and the first flew off into a bush at the side of the house. This second cardinal was a juvenile, its feathers gray but tinged with red and a bit rough as they are when they molt their first summer, halfway from fledgling camouflage to male plumage. While he ate, the first bird, perched in the bush a few yards from me, continued her rhythmic chirping another minute before she flew into the woods. Then a second juvenile male, who had been perched near the feeder, took his turn, and the first flew away.

There is so much chaos and competition at the birdfeeder that it took me a few minutes to recognize what was going on. The first bird was the mother, chirping to alert her fledged but still not-quite independent boys that the feeder had been filled — and then continuing the alarm to remind them to get to the safety of the woods when they were finished eating. Time for dinner, finish your homework, and don’t forget to buckle up. I’m not sure I would have expected cardinals to parent that actively for that long, but then I’m not sure I’d thought about it. The orderly taking of turns, too, surprised me — if they were going to cooperate, there are two sides to the feeder; why not each one take a side? Is sibling rivalry a dry run for competition over mates and territory?

While I was contemplating all this, a neighbor started shooting off his gun, and that was the end of Happy Front Yard Nature Time. But consider the silver lining: if my hominid neighbors were more impressive, I might not feel the need to make the yard a wildlife habitat. It’s all in how you look at things.


Originally published in The Northern Agrarian, April 2008.

In the woods behind my house is a clump of daffodils. Each year they emerge with the first false temptations of spring and for a few brief weeks throw bright yellow sparks from the still-brown floor of the forest, garishly urging the calendar onward. Then their blossoms wilt and return to the ground, and I forget about them.

I have lived in this house for ten years, and the woods in which the daffodils bloom are, in a legal sense, my woods. But I didn’t plant the daffodils, and I don’t know who did. In ten years I have barely set foot beyond the fence that encloses the back yard — a fence I built to keep in my dogs but which has fenced me in almost as effectively. The daffodils are at most twenty feet on the other side of the fence, and each year when they bloom I think I should tend them, or fertilze them, or plant more. Each year I do nothing.

This spring, for the first time, I squatted next to them for a closer look.

Incidental lumberjack

Mid-afternoon a tree fell in the yard. No wind, no rain, only the slow crescendoing crack of something gone very very wrong and then a rustle and — wait for the thud, but no thud. The tree hung over the yard, balanced precariously in the crotch of a low shrub and, twenty feet higher, a branch of a poplar. From the house its support was invisible and the angle of its pause impossible, as if it had thought better of its fall once begun. A heavy tree, dead for some time but unrotted and still solid, and if it was coming down soon enough one way or another I preferred it not fall on the dog’s head or on mine, so I dragged out the chain saw and trudged through the underbrush. I had to cut the tree on the upstroke, the saw at the height of my head, to keep it from crushing the fence when it fell, but it split neatly and the two logs fell on either side of the fence, one only slightly bending the wire. We need to rebuild a couple of our garden beds if we intend to use them again and now we have logs to bound them, and the work made me feel sufficiently useful that I felt justified in having a Manhattan, with two cherries, before dinner.