It’s a beautiful, sunny afternoon in what’s turning out to be an unusually sunny, rain-free summer in the Pacific Northwest, and my yard is a mess.
Once upon a time I was a landscape laborer, so I actually do know how to take care of a these things. When I moved out to Kitsap County I even spent a great deal of the first few years moving plants around and making plans for what to do in the future: lists of new types to consider bringing in, timelines for relocating more of the trees and shrubs the previous owner had surrounded the house with, what appeared to be an elderly woman’s attempt to sock herself in. It was a pretty great yard with some nice details: I found a good-sized bleeding heart under my office window, hellebores around the trunk of a hemlock tree, clematis along the fenceline, and then in June, some scruffy things I hadn’t noticed started putting out flowers and fruit: raspberries.
As time has gone on, though, neighbors’ tree removal, excavation of my septic system, my own distractions and the added help of a shrub-eating Boston terrier, have turned my property into looking not much different from the abandoned cabin’s yard down the road. Some good things, like genuinely native plants such as thimbleberry, have sprung up where they weren’t before, but so have morning glory and Himalayan blackberry. I don’t have a lot of time for yard work right now, so I live with the snarls and brambles, until something comes over me or I am avoiding grading papers, and I rise up to find myself out tearing out bindweed and ripping out blackberries and redefining all the coordinates of the yard that have been rearranging themselves when my back has been turned. Some are pleasant surprises. During the septic mess they had to remove an old flowering plum tree I loved, to make way for the drain line. A small start of the plum turned up on the other side of the yard, seeded by some appreciative bird, and I meant to move it to a better location. Now, though, it’s a good ten feet high and lanky as a teenaged boy. It stays. Some invasive type of upright hypericum has showed up all over the place, golden leaves and round, black berries, and a nasty root system that requires more than a good yank to get out of the ground. I narrow my eyes, waiting for the moment to take it on. Meanwhile, it sort of holds off the vacant lot look that has been coming on for a while.
And the red elderberry–sambucus racemose, a lovely pair of words–a wild, weedy native shrub that typically grows about seven to twelve feet high. I had two huge ones in the front of my yard, close to twenty feet tall. They remained there happily for years, developing woody trunks, waving their long stalks of compound leaves. In spring, seemingly overnight I’d come out to find hanging clusters of of foamy white flowers draped among the emerald leaves. Given a few more weeks, the flowers dropped off, replaced in early summer by clumps of small red berries, favs of thrushes and robins, adored by band-tailed pigeons, those heavy-winged bowling pins of the sky.
Anyway, for reasons I have not discovered, one of these two big red elderberries simply died two winters ago, so I took down the other one, which was looking peaked. Now I have even more sun in my yard, more exposed dirt, it is less lovely than ever and I haven’t had time or energy to figure out what to do. My large dog seems to have run over a rhododendron in the back, so on one impulsive grading break I moved it out front and that’s looking pretty great. Instant landscape. But on the other side, in the stand of neglected raspberries, a new red elderberry came up this spring and decided it might try to take over.
The raspberries are a mess. I’m not being generous. I’ve neglected them for several years. I think of my friend Seppry, who used to hang out and offer to help me in my yard. He’d grown up with his family’s berry farms on Bainbridge Island, so he had reasonable and professional opinions. He’d quietly shake his head and then smile at me: “You’re not working your laterals.”
“I’m not working anything. What are laterals?”
He’d walk over, pick a leaf between his fingers, look at me. “The part of the plant that actually bears the fruit?”
Seppry belonged a distinctive Bainbridge Island community, Filipino and Canadian First Nation families who stepped up to care for the crops when the Japanese who owned those farms were marched off to the internment camps. He referred to himself as India-Pino, and both cultures were strong with him. When an eagle flew over my property he’d stop from whatever we were doing and watch it. Then he’d say to me, “That’s a blessing.” He meant it as an active thing, not just a pretty chance. His mother’s tribe was particularly connected to trees (he loved the huge cedars on the back of my property) but when I’d be heading to the wildlife shelter he’d say, “Go take care of my birds,” meaning the eagles that blow in to the shelter, needing rehab.
I am teaching on line this summer, another blessing, and very grateful for the rhythm that has occurred: a day at the wildlife shelter, days of grading, defending the time set aside for a manuscript I’m trying to finish. Doing these things means a lot of other things do not get done. It’s a useful excuse for the condition of my yard.
Today I became gripped and decided to pop out that volunteer red currant bush with a spade shovel. It was over four feet high by now but it gave up pretty easily. Then standing in those neglected, pitiful raspberries, I saw some that were actually ripe. So I stopped, picked them—enough for tomorrow’s breakfast, it turns out, easily a couple of dollars’ worth at the grocery store. Free, and without any effort on my part, a generous offering from my otherwise totally out of control yard.
Seppry died this past spring, only two years older than I am. I have missed him tremendously.
His memorial was at the Filipino-Community Hall: food, talk, and a group of Native drummers who chanted about eagles, sent his spirit on. They’d already done this a few days before in Canada, his other home. Driving back up my road afterwards I couldn’t believe what I was seeing: high in the air, holding their place in a thermal, were the two local bald eagles, but they were joined by four more—six bald eagles, all slowly and gracefully seeming to hold a pattern, wheeling in the sky. I called a friend from the shelter. She said it was likely that this is the edge of the territory for the local pair, so they’re not threatened by the others, who might be juveniles scouting for a location.
A couple of weeks ago, going out to my car in the morning on my way to the shelter, I found a large, dusty, chocolate colored feather, laying in the grass. It looks to be a plume feather. It’s from a good-sized bird. Could be a heron’s, though it’s not really the right color.
We go about our lives. We complicate them, then deal with the hell that humans create so effectively. We might even interact with the nature, pruning it, shaping it to our specs, telling ourselves stories.
What I know is that there was a lot of eagle noise through the spring and early summer, early in the morning and on through the day, even after the light had gone. I have totally ignored the plants in my yard and still they offer me fruit—albeit raspberries.
The natural world can be forgiving and there’s much in it to restore one’s faith. And this isn’t just a charming analogy: if this weren’t the case, we’d be tremendously screwed.
Pay attention, I tell myself. The tangle of plants, the casual remarks and smiles of friends, the spirits in the sky.
Blessings, so long as I’m willing to pause, recognize them, and gratefully accept.