When I arrive at the school to pick up my four-year-old son, I’m pushing a stroller with one hand and in the other hand holding a bike that I’ve unlocked from the bike rack. Through the open window, I hear the final announcements. A sixth grader is saying the “Hail Mary,” and when I peek in my son’s classroom, I see they’re standing near the door, folding their hands. But after a day of school, they fidget and spin in their heavy backpacks, with their lunch boxes strapped on and water bottles tilting to the side. As small children, they carry so much.
I wave to the grandfather who talks about splitting wood in his backyard for the winter. He wears an American flag bandana. There is a mom who gives horseback riding lessons. A few other parents stand shyly in the hallway. There is always at least one younger sibling playing peek-a-boo behind someone’s legs. I’m grateful for these parents, and this opportunity to stand among them. I’m home with the baby all day, and these moments of collective waiting must stand in for the kind of experience I used to have at staff meetings when I worked in a public library or in publishing or at the university. There’s gossip, talk of the weather, broad declarations about the children they are there to pick up.
My son appears through the double doors, holding the hand of his pre-K teacher, along with several other kids. Strung together, they look kind of like an octopus. The teacher holds on tight, tries to get them through this sea of people, depositing each child with the correct person. Her job now done, she laughs and smiles and says goodbye.
We wave once again to classmates and parents, and try to stay out of the way of SUVs and buses as we make our way home. I study my son. He has been away from me for over six hours, and it takes a while for us to get used to each other again. I’ve been home writing and fussing with the baby. He’s been here in this land of soulful consideration and miniature furniture, a place where objects are affixed with labels to encourage sight word recognition. Here the “flag,” there the “clock,” and, of course, the “cross.” For which does he feel more reverence?
How can I explain, America, that we leave this place of civility and earnestness and head home, eager to get to the backyard, a place of carnage and cultivation, wildness and occasional repose? That with the raising of a flag—a blue plastic bag tied to a tall, straight branch, posted to the top of the jungle gym—my son has pledged his allegiance to a new country, one of his own invention, The United Backyards of America? As we begin our walk, we start slow, talking about snack and stories, gym and recess, but in his impatience to get there, to that special place, my son’s tires turn faster and the stroller wheels click with our increased speed and I can no longer ask questions. He’s leading and I’m following—and all three of us, the baby included, are flying.
When we get home, in the backyard, my son unfurls. And I let him go, and run, and do, and make. Only, I encourage him to say “Welcome” to the baby, whenever the baby crawls closer, wanting to get in on the action, because often my older son says, “No, get him away.” So I’ve taken the habit of saying “Welcome” when I bring the baby from the swing to the sandbox to see a building project, from the garden to the ditch to check out the wildflower my son has found growing. I’m trying to teach our older son that a posture of self-righteous anger doesn’t help any of us. We need not be territorial and indignant. Breathe, I say. I know you are excited, but please breathe. America, how can we do the same? How and when and to whom can we say Welcome?
Before our new friends get here for a first playdate, my older son climbs to the top of the jungle gym to check on the flag. For added beauty and a measure of wildness, he zipties a seagull feather to the flag pole. He pulls it this way and that till he has it just the way he wants it. He shoots down the slide, whoops, and asks me again when they’ll be here.
“Soon,” I say.
I look again at the yard. Even though we live in a village, where many of the yards are flat and fenced expanses of closely cut lawn, our backyard is a gently sloped series of small hills. Our yard is bumpy with underground tree roots and unexpected gullies. We have over 50 trees, including the three apple trees my husband and son planted last spring. Compared to this profusion, our neighbors’ yards on either side seem flat and tame. Good for ball play, perhaps, and easy mowing. We have weeds and wildflowers, plants we try to identify as they come up. The unlabeled seedlings my son brought home from school when planted in the garden grew into a sunflower as tall as my husband, another a pole bean that sadly was eaten by the deer. A squash sprouts out of our compost heap; we wonder if it will taste good roasted this fall. We find mystery in such abundance.
Our friends are here. A mother with her two children, close in age to my own. They, too, spill out of a stroller and off a bike and join my son on the playground. I ask her how her day has been, and she mentions that they just released a frog they kept for several days. A frog, her kids called Toad. She was relieved to report that Toad lived through his days of captivity. He had a box for his home; the children offered him ants and a dish of water. I think sadly about my son’s previous captives. The worms and the caterpillars kept, perhaps, too long. We discuss our struggles to balance the desire to have our kids interact with wildlife with the fear that what they claim might come to harm in their small hands. Or, more worrisome: that through our inattention, our lack of oversight, what is joyfully collected and jarred might be forgotten till it is too late.
I look up. My son is playing the ambassador. “Look,” he says, “come see.” He’s leading the children over to the place where the ground bees’ nest had been.
We had engaged in a sort of ecological warfare over three evenings when the bees would be less active. My husband would put on a sweatshirt and long pants, gardening gloves, a face mask, and a headlamp. There was an escalation from dish soap and boiling water to Instant Wasp and Hornet Killer, the kind of chemicals meant for a nest attached to the house. In the light of the morning, my husband dug up the grubs. We had deprived them of food, oxygen, and life all in the service of protecting the children and maintaining a safe place for them to play; but still it was a destruction of habitat. Afterwards, our son helped my husband fill in the hole with topsoil, spread grass seed, water the plot. He helped put up stakes and wind string around them to alert anyone who passes: this is where the nest had been. A makeshift grave. “Something bad happened here,” he tells our visitors. And I have to tell our friends over his warnings and grave threats that the nest is gone, there is nothing there now but dirt and new grass, a fresh beginning for this small plot of earth.
If the nest had been in one of the trees, would we have left it? Down below it was too easy for the baby to crawl into or the four-year-old to reach his hand in to retrieve a lost ball. But high up in the clear air, would we have observed the activity, and appreciated its presence so close to our garden and flowering plants?
Rachel Carson says, “As crude a weapon as the cave man’s club, the chemical barrage has been hurled against the fabric of life.” And so it has. But later, a yellow jacket lands on the fabric of my son’s orange t-shirt. He stands still, like we’ve taught him to, waiting for the bee to realize he is not a flower and fly away.
In the sandbox now, my son and his friend drive earthmovers and dumptrucks. They work the child-sized digger to make a trench so that they can “lay pipe.” They crouch in the sand together placing a bunch of evenly sized twigs alongside each other, then cover it all over with sand. For a few minutes, they move around each other with unexpected precision and focus. They’re quiet and content, hard at work constructing a miniature world out of damp sand.
We see a figure come from around our neighbor’s fence, first one older boy, and then another. They walk the perimeter of our yard, looking for a lost ball. The four-year-olds look up, study the boys, trying to decide if they are intruders or visitors. “Welcome,” my son calls out. The older boys barely look over. They don’t want to disturb us. They only want their ball. They leave without finding it in the tall grass.
My son pops out of the sandbox and runs to the garage for a bigger shovel. The two-year-old follows him. For a while he stands in the garage, beckoning her through the doorway. He points to the wall with saws, vises, hammers, and screwdrivers and repeats over and over again, “You can’t touch that. Don’t touch any of this. It’s dangerous.” She nods gravely, standing with him for what seems like a very long time, before her mother calls her out of the garage and back to us. “It is time to go,” she says.
Because we want to entice them back again, to come into our yard in every season, we tell them about the ditch. In the spring after the snow melts, the ditch that surrounds the perimeter of our yard will run like a stream. Neighborhood children will come to this miniature riparian zone, the rapid flow in the backyard of a village house will surprise them as it does us. There will be jumping across and back. There will be experiments with sticks, pine cones, and grass. There will be tests of strength and wet shoes and socks.
As my new friend helps her son with his sneakers and his bike helmet, and deposits her daughter in the stroller, a frog jumps out of the grass near the ditch. We talk about how when my husband does mow, the frogs leap out of the way of the mower. We mention sadly the neighbor who accidentally pierced a frog with a shovel while she was digging potatoes out of her garden.
Because in this after school special that is our backyard, we talk about the damage we do to the environment—the ground bees’ nest exterminated, the unlucky frog—as surely as we present our children with these backyard gifts of cultivation—strawberries from our bush, cherry tomatoes off the vine—and wildness—here the caterpillar cocoon on the side of the jungle gym. After all, we want to teach our children to observe and not disturb, for what new life might soon emerge from the brown fabric.
And because we talk about the loss of habitat and environmental degradation, our son talks about it, loudly, sometimes impatiently, to whomever will listen. “Hey!” he shouts, “Stop hurting the environment.” But, we try to make amends for what we’ve done, to offer atonement, to focus on what is here in this messy backyard. What redemption is possible in newly sowed seeds?
As our friends disappear down the block, I remember the night we let our son stay up late for a fire. Overhead, the sky darkened, filled with stars. He made up a song about what he called “fire-stained bats.” In the shadows cast by the flickering flames, the bats flew out of the fire, to take up their rightful place in the sky above. For what better stewards can I imagine but our creative, well-intentioned children, ecological citizens, newly made and fresh from the United Backyards of America.
Very sincerely yours,
Rachel Sturges grew up on the Jersey Shore where she tramped through the marsh, scrambled up the dunes, and ate cranberries straight from the bogs. Her writing has appeared in Literary Mama, Prairie Schooner, and Rain Taxi. She lives in Canton, New York, with her husband and two sons.
Header photo by Brian Dunne, courtesy Shutterstock. Photo of Rachel Sturges by Mark Sturges.