A Wild Yard

Dayna Patterson

Deep in dream, I’m startled awake—a scream. Piteous, terrified, screeching, the sound is almost human.

And another noise—a low, throaty snarl outside my bedroom window.

I think, What the fuck was that? But it comes out as: I think a bunny just died.

My husband, also tense, awake, whispers in the dark: Yeah, but what killed it?

I wonder the same. The deep growl is something I’d only ever heard on TV, on National Geographic or Animal Planet. Then, there was the buffer of screen, electricity, distance in miles and time. Now the menace is immediate, proximate. Even though the window is shut, locked, a wall between me and whatever lurks out there, I am deeply unnerved. I want to house-ground my children for life at the same time I want night vision goggles to peek outside.

When we first moved into our home almost three years ago, we were enchanted by the wilderness of our backyard. It stood in marked contrast to our neighbor’s. While they had a neatly manicured lawn, a tidy gravel path from deck to trampoline and gardening shed, and a fence along the perimeter, we had towering pines. A massive cottonwood. A felled tree or two. Blackberry brambles. Ferns. Wildflowers. Mushrooms. Stumps, one of which had been carved into a squirrel feeder, now full of spider sacks. There was evidence of some half-hearted attempts at control: a rotted retaining wall of railroad ties, a dirt trail that wound its way casually to the northeast corner of our lot, a string of barbed wire delimiting the back property line.

We thought, how enchanting for the children! Trees to climb, nooks to explore and make their own, hours of green. We made a few changes once we moved in. We had to cut down the cottonwood, its branches leaning dangerously over the roof. My husband built a treehouse on its massive stump, and he made a swing to hang from a tree at the end of the trail.

Three years later, I’m simultaneously proud and irked by our wild yard. Proud that it provides natural habitat for both plants and animals. Irked that the invasive strain of blackberry vine spreads aggressively. Bothered by a big cat slashing me from sleep. Delighted to see deer and rabbits peacefully nibbling, uninhibited by fence or dog. Vexed that all the vegetation could be the perfect groundcover for a warren of rats. Satisfied to see stellar jays and pileated woodpeckers and hummingbirds and flickers and chickadees visiting the branches. Peeved that the girls uncover a nest of gardener snakes they pick up and play with, staining their clothes with acid yellow shit. Nettled by the mud wasps hiving between the cracks of our decayed retaining wall. In short, happy that we have unlimited access to this slice of forest paradise right outside our door, annoyed that it is not paradise.

My husband wants to move, settle in a home with a “normal” yard that he can mow on Sunday mornings rather than attack with pruning shears and thick leather gloves—the spines on those blackberry vines are evilly long—but I’d rather stay and turn the backyard into what we want. The problem is, I’m not sure what I want. Wild and tame? Is that like having my honey and eating it, too?

When the morning grows grayish light, husband goes out back to check for paw prints, hoping to discover how large the animal was. He paces slowly over the yard, head and back bent, scanning the ground like a wildlife detective or a trapper. When my husband was young, he devoured stories about Jim Bridger, Jeremiah Johnson, Hugh Glass, John Colter, and frontiersmen like Pa Ingalls. When asked, he told anyone who’d listen how he wanted to be a mountain man when he grew up.

He comes back in, a little crestfallen.

I can’t see any clear prints, but there are signs of a scuffle. It doesn’t look like it was very big. Maybe a fox or a bobcat?

Do foxes growl like that? I ask.

Bobcat, then?

I don’t know anything about bobcats, but my husband allays my fears by telling me they are nocturnal, hiding out in the mountains most of the time, and shy of humans.

Our neighbors have let out their little dog by now, who has begun its theme music of incessant yapping. I wonder out loud if we should text the neighbors and let them know. Their little yipper would be a perfect meal size. But, they always bring her in at night. Probably nothing to worry about. Kids or dogs, my husband seems utterly unconcerned.

As I get ready for the day, I’m replaying that rabbit’s scream in my mind, trying to get at why I find it so unsettling, why the wildness of my yard weighs and lifts me, its paradox. What do we want from our yards? Why do we go to such great lengths and pay exorbitant sums to landscape our lots? Why do we plant grass, rip up native plants, clear trees and rocks so we can plant the right trees and cultivate the plants of our choosing and place the decorative boulders just so? I’m not asking to be polemical or preachy, or even to take on the role of diehard ecologist. I ask because I genuinely don’t know, and my yard, in equal parts, repels and ensorcells me. I love its disorder and I want more order. I love its natural state and want it to be less natural. I want the blackberries without the thorns, the bunnies without the big cats.

My neighbor, Joe, told me that theirs was one of the first houses in the neighborhood, and their yard used to be identical to ours. He confided to me that one of their trees blew over in a storm, actually hitting our house two owners ago. A handyman, he repaired the damage himself. But after that, the big trees came down, and over a span of several years, he planted grass, staked a fence. Maybe we cultivate our yards simply to keep nature and her violence at arm’s length. I have a harder time imagining my neighbor’s now-neat yard as hunting grounds, although undoubtedly the hunt happens there. Nature and her indifference to human efforts. Witness the spiky arm of a vine reaching its menace over the neighbor’s hedge. Witness a wind-toppled sapling leaning against the defiant, immobile, wind-resistant fence.

Before the kids wake up, we decide not to tell them. Even though it’s a curiosity they might relish, we don’t want to risk encouraging agoraphobia. When we’re all dressed and ready, I shepherd the kids quickly into the car—I can’t help myself. We drive along the edge of Lake Whatcom on our way to their school, which sits astride a hill overlooking the water. I’m reminded later in the day that just last spring, someone snapped a photo of a cougar swimming in that lake, its eyes two glowing amber discs above the water.

We drop them off, and I kiss their faces, yell, Be careful! I pull them in for an extra hug, and they tug at my squeeze, a silly leash. Kids in boots and bright coats funnel towards the playground for morning recess, chattering like birds. They swing red lunchboxes, drop backpacks, play.

A wild wedge of forest sidles up to the back half of the school, tall firs and deciduous trees creaking in October wind. As we drive away, I don’t want to imagine a big something curled up on a limb, watching the herd of colorful, noisy animals below.

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Dayna Patterson earned an MFA from Western Washington University, where she served as the managing editor of Bellingham Review. She is the founding editor-in-chief of Psaltery & Lyrewww.psalteryandlyre.org