Animals in the Yard

Homeownership promised to be an education: in repairs, in responsibility, in acclimatization to the guillotine of massive debt. An unexpected outcome, though, has been acquiring an appreciation for what inspired Beatrix Potter, E.B. White and other children’s authors to write stories of the common critters that live in yards and their purlieus—animals with names, personalities, families, conflicts, and crises.

It’s early April now, and two consecutive mornings this week, I’ve been at a window at just the right time to spot a blue heron (I think that’s what he is) flapping slowly by in the sky, long neck extended, headed towards Webber Park, where I believe he spends time, or perhaps resides, in the pond. His travels are so regular—I saw him almost daily last fall—it’s easy to think of it as a commute, such as to a job; and his manner so stately and graceful, personification is almost reflexive. He’s surely a Mister, and his coat of slate blue must be a delivery uniform. He’s likely employed in such a capacity—always has been. He’s affable and dutiful. He’ll hand you your mail, chuckle, and tip his hat.

Earlier this week I saw him from the kitchen window, and this morning from the bedroom window as I stepped into a pair of pants. (Evidently I do this while looking out the window—Catholic shame?) I wondered where he had spent the winter. Continuing my study out this second-floor window, down into the yard, I saw a rabbit bounding around the parking pad, and the neighbor’s dog, a smush-faced, snorting but harmless Pug named Taco, on the other side of the fence beside the woodpile. The dog and the rabbit seemed not unaware of one another, but not worried or caring either, which is surprising for both the prey animal and the spastic pooch. It was as if they understood that the fence separated them absolutely—the same understanding I have with an irascible neighbor on the other side.

This perceived understanding, as if these animals tolerate each other reluctantly (as some of us humans do), and the sight of them going about some business in the morning sun, with frost still glistening on the shingles, brought to mind a sense of character and setting, such as is depicted in children’s stories. The simplicity of such tales can be painfully appealing, especially as a one gathers his ID badge, wallet, cell phone, iPod, and workout clothes, on one’s way to a dreary office. Yes! The happy lives of garden critters! How rich with potential! What marvelous blank slates! I’ll write a book about a yardful of animals! So less complicated than human lives. What’ll happen? I can work that out later.

Indeed, the sense of community and story observed in such a scene is strong. Or easy inflicted upon it, anyway. The rabbit, only last year, was a bunny, born into a family of three on the irascible neighbor’s side (not Taco’s owner) but raised, such as it were, in our yard, accessed through a gap in the corner of our garden. When the bunnies were no bigger than an apple and browner than they are now, they would huddle along our fence, noses twitching, getting to know the place, figuring out, by their mother’s example, how to be bunnies. Taco, likewise, has his domain and regular habits. He exits his master’s house through his own mini-door, which bears such promise for being seen from the grounds-eye view natural to the animal-based children’s story, and especially its illustrator. He snuffles around his yard as if captious and impatient, collar jingling. Isn’t there always a grumpy old man figure in these fables, whether a bear or an ornery badger?

This is not the first time I’ve perceived our new yard as the cross-sectional set, like an apartment in a French film, of an animal epic. Our first summer here introduced several frogs who enjoy a particularly well-shaded corner. They leapt out of the tall grass when I came around with the mower—a thrilling scene in the tale that was being written. Can’t you just picture it, the layout across the page: Bumpy, the full-grown brown one (he’s probably a toad), springs expertly to safety amid the landscaping rocks, his frog legs hanging back in mid-air; he shouts, in that storybook dialogue inaudible to human characters, to the younglings, the smaller and brighter green boys, who are of course frightened but must be brave. They too escape the harm of the massive growling machine. (In real life, the outcome was not so rosy.)

The first winter snow made evidence of the rabbit’s travels during the night—little triads of padded prints forming trails up the concrete path, a smudge showing respite taken underneath the barbeque.

The first spring brought to the story the dastardly squirrel. I don’t want to talk about him, because I hate him. He nests in an elm high above Taco’s territory and Taco’s owner’s hammock, and he travels from branch to branch, as we humans travel the skyways of downtown Minneapolis and St. Paul, to our garage roof, to our tomato garden, which he raids shamelessly, brazenly, leaving evidence such as half-chomped Brandywines on fence posts.

Let’s move on.

So we have the blue heron (an avian Mr. Furley), the family of bunnies led by the reticent matron, the toads in the shade fathered by Bumpy, house-bound Taco, and Kraznak, the deranged criminal squirrel despised by all. What a cast of characters. This stuff writes itself.

The coming and going of the seasons, and seeing these animals in the context of my human schedule, creates the impression of their lives being episodic—calling for chapters or titles in a series. “The Arrival of Ants.” “Taco Loses His Cool.” “How Kraznak Ruined the Garden by Eating and Befouling Hundreds of Tomatoes Despite Elaborate and Plenteous Netting.” For example.

The appearance of other guests extends this serial sense. That week or two in fall when flocks of Canadian geese pass overhead in noisy Vees. The arrival of cardinals and blue jays. The stray cat found sleeping in the garage last summer when I left the door open for an afternoon. The mice who also holed up there behind stacks of shingles. The time a woodchuck was spotted prowling the alley. Even the massive infestation of dandelions we battled our first spring seems like a conceivable story element—a passage in a great novel that began before we moved in, and which will go on long after.

Where this quaint notion falls short, however, is in its practical reality, beyond daydreaming as one sets off for another grueling day in cubeland—promised to be made more grueling by the eruption of spring outside. For the actual potential of this animal cavalcade to tell the kind of stories I want to tell, to my satisfaction, is much less than it seems at a glance. (Like a statistical anomaly, we’ll throw out Orwell.) What can I do—make Bumpy an alcoholic and Taco a war veteran with untreated PTSD? What I really want to address in fiction is the isolation of the internet age—but I’ve never seen any of these critters using a computer. Though Kraznack would make the perfect on-line predator.