Ode to the Side Yard
These odd scraps of property tell us more about ourselves than we realize.
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The first side yard I can recall—the one belonging to my childhood home in South Carolina—had one notable feature: a tall plant, presumably tropical, judging by the rubbery leaves. Those leaves grew in tubes, at the bottom of which would pool rainwater. Every warm morning, I would run outside, pull down the leaves, gaze into their throats, and find frogs squatting inside like little green uvulas.
Front yards add curb appeal, and backyards add comfort—patio furniture, umbrellas, grills, fire pits. But what is a side yard if not the outdoor equivalent of a hallway, leading from one true yard to another? Side yards are scraps of property—hardly the place to encounter beauty or significance. Yet their existence on the periphery allows them to surprise us. My first encounters with the natural world happened in modest side yards, sliding those frogs into my cupped hands, quietly popping hosta buds between my finger and thumb, watching ant lions snare their prey in tiny craters of sand.
In 1955, Rachel Carson, the marine biologist who inspired the modern environmental movement, wrote “The Marginal World,” an essay in which she described the strange beauty of coastlines. Like a starfish in one beach cave reaching for its perfect reflection in a tide pool, Carson saw herself reflected in the alien life of pink molluscs and gelatinous anemones, slowly gathering in herself “a strong sense of the interchangeability of land and sea… and of the links between the life of the two.”
Coastline flora and fauna are marginal in a literal sense, but Carson also observed how all of nature often occupies the margins of our attention, just out of focus, despite our deep connection to it. Side yards are among the best examples of this phenomenon: tiny ecosystems can flourish precisely because these spaces attract less of our attention. Not long ago, for example, my parents were surprised to discover a small warren of rabbits burrowed in their narrow and otherwise featureless side yard.
Some might object to the comparison of the side yard to such majestic environments as Carson described. The boundary separating human-subdued property from true nature can be stark: the writer Annie Dillard noted a literal, barbed wire boundary parting a pasture filled with steers—or “beef,” as she called them—from the nearby wilderness that inspired her masterpiece, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. But the boundary can be blurrier than Dillard makes it out to be. My own side yard in Louisville, Kentucky holds what she might’ve called the waterway-equivalent of beef: the culvert. Water dribbles steadily (or, during storms, flows torrentially) from a pond in a nearby neighborhood into the culvert that runs beneath our street and onto our property. It’s no Tinker Creek, but it is our creek.
And indeed, in the thick rushes and around the roots of the old-growth willow dipping its fronds into the current, frogs and crawdads congregate; a duck hen, her fuzzy brood trailing elliptically behind her, treks up and down the bank daily; turtles, including a monstrous snapper, make annual appearances, as do various birds, snakes, and an enormously fat groundhog. As I watch the bustle, I am reminded of Thoreau’s contemplation: “Much is published, but little printed.”
This is our side yard—more lush than many, but awkward nonetheless. The grass declines steeply to the water, too steeply for my two sons, aged five and seven, to use for any conventional purpose: playing catch, or that sort of thing. Frankly, even finding a spot flat enough to sit comfortably is a challenge. Yet the boys neglect their more conventional backyard—complete with a trampoline, various balls, and a play kitchen—to spend hours in the side yard, digging worms from the clayey soil, squatting on the bridge I built of wood scrap last summer, counting the frogs sheltering on the mucky bank. They discover the odd leech on their toes and gleefully pluck it off like a small, black fruit. Last week, for the first time, the boys each held a crawdad. And each jumped, startled, when the little crustacean snapped its tail as loudly as I can snap my fingers.
Unlike our front and back yards, our side yard is largely uncontrolled, and that bit of wild fills the observer with anticipation. The powerful pump of a crawdad’s tail, the thrust of frogs’ legs; what is still for hours can explode in a moment into brilliant motion. The same is true of the garden my wife and I have begun to cultivate along that ungainly slope above the creek. We scatter seeds, and some alchemy between the soil, the weather, and those tiny pods produces flowers as tall as me. Perhaps this is what so captivates my children about the yard, about the outdoors in general: potential energy.
Alas, humans interrupt this idyll. Bottles and empty chip bags accumulate among the reeds, and farther down the stream, where another culvert contributes to the flow, spray-painted obscenities adorn the concrete. My boys are already sounding out these obscenities—they’re mostly single-syllable words, after all. We may not litter or paint curse words on walls, but we are not exempt from judgment. The very presence of our house has displaced many of the creatures that once inhabited this small hill we live on—foxes and the like. Thoreau once compared a distant train’s whistle to the scream of a hawk. We are predators, he seemed to say, even if only by accident.
But nature can flourish despite our efforts to the contrary. E.O. Wilson, the celebrated entomologist and nature writer, discovered as a child four species of ants in the empty lot beside his Alabama home, including one entire colony under a discarded glass whiskey bottle. Poet Elizabeth Bishop described catching a fish and finding five hooks, their lines broken, lodged in his lower lip “like medals and their ribbons.” Famously, she let the fish go.
I don’t mean to minimize the destructive capacity of humans, but rather to remind us that nature is powerful, miraculous even.
Increasingly, though, the time we spend outside—even in our yards—is dwarfed by the time we spend interfacing with technology, the tools we’ve created in the pursuit of perfect productivity. That infinite pursuit is changing us, encouraging us to see ourselves as little more than complex machines. One has only to peruse the self-help shelf at any given bookstore to see the machine logic prescribed to all imperfect passersby: optimize the inputs to produce more desirable outputs.
We of course are not above enlisting the natural world in our quest to solve our complicated selves. A recent article in a major publication recommended birdsong as a means of improving our mental health. This is simply an extension of machine logic: that nature is good, but we can improve its effects on us by abstracting its best features—birdsong, say—and more strategically inputting them into our lives (perhaps via studio-quality headphones!). Back yards, like birdsong, deliver comfort. But those pesky side yards—our marginal world, to borrow from Carson—refuse to be so easily instrumentalized.
I love my side yard because it tells this different story about us humans. Nature is always becoming, much as we, as constituents of nature, are also always becoming. While our technology decays, we grow—and as we do, we find more in common with the allium or the salamander than with machines in constant need of repair or replacement.
I often think of the Torah’s creation narrative, in which God created from adama, the ground, adam, humankind—naming us, roughly translated, groundlings. Many religious traditions have such stories. Carson saw herself reflected dimly in marine life, but she was not unusual: even the most ardent materialists have, to use the words of the poet Wallace Stevens, “found inklings of [our] bond to all that dust.”
When I sit (uncomfortably) in my side yard during springtime, when the Lenten Roses have beaten every other flower to bloom and the willow is leafing out too early to be called prudent, the experience is like religious ecstasy or a vivid dream: no amount of description or recorded neurochemical activity can capture it. Sitting in that little patch of green—persisting within and despite the slow-spreading sprawl of houses, the grid of asphalt, the endless web of wires—I feel for a brief moment something strange and uncertain: an inkling of what I am meant to be.