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A bear visited the other night. I could hear it at the bottom of the garden. I could hear the rustle and crack as it moved through the brush, then a few heavy thuds as it pushed around some discarded lumber. Early the next morning, coffee in hand, I slipped into my old green gardening boots and wandered outside to assess the damage. All three bird feeders were down and I almost stepped in a mound of black, seed-flecked scat in the tall grass. The support for one feeder, an iron pole an inch and a half thick, was bent into a U shape.
I don’t mind. Any wildlife that chooses to grace my day or my night is welcome. I would mind greatly if the wild things weren’t around, if there wasn’t the occasional bear in the backyard, a moose in the driveway or the rare glimpse of a fisher, moving like a dark sinewy ribbon through the brush.
I used to go and look for it by camping in Canada, by visiting a jungle in Costa Rica or hiking in Peru. But there’s no need to schlepp through an airport and get on a plane to see wildlife. I live on a large lot on a dead-end street, surrounded by trees and next door to a vast conservation park. There’s plenty of action in my own backyard.
Standing on my deck in the early morning is a good time to catch sight of coyotes and foxes, if they’re in the neighbourhood. Foxes are shy. I would dearly love to run my hand over a luxurious red-orange coat and extravagant tail, but they sidle off, cat-like, making their rounds as soon as they catch wind of me. Coyotes are bolder, much bolder. One surprised me – or rather we surprised each other – one morning as he rounded a corner of the house. We both stopped dead, he in mid-stride, me with a coffee cup halfway to my lips. Perhaps he was calculating if I was edible and what were his odds. I was calculating whether a turn and dash to the house was in order. But then he saw our cat and all hell broke loose. Sid bolted across the deck and up a tree, with seconds to spare. The coyote circled the tree a few times, staring up, probably willing Sid to fall. The odds were not good, so the coyote ambled off toward a neighbour’s house, the one who keeps chickens. If he didn’t find a chicken, I expected, “Have you seen this cat?” posters would’ve begun appearing by the community mailboxes in a few days.
For a week or so last May, some flashy celebrities dropped in and we were treated to a riot of song and colour and movement. It started with a glimpse of brilliant scarlet by the birdbath. It was a glamorous, vibrant new colour, not the standard Crayola red worn by the usual gang of red-winged blackbirds. I grabbed the binoculars for a closer look. A scarlet tanager! The next day there were sky-blue indigo buntings, vivid orange Baltimore orioles and sunny yellow warblers at the feeders. Just like celebrities behaving badly, they squabbled over food and pushed each other out of the bird bath for a few weeks before moving on.
Working in my shady front garden last week, I froze when a small mound of wood mulch next to my boot seemed to move. Laying down my trowel, I knelt for a closer look. It wasn’t mulch but a lovely, big old toad, a warty lump the size of my hand, perfectly camouflaged. It didn’t move. “I’ve stepped on him,” I thought, and I tapped a front leg gently with a twig, testing for signs of life. Suddenly, it flopped away and under a large, fragrant patch of flowering geranium. I sat back on my heels, “Damp, cool and dark, he’ll love it there.” A little while later, working in a different patch of the bed, I spied “Son of Toad”: smaller, more lively, hopping away to hide under another geranium. I read The Wind in the Willows to my daughters when they were young, and Toad of Toad Hall comes to mind. I imagine little waistcoats and walking sticks and monocles. I imagine their secret lives underneath the flowers.
Squirrels, “tree rats” a friend calls them, are by turns annoying and entertaining. They endlessly chase each other, in search of sex or food or both depending on the season. Occasionally, they’ll plow through one of the large pots of yellow begonias or purple impatiens that sit on the deck, making a ragged mess. In the high heat of summer, they drape themselves like boneless pelts over tree stumps or rock walls or the bit of fence that hides the compost heap, their crooked back legs dangling. Occasionally, one or two will form a tableau and lie prostrate under the benign gaze of a garden Buddha we’ve placed on a stump.
After three years of deliberate neglect, the back end of the garden has filled in with clover, daisies, chicory, milkweed, tickseed, sweet little violets and a lovely sweep of purple asters in the fall. There is a lot of pollinating going on back there. When I’ve had enough of digging and weeding and pruning, I collapse into a bright, blue plastic Adirondack chair, strategically placed for just this purpose. The chair, slanted back at just the right angle and warmed by the sun, is a delicious relief to all my tired muscles. I close my eyes and hear the low thrum of the bees. When I open my eyes, there they are, plump and busy, all around me, at home in my own backyard.
Linda Jones lives in Chelsea, Que.
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