The last couple of days I have been thinking about the way people delineate, protect and shape the space that is known as a back yard. People didn’t always have these private spaces; they have evolved over time and have evolved in different ways.
As hunter/gatherers, the world was our back yard and we were free to roam it, hunt it and explore it freely, alone or collectively. As people learned to cultivate crops, they needed to remain in one place and the idea of owning land evolved and with it the idea of “my” land came into being. With that notion came the desire to protect and preserve one’s ownership and exclusive use of that back yard space. And so, people planted hedges and erected fences and walls in an effort to keep others out and to preserve the illusion of private space in their back yards.
Then towns became cities and people crowded together and moved into smaller homes and apartments where they lost even this small ability to connect to their own private outdoor land. Window boxes and balcony planters became the only way to get their hands into the earth.
I remember being charmed by the community gardens outside of Zurich where city people had a very small plot of land, fenced and unique where they could become country people, if only for a little while. Most had a diminutive cabin which could be used to store tools and to spend the weekend in, close to the land. Some spaces contained miniature gardens, sporting small statues and perfectly manicured, pea gravel walking paths amongst multi-hued blooms. Others were more utilitarian with rows of rosy tomatoes and green peppers, mounds of zucchini and yellow squash blossoms and beans tendrilling their way up string trellises. Still others were miniature arboretums, where their owners fertilized, pruned and shaped small trees into lovely providers of green-textured shade.
Our own backyard has been a source of psychological sustenance for us. It has evolved from a steeply sloped grassy hill, where our boys learned to muscle a lawnmower across the dew-slick slope even, as it tried to kill them by enlisting gravity’s aid to roll over on them. Now it is a less lethal, terraced space with paver-surfaced walkways and patio areas flanked by a multitude of bee and butterfly attractors.
(photo credit: Jean Coleman)
Some birds migrate through while others are full time residents, delighting us with their calls and posturing as they take advantage of the free and abundant food provided each morning. The stream wends its way under a small bridge to dash against artfully placed rocks and then tumbles into the pool below the waterfall, where only goldfish have survived to swim in lazy circuits of the pond.
(Photo Credit: Jerry Coleman)
We have shaped our space to nurture our need for quiet contemplation. Appreciation for the flora and fauna has blossomed as we have loosened the need for complete control over what lives and visits. Native plants have been allowed to volunteer and have replaced beautiful but less hearty varieties once installed by an optimistic landscaper. The armadillos now plow through the vegetation, mostly unmolested. Raccoons and we suspect one otter have tried to snack on our fish with only minimal success. It has become much more of a “live-and-let-live” space than it was in the beginning and we have become good with that.
And now we have left that space behind for a year in the capable and enthusiastic care of a young couple whose first act of occupation was to install an additional birdfeeder, which we consider a very good omen. We have traded an enclosed and private space for a backyard that will have no limitations and little privacy and again, we are okay with that because it will change every day or two to expand and contract with the location in which our boat is moored or docked.
So far, our back yards have been: misty, watercolored shades of gray where nothing is distinctly discernable even though we know there are boats and buildings nearby in that fog; a tall ship from New Hampshire being restored by a team of scruffy but dedicated liveaboard young men in St. Petersburg’s downtown city basin; a lovely and historic Inn situated upon a long-abandoned Calusa midden dating from 100 B.C.
We have shared our backyards with multi-million dollar yachts in the Sarasota Marina, with a flock of mallards who call Cabbage Key home, with ospreys, pelicans and cormorants hunting for breakfast and with dolphins jumping for the sheer joy of it. (Photo credit: Jean Coleman)
There are magnificent sunrises and sets and views of flats lying exposed by ultra-low tides, ripe with the pungent scent of sea-life in distress.
(Photo credit: Jean Coleman)
The human neighbors are no less amusing. We have met Loopers who can talk the hind legs off a donkey and recluses who are never seen outside the confines of their vessels. And then there was the couple who waved a hearty good-bye to us yesterday, put their dinghy up on plane and at full throttle made the fatal mistake we were warned against by a fellow live-aboard who advised us, “Don’t ever drive where the birds are walking!”
Sure enough, their speeding dinghy abruptly grounded herself, throwing both occupants damn near clear of their vessel! They were too far away for us to actually hear the ensuing conversation but the postures and gestures made it abundantly clear that the woman had lost faith in her captain and he in his scout.