The watercolor shown above is a project of two years in planning and commemorates a time and place that defies accepted lawn maintenance practices and aesthetics. What follows is the story of A Little Chaos.
People who know me know I changed addresses a lot (12 times, to be exact) since 2008 when we lost our first house in the mortgage-backed securities debacle.
Where ever I’m living, I encourage a bit of wildness.
What people who know me don’t know about me is that for every place I moved into, I encourage a bit of wildness to be a part of my stay there. The staple is feeding the birds, which usually turns into, by default, feeding the rabbits, turkeys, ducks, and squirrels. When I could garden, I planted native plants for pollinators. I love watching the bumble bees, their bodies too big to logically fly as physics tells us, their hypnotic buzz vibrating in the key of C.
The yard is too dangerous to mow.
The biggest wildness happened when we occupied the last house we would rent before buying one of our own. As tenants, we were responsible for yard maintenance. The front and side yards were straightforward. However, the backyard was an uneven gauntlet of obstacles. My husband and I looked at each other, our eyes stating the obvious, “This yard is too dangerous to mow.” We said nothing to our landlord about this. Instead, we let the backyard go wild.
A Little Chaos. Watercolor on 300lb Fabriano Hotpress Paper. 29.25” x 21” Unframed.
I sincerely hope Aspens exist in heaven.
I fully expected a suburban landscaping aesthetic to kick in. It never did. Instead, I watched as nature took over. There was some cultivation in play — Hosta growing around the base of an Aspen tree, Japanese Pachysandra encasing an old tree stump, and lots of ferns spreading where ever they wanted to. The yard held tall Aspen and Pin Oaks, plus four sad little Blue Spruce trees along the neighboring fence. If I could have moved them to a more suitable spot, I would. In time, Aspen saplings started to spring up, their thin reed-like trunks waving golden green leaves in the breeze. It’s another affirmation that I sincerely hope Aspens exist in heaven.
As the backyard returned to wild, various plant species took root among the grasses. Most people would label them weeds. I suspect many were either edible, medicinal, or both. I discovered what the invasive garlic mustard looks like as one started blooming among the ferns. They really are an attractive plant. However, knowing so many volunteer their weekends to pull them out of the ground, I reluctantly did the same.
Detail views of A Little Chaos.
To the rabbits, the backyard was a giant salad bowl.
The rabbits certainly appreciated the wild greenery. To them, the backyard was a giant salad bowl as well as habitat. It had turned into a lazy sanctuary where I would catch the rabbits sprawled out under the kitchen window after a warm afternoon, with no barking dogs or high fences to contend with.
Then there was JoJo.
Then there was JoJo, a spunky chestnut-streaked chipmunk we befriended. Chipmunks are the smallest member of the squirrel family, highly territorial, and despise their own kind but will take a shine to humans. There was some getting to know each other. At first, I thought JoJo was male. Then one day, she stood up on her hind legs to reveal that, in fact, she was expecting. From then on, we called her Mama JoJo.
Feeding her by hand was an electrifying experience.
As she grew more and more comfortable with us, we started feeding her by hand. She had an affinity for black sunflower seeds. Then I read feeding chipmunks black sunflower seeds was like providing them with a steady diet of chocolate bonbons. So I switched to offering her unsalted, organic, if possible, variety of nuts, all of which she took readily. There are people who preach the downfalls of feeding wild animals. I understand where they are coming from if not wholeheartedly agree with them. Still, there is something thrilling and so surreal as Mama JoJo put her little paw on my hand while taking her presented nuts and stuffing them into her cheek pouches. It was an electrifying experience.
With food, there should be water, too. I placed a small desert bowl of fresh water that once held crèmes brûlée on the steps leading out of the three-seasoned porch. It was the perfect size for Mama JoJo. And it became the perfect-sized watering hole for others, too. During the heat of the summer, just about everyone showed up for a drink, even butterflies.
Then the fireflies showed up.
There were many afternoons that I would hang out in the backyard observing the birds, the insects, and the way the light filtered through the trees. It was lush and quiet (with the exception of Mama JoJo’s insistent barking to protect her territory). Most of all, it was a wild oasis among manicured and chemically induced lawns. One reward for letting the backyard run wild was when the fireflies showed up. The backyard appeared strung with little lights, twinkling off and on in the night air. The thick vegetation kept the night air moist and humid, creating a suitable environment for fireflies to congregate.
I saw fireflies all the time growing up. I recently learned their numbers have fallen to endangered status due to urban-suburban development, drained wetlands, and light pollution. Fireflies use their flashing lights to communicate, find a mate, defend territory, and fend off predators. I’m glad we could provide a little refuge for the fireflies that summer among all the yard lights and mowed lawns on either side of our rented house.
The Nest Generation. Graphite + Watercolor. 16 ” x 20” Framed. Gifted to our landlords.
A peace offering.
When it came time to move out, I wrote a detailed letter to our landlord explaining why we let the backyard go wild and how much I loved it. I wrote about its potential and all the things they could do back there that did not involve mowing. As a “peace-consolation” offering, I gifted a drawing that the landlord’s wife had seen exhibited at the Minnetonka Center for the Arts and expressed how much she loved it.
The landlord’s response to “our not mowing the backyard” did not align with my sentiments. In short, he was pissed. But that’s what security deposits are for. A portion of it went to cutting back all the wild we had let happen. While I feel sorry for the loss of habitat and all the natural beauty I experienced, I feel sorry for the landlord for losing a secret garden he will never know.
I knew I would probably never have this experience again and wanted to memorialize that wild backyard and all that it had given me. It was two years before I could define my approach and carve the time needed to make a piece that could speak to the importance of creating and keeping wild spaces wherever we can. By doing so, we nurture the wild side of ourselves, too.
If I were to attempt such a project again I would think to include the birds, the rabbits, and of course, Mama JoJo. Let your eyes do the imaging. They’re all in there somewhere.