I used to regard hiking as the only way to get to the wildness that Henry David Thoreau wrote about. A hike needed to be of epic proportions—an endurance challenge that covered broad swaths of landscape and left a solid set of blisters on your heels by the time you finished. I don’t think that way any longer. The distance you travel, the creatures you see, and the quality of the experiences you exchange depend on something other than how far your feet carry you. Today’s hike was the 1/8th-mile trail around the edge of my lawn.
It has become a habit to walk my yard the way I walk in forests, with senses wide open to wonder. Heading north across the patio, my trailhead starts behind the garage.
The footing is uneven, given the piles of leaves dumped here for compost. Time and decay will take care of the rest. Decomposition, like weathering and erosion, is another one of earth’s slow, steady forces where small actions, multiplied by trillions, change the landscape. Lying down on this bed of leaves, I take in the scent of soil formation. It is a quiet, comfortable place to lie and listen to the silent hum of life beating underneath the leaves. The moisture creates the microhabitat for millipedes, sowbugs, springtails, nematodes, ants, and worms that create soil with their incredibly efficient digestive systems.
Backtracking from behind the garage, the trail turns south under the shade of our red cedar. In the spring, a blue jay makes a nest hidden deep in the branches. This vocal bird has never been happy about me mowing the lawn. The Rose of Sharon that grows along the fence are in full bloom. Bumblebees bathe in pollen among the pink and white petals. Ants take advantage of the opportunities for food inside the flowers. They crawl in and out with a single-minded mission. I try to follow individual ants but keep losing them in the leaves.
A few steps later, I come to the corner garden bed where the late summer flowers are faded green. My wife Karen uses clam shells for a decorative border. We often find the shells facing open side up. We turn them back, only to find them flipped over the next day. It was a mystery until Karen saw grackles flicking over the shells to get at the worms that were hiding underneath—absolutely brilliant of them. The skies are clear of grackles during this hike. Sometimes the grackles, joined by starlings and blackbirds, become a black cloud of synchronicity that rolls and flows across the sky. Around here grackles flock in hundreds, but, in other places, grackles sometimes gather in flocks of thousands. I’d like to see that.
The trail takes me along the west side of the house and into the front yard, past the termite traps that are hopefully working. The hike around the yard has me tired, so I take a break to sit on our front stoop. There are small piles of cement where the ants are tearing down the steps one grain at a time, slowly winning the battle over the cement. There is talk in the house of taking out the stoop and making a porch perhaps, but the price tag of progress is steep. We could save money by letting the ants and time do the work of demolition.
Onward I hike across the lawn. A small pile of rabbit droppings signals the presence of one of our night visitors. One of my favorite animal facts is that rabbits will sometimes eat their droppings to eke out just a little more nutrition. A squirrel jumps—each leap several times her body length—from our roof to the Norway maple and from there to the neighbor’s gutters and across to the telephone lines. Karen has ongoing conflicts with the squirrels. She planted one hundred bulbs a few weekends ago. Now there are holes where the squirrels dug them up. Since a squirrel can smell the difference between red oak acorns and white oak acorns, it is no surprise they can find tulip bulbs under a few inches of mulch.
This hike, a circumnavigation of the lawn, is a study in finding wonder in the simple—also the quick and spectacular. While I stand in the driveway, my attention turns toward the squawking, squeaking, and scramble of feathers in the Yew tree a few feet from where I am. A Cooper’s hawk emerges and briefly lands on the phone wire before flying off. A starling flies out a few minutes later, shaken but alive. I would have liked to see the Cooper’s hawk get the starling.
My loop completed, I am now at the back door. As with the end of all good hikes, it is time for a snack.
The word wild comes from “self-willed.” The animals around my home are living wild, self-willed lives within my own more domesticated one. Our home is their habitat and they are taking advantage of the niches and resources around them with amazing adaptations that rival the wildlife in jungles, deserts, or tundra. By giving me a glimpse of their lives, these creatures continually show me that the city and suburbs have wildness.
When I first moved here, I spent a lot of time focused on my desire to go off to the mountains and deserts. I still want to go to those places and be in their wildness, but the animals here help me to be present at home. Seeing the way they are interrelated with my life keeps me aware of my connections to the more-than-human world. They inspire me to learn more about their lives. My yard brings me closer to the wildness I seek, an eighth of a mile at a time.