The kind you’re born with, the kind you choose, the kind that teach Catholic school
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On the night of my fourteenth birthday I passed out drunk in a tent in my best friend’s backyard and woke to find a strange boy kissing me. I also had my hand down this boy’s shorts. I’d never even had my hand down my boyfriend’s shorts before. Confused, I got up and stumbled out of the tent. My best friend was sitting nearby in a rectangle of light from a kitchen window, talking to two other boys. I pulled her aside and asked who was the tall, blond guy unfolding himself from the tent and awkwardly adjusting his shorts.
She told me it was Jimmy, who lived down the street: “When he showed up, you threw your arms around him and said, ‘You’re back!’ ”
I must have thought he was my boyfriend, who’d left earlier to get home by his midnight curfew. I had no memory of his “return,” which frightened me, though it wasn’t the first time I’d gotten blackout drunk. I decided to play it cool and went to look for another beer. By the time I’d ended my search, Jimmy had disappeared.
At sixteen I had a fake ID and a car. One night I got wasted at a bar and nodded off several times while driving home, but somehow I didn’t crash. Another time I snuck a boy into my house and had sex with him in my bedroom, which was right next to my mother’s. Not once did I get caught or disciplined. I was a straight-A student and a good girl, more or less.
Today I’m a well-educated professional in her forties who occasionally gets tipsy on half a glass of wine with dinner. Last year at Christmas my older sister and I began to reminisce in front of our mother about our wild teen years. We both acknowledged that we were lucky to have gotten through them relatively unharmed. With each new story we told, our mom grew more shocked. Finally she threatened to go home if we didn’t stop. She wasn’t joking. She couldn’t believe that some of these things had happened literally in her backyard.
In the early 1980s I started a rigorous six-year academic program in Boston that required me to work during the day, take classes at night, and do homework on the weekends. On my first summer off, I wanted to get far away from my studies, work with my hands, and be close to the earth. So I went to live with an Amish family in Pennsylvania. The experience renewed me, and I decided to do it again the next summer.
That year I drove from Boston to Pennsylvania on a holiday weekend, and what was normally a six-hour trip took more than ten hours. By the time I arrived, just before dusk, I was anxious and exhausted.
My Amish hosts had delayed their dinner for me. During the meal I tried to act natural, but I felt full of nerves. My Amish host could clearly tell something was amiss, because at the end of dinner he said, “Come with me.”
I followed him to their backyard, which bordered an alfalfa field. Although his faith discouraged smoking, the farmer lit a cigarette. Three of his children gamboled about while two others clung to him. The farmer stood without saying a word, looking out over the alfalfa. I did the same.
The dark-green field was becoming harder to see in the fading light. The sky was peach at the horizon and deep blue higher up. Stars had begun to appear. Then out of the alfalfa rose fireflies — a few at first, but soon there were hundreds. Their pinpricks of light mingled with the stars: heaven and earth meeting in this humble man’s backyard. I felt my nervousness leave me.
The farmer turned and said, “That’s for you.”
I was born in 1963, the same year my parents moved into a white Cape Cod house at the top of Elm Street. Some of my earliest memories are from that backyard: playing at the base of the rickety steps, scooping sand into a waiting toy dump truck, or digging in search of buried treasure.
Just beyond where I would play with my trucks, my father had a garden. He worked in it most evenings, especially when the house was unbearably hot. After I started elementary school, I’d join him.
My father was taciturn, giving only the bare minimum of instructions necessary to get the job done. We would plant the yellow corn seed (two per hole) and the smooth purple beans (three per hole). We would transplant the tomatoes, weed the onions, and pick the string beans. The work seemed endless, but I was happy to help, because every now and then my father would stop what he was doing, lean on his hoe, and tell me a story about his childhood. He’d describe how he and his friends used to come to this very place, before all the houses had been built, to pick green apples and blackberries, build forts, and swing on wild vines. Other times he’d tell me how he’d kept pigeons as a kid, or how he’d gone night fishing with his father and uncle by the light of kerosene lanterns.
In the fall my father and I harvested what was left of the summer crop before the final waves of killing frost came. A cold wind would blow out of the north, and instead of his childhood, my father would talk about the war: He told of the D-Day invasion. He told of stumbling over bodies, of the crappy guns jamming, of digging trenches and foxholes. He told of liberating the camps, how you wouldn’t believe there could be a God after you saw that.
If a plane passed overhead, my father would cry out. How he hated those damn planes. He wanted to shoot them down with the .30-30 rifle that he kept in the mothball-smelling closet, behind the heavy coats. My father had said that he would someday use that gun to blow his head off.
One snowy winter day, as a young teen, I stood in the backyard catching flakes on my tongue, too old to ride an aluminum saucer down the hill, too young to run away from home. Moments earlier I had made the mistake of bumping my father’s armchair while he was watching football on TV, and he had wrapped his hands around my throat, lifting me off the ground. I’d blacked out and woken up on the floor with him standing over me.
After that, I kept my distance from my father. He stopped talking, and I stopped listening. That spring he let the garden go to weeds.
In July 1970 we moved from New York to Los Angeles and rented a home with a backyard where our girls could safely play. I was hanging clothes on the line when I saw our next-door neighbor over the fence and walked over to introduce myself. She spotted the Jewish star around my neck, narrowed her eyes at me, and hissed, “The Nazis should have killed you and your family along with all the other kikes.”
I went inside, called my husband at his job, and told him we had a serious problem.
Unable to afford another move so soon, we decided to avoid these neighbors and hope for the best. Over the next month, whenever the woman spied me in the backyard, she’d yell things like “I hope one day your dead bodies will be shipped to your families in a coffin.” Her husband tossed rocks at our kitchen window. Then we found our beloved poodle, Brandy, unmoving on the lawn. My husband wrapped Brandy in a towel and raced to the vet, but it was too late. Certain the neighbors had poisoned the dog, we contacted the police. The young officer who came to our home recommended we buy a gun.
That was it for us. We didn’t want to own a gun or live in this place any longer. We borrowed money from our family and called the landlord to say we were moving.
It was the first time either of us had been the target of such virulent prejudice. The experience inspired us to become involved in helping black families who’d been rejected by landlords because of their race, and we hosted students from other countries in our homes, getting to know people of many different backgrounds and ethnicities. We are all worthy of love and respect.
Los Angeles, California
When I was twelve, I dragged my beat-up lawn mower all over the neighborhood, looking for yards to mow. My goal on Saturday afternoon was to earn enough money to hang out with my friends at the mall that night. The houses I hated were the ones with high backyard fences, because you couldn’t see the size of the yard that you were offering to mow.
I remember the first time I encountered such a place: A middle-aged woman answered the door, and I told her I would mow her yard for twenty dollars. That was before I knew she had the biggest backyard I had ever seen. It was more than a hundred yards long and on a steep hill. But my mom had always told me that when you said you were going to do something, you kept your word. So I cranked up my old lawn mower and got started.
By the time I’d mowed the first row and was coming back up the slope, I’d begun to rethink my decision. On my third trip up, my legs were shaking. I sat down to catch my breath, and the homeowner came out and offered me a glass of iced tea.
“Are you going to be all right?” she asked.
I smiled and told her not to worry: I would get it done.
I battled that yard for the rest of the afternoon and finished as the sun was going down. Looking over the mown grass, I felt my first sense of accomplishment at a job well done. The woman came out to admire my work and gave me an extra ten dollars.
As soon as I got home, I fell on my bed and went to sleep. I was so tired I didn’t even get up to hang out with my friends. But I didn’t care. I’d learned that a hard day’s work can be just as rewarding as a night out.
Jeffrey Scott Evans
Columbia, South Carolina
He came in the evening, after my children were asleep, slipping over my fence into the backyard and tapping quietly on my sliding glass door. The first time he arrived this way, I reached for my baseball bat. Then I saw who it was.
“It’s so I don’t ruin your reputation,” he explained. He knew the neighbors would gossip about a married woman who entertained a man in her home while her husband was overseas in the military.
There was no way to explain our unusual friendship to my proper, churchgoing neighbors, who watched approvingly during the day as I mowed the grass, washed the car, and put up the window screens by myself. “You manage so well,” they said.
This rental house in suburban California was just a temporary home for me. I intended to go back to college as soon as I could. Whether my husband would be included in these plans was still up in the air. He had been unfaithful, and we’d been unhappy for years.
My friend, too, was on the brink of making a life-changing decision. While he and I folded my little girls’ laundry, emptied the dishwasher, or cooked dinner, we’d talk for hours about our pasts, the lives we’d chosen, and our secret dreams for the future. He spent Halloween with my girls and me, happily carrying the flashlight while the kids went trick-or-treating in a distant neighborhood. On Thanksgiving he carved the turkey. At Christmas he helped us cut down a tree, bring it home, and decorate it. My girls missed their father, and this kind, respectful man listened to them, laughed with them, and read them stories.
One night my next-door neighbor saw my friend arriving through the backyard, and he forbade his wife to speak to me after that. Then my across-the-street neighbor snubbed me at the supermarket.
There didn’t seem to be any point in trying to explain that I’d decided to get a divorce and would soon be going back to college on a scholarship, or that my friend was a Catholic priest who had spent the last twenty years in a monastery and now intended to leave the priesthood and live openly as a gay man.
Santa Rosa, California
The sand should have been dumped in the backyard, where it would be used to build a patio. Instead, while my father was at work, the truck dumped it right in the middle of the driveway.
When my father got home that evening, he stared in disbelief at the mountain of sand sitting in the wrong spot. “God damn it to hell,” he said.
He went inside and shouted at my mother for letting the driver dump the sand there. I knew dinner that night would be clouded by his anger, my mother’s unhappiness, and the familiar fear caused by his nightly drinking. I decided that the next day I would make my father happy: I would move the mountain.
After my father took the bus to work the following morning, I got to work, too. At the age of ten I was a good organizer, and my younger sister and an assortment of neighborhood kids looked to me for leadership.
I turned it into a game. What kid doesn’t like to dig in the sand? We used spades and our hands to fill beach pails, mop buckets, and old pots and pans, and we transported the loads to the backyard. I happily watched one pile shrink and the other grow.
Shortly before my father arrived home, my ragtag gang of laborers joined me at the bus stop to wait for him. I said nothing about the sand when he first appeared, wanting it to be a surprise, but as we walked home, my little sister could bear it no longer and shouted, “We moved the mountain, Daddy!”
When we got there, he just stared at the empty driveway and then walked to the backyard to find the pile of sand right where it needed to be. He shook his head in wonder but never said a word.
At dinner that night my sister and I were practically falling asleep at the table from exhaustion, but afterward we went outside to play in the cool of the evening. My father called me over and told me to round up the kids who had helped move the sand.
I tucked my hand in his to walk down the street, where he was going to buy us all ice cream. As the rest of the kids whooped and hollered around us, I knew I had made him happy.
As high-school seniors, my friend Pete and I got jobs at a local plant nursery, helping customers haul heavy pots and bags of soil to their cars. The manager was an easygoing guy. He bought us beer, and one time, when we told him we’d purchased some crappy marijuana riddled with seeds, he said to save the seeds and he’d set us up with everything we needed to grow our own plants.
I asked my mom if I could grow a few pot plants in the backyard. She reluctantly agreed, as long as I removed the rats I’d been raising in cages there to sell as food for people’s pet snakes. I’m sure she thought my success as a pot grower would be minimal, but Mom didn’t know about Larry and the breadth of his knowledge about marijuana. He supplied us with mulches, growth hormones, and trimming tips for maximum bud production. He even suggested turning the leftover rat shit into the soil because it would make “bitching fertilizer.”
What started as a few meager seedlings steadily grew into a verdant hedge along the backyard fence. I could stand under a pot plant and be concealed by its foliage. While tending to our marijuana, Pete and I also watered the tomatoes, beans, and zucchini my mom had planted, and the backyard became a sea of green. We waited in anticipation for harvest time, when we would find out what kind of high our homegrown would deliver.
Shortly before the plants began to flower, an old friend of my mom’s visited and informed her that she could lose the house and do jail time if our crop was discovered. That same day my mother told me the plants had to be gone by sunset.
Pete and I put the word out, and in a matter of hours friends and even strangers had dug up and relocated the marijuana. We never got to smoke any of that weed, but we heard that it was exceptional.
Pete went on to get a PhD in plant ecology, while I earned a degree in biology. Thirty years later he works as a college professor in Mexico, and I restore degraded ecosystems, sprouting native plants from seeds that I collect in the wild. It turns out the real reward of our backyard venture wasn’t the high we could get from smoking a joint but the awe we felt as we witnessed something grow.
Morro Bay, California
The year is 1949. My younger brother and I, five and six years old, have recently arrived in New York City from France as children of a United Nations staff member. We speak no English. It is an overcast winter day, and we are staring at the deep snow blanketing the yard behind our school. We know of snow from the illustrated fairy-tale books that our grandmother and aunts read to us, but we have never experienced it firsthand. Though the other children encourage us to join in their play, I feel frightened and alone.
The teachers are filming us with a handheld movie camera. Suddenly my brother wrests his hand from my grip and begins to plow through the snow, leaving a clear trail behind him. He continues until all I can see of him is a fuzzy knit hat above the whiteness. Panicked, I call for him to return, tears streaming down my face. The other children are building snowmen, and I am sobbing and crying out for my brother.
A week or so later, while we are lying down for quiet time at school, the teachers show us the snow footage on a movie screen set up in the dim classroom. As the camera pans the schoolyard, I see my brother far away against the fence. Then the camera continues its pan and stops abruptly on my tear-stained face.
The other children watching the movie begin to laugh derisively and point at me. The teachers join in. Humiliated, I pretend to be asleep.
Even now snowy backyards remind me of that day.
Leicester, North Carolina
My grandpa’s backyard was a grand botanical exhibit. It was there, in his musky, fragrant garden, that he forgot about his work and dug into the black soil. He harvested purslane and dandelions from the cracks in the sidewalk and ground them, along with melons, into a cold green soup, which he drank with gusto and poured into fancy glasses for his family. (“Drink it?” my grandmother said. “I wouldn’t step in it!”) His kale grew over his head, and he was often cited by the city for failing to keep his plants in check. His yard was too wild, they said: “Can’t you just grow a lawn?”
But my grandpa cultivated wildness. His white hair and stubble grew wilder with each year of his life. He brewed his own “worm tea” fertilizer in a putrid metal barrel and kept a monumental compost bin. He gave tours of his yard with hearty pride. In his basement, beneath ultraviolet lights, he coaxed sunflower seeds to life and chewed on the sprouts’ salty stems. When the plants were gangly adolescents, my grandpa would transplant them into his garden, where they would grow into ten-foot, hairy giants from which he would collect the seeds for the next year’s crop. The kitchen windowsill was lined with seeds drying on napkins: tomatoes, zucchini, cucumber, cantaloupe. The rich, rotting scent of compost lingered throughout the house, even in the bedrooms.
I spent a lot of time in that garden as a child. Today I look over the landscaped lawns around my apartment building, where scentless roses struggle to grow in decorative gravel, and I regret that my surroundings have become so orderly.
My childhood backyard had flower beds bordering a small patch of grass, where I spent many hours trying to perfect my golf swing using a plastic club and balls. One day, when I was ten, I heard an almost unintelligible voice from the yard next door. I tried to ignore it, but the speaker’s frustrated attempts to communicate seemed to demand attention. I looked behind the rose-covered trellis and saw a girl, a little younger than I was, struggling to take steps while gripping two railings that had been set up along a walkway. Her mother was encouraging her to take another step.
When I described the scene to my mom, she explained that our neighbor’s daughter, Pat, had cerebral palsy, which caused her great difficulty walking and talking.
I saw the neighbors many times after that. I felt sorry for the girl and wondered how her mother had the patience to spend so much time helping.
Twenty years later my second child, Amy, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy as an infant, and I recalled Pat’s disfigured voice and jerky movements. I wondered if I would have the patience that her mother had shown.
Over the next few years I created a physical-therapy gym in the basement, with parallel bars, a four-step stairway, and a floor-to-ceiling ladder. Once she was old enough, I put my daughter through an exercise regimen almost every night. I set up metrics to measure her accomplishments, and she reveled in her progress.
Fortunately Amy’s speech was unaffected, but she was burdened with poor eyesight. Audio books allowed her to complete a college degree in social work, at which time she began to look for a job — not easy for a person with a disability. My mother told me that our former neighbor Pat was now a social worker and might be able to help. Through Pat’s influence, Amy was hired as a foster-care caseworker.
Today my daughter is employed by the state of New York. My golf game still needs improvement, but those hours in my backyard, listening to Pat and her mother, taught me something far more important than how to swing a club.
Brooklyn, New York
We’d moved to the Southeast to be part of an intentional community, but it wasn’t long before I started to question openly the financial ethics of the community’s leaders, and I became a pariah among my neighbors. Unable to find work, I soon grew depressed. I did not want to go to a doctor for fear that I would end up on prescription meds. Angry at myself for having made this move and for not having sensed the problem with this community beforehand, I started to contemplate suicide, even planning how I would do it to spare my partner the sight of my dead body.
Oddly, in the depth of my depression, I became disgusted by the resources homeowners squandered on lawns and the environmental damage that was done in an effort to have year-round green grass. I began to convert areas of our yard to food production. Despite the brutally hot Southern weather, the different growing seasons than I was accustomed to, and the neighbors’ opposition, I managed to landscape my property with edible plants. I felt a glimmer of purpose, a reason to get out of bed each day. I started to dream about where to plant sweet-potato or passion-fruit vines.
My backyard saved my life.
The winter that Gerard arrived in Canada from Kenya was an exceptionally cold one. My family lived in a new, middle-class, suburban development in Windsor, Ontario. His lived in Columbia Courts, the only apartment building in the neighborhood, about a ten-minute walk from my house. I had been told to stay away from the place.
Gerard became an instant celebrity at Notre Dame Catholic Elementary School, where we were both in second grade. A black person from Africa was a novelty to us in 1969. He seemed to relish the attention, and his amiable nature helped him make friends.
Every winter the neighborhood dads would flood their backyards with hoses to turn them into skating rinks. Gerard wanted desperately to learn to skate and play hockey. One particularly frigid Saturday morning I invited him and some other friends over for a game. I had been skating for almost three years by then, and, like the other local kids, I had my own hockey skates. Gerard showed up with borrowed figure skates. He might as well have been wearing a full-length fur coat with a matching hat and muff. My friends’ teasing was brutal.
I was amazed at how hard Gerard found it to skate. He would wobble, flail, fall, get up, and try again. It was painful to watch.
After about an hour Gerard plopped onto a snowbank and started to take off his ice-covered skates. He was so cold he was shivering uncontrollably. He said his feet were numb and tingly. His dark eyes wet with tears, Gerard asked if he could come into my house to warm up a little.
My mother did not allow friends into the house after skating, mainly because our clothes were wet and our boots snow-covered. Normally a “no” would have been no big deal, but Gerard faced a long walk back to Columbia Courts.
I tried to explain my mom’s rule.
“But, Al,” Gerard said, “I’m freezing to death!”
“Sorry,” I said. “You know, my mum and all.”
Gerard brushed away his tears with a snow-crusted mitten and licked the snot from his lip. Then he trudged back to Columbia Courts, frozen skate laces dangling by his side.
I know now why I didn’t let Gerard into my house that day, though I’m ashamed to admit it. Despite what I’d told him, the real reason was that I was uncomfortable with his being different and didn’t know how my mother would respond. I turned him away because he was black.
© Julie van der Wekken
My mother died at the age of ninety-two, having occupied the same house for fifty-five years. It was the first home she and my father had owned, and she had filled it with family heirlooms as well as antiques purchased at auctions and junk stores, but her greatest joy was the backyard.
Over the years she’d planted camellias, hollies, and pines. Her hydrangeas bloomed either pink or blue, depending on whether she’d added vinegar to the soil. She had also collected flowers and vines from the woods, because she loved indigenous flora. (A biology teacher, Mama was using the word ecology before environmentalism became popular.) If the weather was fine, she would sit on the patio and sip her daily noontime cocktail of white wine and vodka. In the cold months she had her drink inside, in a chair by the big windows overlooking her domain.
When my mother died, the hedges were so full and wild that the neighbors’ yards were blocked from view by the tangled growth. No doubt some of them thought Mama was crazy.
For her funeral Mama had two wishes: that she be buried wearing red silk underwear (she was); and that the flowers for her casket be cut from her backyard. An accommodating florist arrived to snip armfuls of ligustrum, branches of magnolia and gardenia, and boughs of long-leaf pine, which were fashioned into a verdant array of greenery around a white flower cross. By the day of the funeral the greenery was somewhat wilted, and the blossoms were edged with brown, but I believe Mama would have appreciated the symbolism.
Mama’s church purchased her house for a parsonage; the preacher and his wife moved in as soon as my brothers and I got the place cleared out. Mama hadn’t particularly liked this preacher, who’d often shown up for a visit just before lunch, obliging her to hide her wineglass under her chair. Later I heard that he and his wife had fixed the house up, painting the trim and remodeling the kitchen. Folks said I was lucky to have someone care for the home Mama had loved so much.
When I next saw it, the house was indeed in fine shape, the lawn evenly mowed with not a clover in sight. There were white rocking chairs on the front porch in place of Mama’s antique church pew, and a wreath of red, white, and blue silk flowers on the door. But the backyard was where they’d done the most work. Every tree, every bush, every vine that Mama had planted and nourished was gone, including her hydrangeas. Her carefully tended refuge had vanished as completely as she had.
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
When I was young, my family lived in a large apartment complex in Chicago. Instead of a lawn with shade trees and swings, our backyard consisted of stairwells, passageways between buildings, and several large basements that housed washing machines, furnaces, and piles of coal.
All the kids in the complex would come out after school to play cowboys and Indians or cops and robbers. It was exciting to navigate the maze of stairs and hallways with a bunch of “cops” chasing you.
As time went on, a few of the boys got bigger and rougher, and some of the smaller kids went home bloodied and crying, never to join us again. Eventually the girls stopped showing up, too — all except for me. I was having too much fun, even though my clothes were often torn and my arms and legs covered with red marks by the time I went home for dinner.
One wintry afternoon, after a long, hard chase in which I was the robber, I ended up panting in a cold corner of a dirty basement. Then a hand grabbed me and pulled me out next to a hill of coal. Surrounded by four hefty boys, I was scared — really scared.
“You win,” I mumbled, holding back tears. “I quit. I’m going home.”
My backyard days were over.
Forest Knolls, California
It was a hot, muggy August afternoon in western Massachusetts. The sun was high in the sky, and the occasional bumblebee buzzed in and out of the purple morning glories that grew on the back-porch trellis. I was watching my father work tirelessly in our backyard garden, perspiration glistening on his mahogany skin.
I balanced a bologna-and-mayonnaise sandwich on a napkin in my lap. I hated bologna and mayonnaise; it always stuck to the roof of my mouth. My request for a different sandwich was the reason I’d been banished to our back porch, where my only entertainment was watching my father work in his garden.
He wore bib coveralls with no shirt and kept a red checkered handkerchief in his back pocket. Sweat fell from his face while he distributed straw around the roots of the pole beans, cornstalks, and tomato vines.
Our dog, Champ, came out from under the porch and sat down in front of me, eyeing my sandwich. Champ was the last of the three hunting dogs my father had brought with him when he’d moved to Massachusetts from Louisiana. I looked up at my father, still laboring over his plants. Then I quickly tossed the rest of my sandwich to Champ, who caught it in midair with a snap of his jaws.
“How’s that sandwich?” my father asked without looking up.
Champ crawled back to his cool spot beneath the porch.
“Come on over here,” my father said to me.
Head down, I walked to the garden’s edge and stood silently as he picked several plump tomatoes, adding them to his basket. After a few minutes he smiled and invited me to enter his garden, where the air was fragrant with ripe tomatoes, sweet dried hay, and the musty scent of fertile soil.
My father explained how to tell when a tomato was ripe and ready to pull: It must be firm in the palm of your hand — not mushy, not hard. It should have a sweet, almost fruity scent. And it should be a bright, candy-apple red, though he assured me that if the fruit was a little too green, we could set it in the window to ripen.
I pulled a big, bright-red tomato, gave it a light squeeze, and inhaled its aroma.
“Well?” he said.
“Now take a bite; see if it tastes as sweet as it looks.”
I took a big bite, and the juice dribbled onto my blouse. We both started laughing.
Many nights my father would come home from work exhausted, sit in his chair across from the television, and stare absently into space. This was in 1957, when the civil-rights movement was gaining momentum, but equal opportunity was still a long way off. Even in the liberal state of Massachusetts, black men faced disappointments, setbacks, and prejudice. Although my father never spoke to me about the injustice he suffered on a daily basis, on some nights his smoldering silence made his anger obvious.
After dinner he’d go outside, light a cigarette, and stroll through his patch of earth. That Louisiana country man was ahead of his time: He never used pesticides and fertilized the soil with fish heads and vegetable peelings. He taught his children to appreciate nature and to cherish all forms of life, even the tiniest insects. My father would work that little oasis in our dusty yard all summer and into late fall, when frost hardened the ground — or, as he always said, “till the end of collard season.” He was proud to share his bounty with our neighbors, because we had plenty to eat.
This summer my partner and I are caretaking a friend’s coastal cabin in Alaska. We have little money but are trying to save enough to buy some land and build a home of our own in a similarly wild corner of the world.
The cabin’s roof leaks despite our multiple attempts to patch it, and I’m still learning the basic skills necessary to live in this remote place. Some days I worry that we won’t have enough dry firewood or that mold and rot will seep into the damp corners if the leaky roof continues to confound us. I worry we’ll never successfully learn to fish. I worry about brown bears; there are giant footprints and fresh scat in our backyard. I worry that I’m making a terrible mistake, not finding a well-paying job in an urban area so I can save for retirement and afford a good health-insurance plan. I’ve purposefully made my life less secure than it has to be.
But then I look out the window at the waves that sweep the beach. Seals pop their heads up and watch our dogs in the yard. When the meadow behind us is flooded by rains, the cabin almost becomes an island.
At low tide my partner and I wade into the water to catch Dungeness crabs with our hands. One day, as we stand thigh-deep in the surf, a pod of humpback whales breach the surface just offshore. Their bodies shoot into the air until only the tips of their tails remain underwater. Then one whale after another belly-flops back into the ocean, the boom of their landings echoing all around us.
Tenakee Springs, Alaska