A Year in the Yard
What Will the Neighbors Think?

(The following essay appeared, in slightly different form, in the Arts and
Literature issue of
Audubon Naturalist News, a publication of the Audubon
Naturalist Society of the Central Atlantic States, February/March 2009, p. 8.)

       When I moved into my home in the inner suburbs fifteen years ago, I
couldn’t have said what the tree along the right fence was. I loved to sit
beneath it, though, to watch its leaves catch the light, to wait for its riotous
and slightly absurd flowers, with their yellow, green, and orange petals,
gangly bracts, and spiky centers, to bust out of the end bud on each twig.
       Those buds still amuse and fascinate me, the way the flower and all
the leaves keep popping out of the same bud, like a big Catholic family,
like the Hathways who lived next door with their eleven kids when I was
growing up. There was always something happening over there, charades
or ghost stories or green-eyed monster or mah jong. In the kitchen, they
had a picnic table and everyone crowded onto the benches. They used
to call me the twelfth (as if they needed another), I was over there so much.
       So tulip poplars seem like happy trees to me (in any event, they
make me happy), uncomplicated, their large leaves not cluttered up with
lots of intricate lobes, and yet still interesting and unique. (We have only
one species of tulip poplar. None of the others, except one in China,
made it through the last ice age.) Like the tree in my yard, their trunks bolt
directly to the sky, forthright. Their leaves are soft and pale, not at all like
the dark, leathery leaves of the Spanish oaks that also grow here.
       As I sat and watched that tulip poplar year after year, the yard
began to grow up around me. I was always too busy enjoying the yard to
mow or rake, so it gave me more and more plants and birds and insects,
and I began to study them. Smartweed and cinquefoil came first, soon
followed by partridgeberry, whose small, dark leaves, white flowers, and
red berries still make a beautiful groundcover beneath the oaks. Next
came bluets and blue-eyed grass, then asters, everywhere in the yard, the
last thing to bloom. Before long, trees began to arrive, red maples, sweet
gums, black gums, viburnums, seventeen hollies, one hackberry, two
beeches, a perfect baby dogwood. And beneath these foot-high trees,
the delicate leaves and flowers of Solomon’s seal unfolded.
       But my favorites were the young tulip poplars, at first no more than a
single twig, sticking straight up, topped by one duck-billed bud. In time
there were sixty of them, crowding into my yard, shooting up until they
were as tall as me. Eventually, I thought, as the trees grow up and other
generations follow, my yard will become a new Belt Woods, an old-growth
tulip poplar forest not far from my home. And in the meantime, they’ll call
me the sixty-first.
       These were the trees I mourned the most when my town hacked
down and carted away almost every growing thing here. A neighbor had
complained, after all these years, and I was out of town, not home to
respond to a notice posted on my door by Code Enforcement. They left
me some English ivy (the one plant I’d been trying to get rid of), one of the
beeches, a holly, none of the young sweetgums or red maples, and none
of the tulip poplar saplings. A landscaper friend told me the trees would
grow back, but a drought ensued, and most of them haven’t.
       I don’t really blame Chris, the code enforcement officer who posted
my property. I know him now, and like him. He’s a professional, thoughtful
and intelligent. I don’t think he used unusually good judgment in this
instance, cutting down twelve years of growth, on five days notice, during
summer vacation season, but the ordinance, flawed and possibly
unconstitutional though it was, allowed it. And what he did here, to this
young woods I know so intimately, is no different from what happens to
other forests, completely legally, every day.        
       Which doesn’t lessen the loss.  After it happened, I couldn’t go out in
the yard any more. It was too lonely out here, as if the Hathways had
moved away, and I was haunting their empty house. Still, I thought it would
work out for the best. I thought something good would happen in
response, in equal and opposite proportion to the devastation. But as I
watch the yard struggle to regrow, amid invasive species that have found
an opening here and a climate that has changed noticeably since I
began my observations, I’m not so sure.
       The low winter sun seems huge this morning. I know it will keep life
going in the yard. But with the drought and changing temperatures, there’s
a different mix of plants here now. Hollies and sweet gums, species of the
south and the coastal plain that can handle dry conditions, are taking
over. In just these few years, climate change has changed everything,
even my native optimism. Among the new neighbors, only five small tulip
poplars have sprouted.

Copyright 2009 by M.A. Sheehan. All rights reserved.