The Back Yard
By Caleb Clark
A squirrel bounds across the back yard with a huge perfect walnut in his mouth and buries it in tiny blue flowers. I wonder, where in gods name would a squirrel find a walnut that big in Berkeley, California? Do they go shopping at the Safeway at four AM when it’s empty? Do they steal them from houses? I’ve never seen a walnut growing around here? What is up with that?
I have been spending time in a backyard in Berkeley California. It’s about twenty feet by thirty feet and walled in on all sides. A tiny garden is in one corner and some bamboo plants are jailed in huge pots to keep them from taking over the known universe, which they like to do in their spare time. There’s a brittle and unmowed wispy lawn, an ivy patch and a brick patio with a table and four chairs. Everything is covered with huge dry leaves that fall from an oak tree that is the canopy for half the yard.
A three story dark wooden house forms one wall, ivy covered fences the two another walls, and the small one room cabin my brother and house mates have been kind enough to let me stay in lately forms the fourth wall. I sit at the table on the patio and write, surf the net and watch things. I can hear the traffic right on the other side of the house, but it seems very far away. Sometimes I sit outside in this yard for a long time. After work at night, with a jacket on and my laptop as the only light I read my mail.
The first beings I met in the back yard were the squirrels. Berkeley squirrels are incredibly healthy, it’s as if they and the cats have made a truce, both being too happy and well fed to bother killing each other. Squirrels are very emotional, loud little creatures. After sitting out here long enough it seems as if they are acting out an Italian romantic comedy. There’s lots of noise and fighting, things are hidden and stolen, no one really gets hurt and it all revolves around food.
Most of our interactions with the common squirrel consist of seeing flashes of fir bouncing from tree to tree. At first this was all I saw too. But with time I would see them watching me on the maple tree chattering, or would hear two of them fighting on the cabin’s roof, and that was just the beginning.
About a month into my back yard time a huge cat appeared on the back door matte of the house. If a cat could be a big burly retired logger with a pancake stomach, this cat is. He simply informed the household by his presence and that he was here for a visit and wasn’t leaving the back step just yet, we would have to walk over him. He must weigh over 15 pounds, maybe 20, so we all did. I’ve since named him Gingus. There is another cat, a black one that is scared of it’s shadow, or maybe Gingus’s shadow, that I don’t see much. Gingus however, is like clock work and we’ve grown quite close, in a sort of distant boys-hanging-on-the-corner way.
At night things start getting downright surreal. After about two weeks of sitting out in the chilly night, a very big animal decided to cross the lawn. The dry leaves make any attempt at moving around on the ground very noisy and I got my flash light to see what was out there. The unmistakable yellow eyes of a raccoon reflected back at me. It was a big raccoon. It stopped, calmly looked at me. I looked back. It stood up on it’s hind legs and looked some more, then actually came towards me a few feet and sniffed! I did what I always do with animals, make strange sounds like a mouse with a cold in a vain attempt to communicate. The raccoon probably smirked, and then continued his journey around the corner, over the back stoop, past the back door and to the garbage cans. Now the raccoon is a regular commuter and we just ignore each other. Raccoons aren’t very friendly, always seeming like they have better things to do then amuse humans with their animalness.
Then there’s a white possum, or maybe many, in the night. They just cruise through the yard like some albino midget armadillo on a quest. Too strange to really think about, and I’m sure it thinks the same of me and my laptop.
But the squirrels, ahhhh the squirrels. One, I call him squirrel X, has a habit of sitting directly above my head in the oak tree and eating the tree’s helicopter seeds. This would be find if he, and I know it’s a he, being that I mostly see his underside, would not drop the carcasses of the seeds incessantly on my head. Occasionally a squirrel will arrive in the tree and spew his chatter scream at me for no good reason. Totally agitated it will fester and chatter while I chatter back. Why is this squirrel so pissed at me? It’s not because I’m in the yard, nowadays they land four feet from me and proceed along the bricks to a bed of tiny blue flowers where they bury their nuts. They obviously trust me with the location of their winter food, so what is up with these emotional torrents all of a sudden? Fortunately they pass quickly and things get back to normal.
It’s very Bambi-esc, impossibly healthy animals doing terminally cute things, but it’s very real. Sometimes a squirrel will arrive on a limb and chatter quietly, turning it’s head to look at me with one amber eye. I will chatter back (I’m getting better) quietly and the squirrel will lie on the branch and watch me. Other times two squirrels will crash into the yard at break neck speed. Running, careening in a blur of fur and screams they will tare along the 1/4 inch top of a fence behind me fighting in a mad battle.
Just now, as I write, one has plopped down about three feet away with a new kind of oblong nut in it’s mouth. It’s walking past my open cabin door, and holy shit, it’s walking into my room! Must be a special kind of nut! Or maybe a present? Nahhhh….I chattered at it and it turned around and came out and lazily up the tree. I wonder if the tapping of my keyboard has become my signature sound to them?
Now Gingus the cat is a whole different kettle of fish. This monster feline arrives every weekend at 9am on the front step. I have never given him so much as a drop of water, or crumb of food, in yet each weekend he is more my friend. We meet in the morning and he comes inside sometimes, (don’t tell the house mates, then think he’s a bully) while I make tee and he rubs up against the open dishwasher door. Then he follows me out, at his own pace, which sometimes includes a good 15 minute nap on the back step, to the patio. There I pet him, and he lies down near me, but doing his own thing. We are like lions on the plains, enjoying each others company while ignoring completely.
Since Gingus’s paunch prevents him from leaving mother earth under his own power, I have occasionally lifted him to my lap. He’s fairly amused, briefly, then we’re back to the lions on the plain thing. Once a squirrel dropped down near me and Gingus, who happened to be experiencing a rare moment of sitting up. The healthy little bag of meat was not more then a yard from Gingus and frozen in indecision. What did Gingus do? He sniffed at it! I know barn cats in Maine that would consider this experience equivalent to winning the lottery.
So I sit out here and read and write. Dry leaves fall around me every few minutes. Bugs arrive on my screen to see my progress. Squirrels live around me, trusting me not to dig up all their nuts in the blue flowers. In return for the trust they give me the constant entertainment and distraction of their winter soap opera. The huge Gingus comes and then leaves about lunch time. I look up into the veined yellow leaves absorbing the sun light falling on them in layers of shadows and light. Perhaps tonight I’ll read my email in the October chill with a cup of warm Kosher bullion and get to see a possum.