I’d have a great lawn if it weren’t for the neighbors.
Not the people in the houses around me. They’re great. I mean all the animals who’ve set up their homes between my house and the fence, the ones that are constantly digging into or up from or through the lawn, and the visitors who show up to dine on them.
But it’s a good trade — giving up what could pretty easily be a smooth, green carpet of a yard in exchange for living so close to these wild animals. I don’t know much about most of these guys except that it’s always good to pass a little time in their company, but I’d say the same about Dan in the house behind me, and that’s always been enough for me to count him as a good neighbor.
The birds were the first of these wild neighbors to catch my eye, fluttering around as I waited in a play fort up at their level until the real estate agent and my wife showed up for our first look at this house. Birds are everywhere it’s easy to forget their wildness, but sit in the shade sometime and watch, and you’ll see your yard as the well-stocked but dangerous land it is to them.
Robins seem to dare danger to tussle with them and mourning doves look to me like they go through life in heart-thumping worry. I can’t relate to them. But it’s easy to imagine that I understand the cardinals. They deal with the bounty and terror of the suburbs pretty much the way I think my wife and I would deal with life alone in the woods. I never notice one at my place without its mate just a few wing beats away, one of them a little hidden and scanning for danger so the other can take its time gathering what it likes from the lawn.
The first time I noticed a small dead patch of grass in my yard I knew it was grubs, but I wondered what killing them off would do to the birds’ hunting ground. Pesticide didn’t seem neighborly at all. Turns out I didn’t have to worry about it. The birds showed me that if I didn’t interfere, they’d eat up the pests fast enough to keep those dead patches fairly rare.
So the birds proved their worth as neighbors right away by working to keep the grass green.
The squirrels were a whole other thing. They’re constantly digging holes, and though it’s fun to watch their acrobatic act, they bolt out of sight so quickly that I can’t see the routine as fair compensation for their vandalism.
Then I found a little skull on top of a fencepost one day and I realized I wasn’t the only one who was watching the squirrels. Red-tailed hawks were, too. These raptors use my yard as both hunting ground and dining hall just like the smaller birds with their insects, but watching them hunch on a low branch and tear up their much larger prey — cute animals with lots of personality, at that — makes it easier to remember that we squeezed our neighborhoods into the natural world more than we tamed it. For putting their red highlight on the tenacity of nature in suburbia, squirrels get a pass on tearing up my lawn.
And now the squirrels being allowed to do as they please, I couldn’t see justice in trying to do anything about the chipmunks tunneling into the landscaping, the fox cutting its path from yard to yard, or the possums … well, I guess ugliness is my only complaint there.
The only bad neighbors I’ve come across here over the years are a mouse and a colony of ants, animals who preferred my side of the walls to their own. Them, I killed. Any critters who keep their distance, though, are welcome to my patch of the neighborhood.
As long as they respect my shut door, they can have the lawn.
Richard Espinoza is a former editor of the Johnson County Neighborhood News. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.