What My Unkempt Yard Taught Me About Liberation
I am very fortunate and privileged to have enough financial security to live in a house with a decent-sized yard. It’s a nice little corner lot in a quiet neighborhood… but it stands out.
Unlike every other home in the area, my yard is not a nicely-kept, routinely-mowed lawn, surrounded with a neat hedge or flower arrangements.
This is an exploration of why I refuse to change that.
I originally moved into this house eight years ago, with the express intent to have enough space to get a dog. Not just any dog, mind you; an Alaskan Malamute. I wanted a fuzzy companion to assist with therapy – something my doctor at the time strongly encouraged – but my choice of breed was undeniably unexpected.
The Alaskan Malamute descends from Arctic working dogs. They usually pulled heavy sleds – long-distance, large-load teams, in contrast to the Siberian Husky which was favored for speed, and remains frequently confused with the Malamute. From this lineage, Mals are notoriously energetic, driven, creative, and active; a Malamute without sufficient space to play and work will quickly get bored, and bored working dogs can find some very inventive ways to entertain themselves. This usually involves some significant amount of dismay on the part of the humans who are allowed to share space with their Malamute friends.
So a decently-sized yard was a bit of a must.
I shared that yard – and, indeed, my entire home – with my Malamute friend for just over four years. He’s been living elsewhere for a while now – almost longer than he was in my life; but the story of our parting is for another time.
This is a story about what my yard taught me. Stories do not have beginnings, not really. But I will start by telling the tale from when my yard first started feeling sad, empty, and lonely to me – the first few weeks after my beloved dog was gone.
I’d become accustomed to him – all 120 pounds (nearly 55 kilos) of fur and love – bounding around the yard at all hours. Howling along with the owls that would hoot late at night, perched high in the tall pine trees nearby. Sniffing at the fence line. Charging in through the massive “dog door” some friends had helped me cut out of the kitchen wall, soaked from the fine, misty rain that fills the air so much of the year here. Shaking off all over the kitchen and then leaping onto the couch (which inevitably groaned in protest) to snuggle into his favorite blankets. Nails clicking on the hardwood floors as he pawed his way down the hall, seeking pets.
Everything was so strange, without him there. Even years later, it aches to remember the contrast. I kept the curtains closed for the first few months. I couldn’t bear to look out into the yard and not see him tearing around and being full of life and joy.
Shortly before he left my life, there was a huge winter storm. One of the trees in my yard was hit by lightning (or so I assume, judging from the immense char marks) and was split in half. The storm also destroyed the fence around the yard – a fence that was vital for helping discourage a certain Malamute from exploring far and wide any time an interesting-smelling thing wandered by. (He got out every now and then anyways, and on more than one occasion, he managed to travel multiple miles before getting exhausted enough for someone to help bring him back to a local animal hospital. He was a non-stop adventure, to say the least.)
Before the tree fell, he’d worn paths into the grass in the yard – his preferred routes for getting to the fence quickly in case he needed to sniff at a pedestrian on the sidewalk, his meandering rituals for finding Just The Right Tree when he needed to “go”, his approach to the dog door and the food and water dishes I kept just inside.
He never really had much of a chance to adapt to the fallen tree’s presence, but at one point I did see him leap over a part of it in a rush to get from one place to another.
I wondered what paths he might have carved out in the grass, if he’d been able to.
The spring and summer after the tree fell were intense ones for me. My dog, the fuzzy love of my entire life, who had brought me so much joy and purpose and comfort, was now gone. I was alone in more ways than one, turned inwards in a profound quest to figure out who I was and why my life was such a mess.
I told myself I’d cut the grass, eventually. I’d chop apart the fallen tree (which I assumed had died) and haul away the remainders of it, eventually. I’d pay attention to the stuff outdoors once I’d finished tending to the absolute tumult inside my own head and heart. Eventually.
Somewhere along the way, I decided to open the curtains again and look outside. I expected things to be overgrown, wild, and messy, given the months that had gone by since I’d even looked at that yard.
I did not expect to see the tree, still alive and blooming. I did not expect to see a wild rabbit taking shelter under it. I did not expect the constant stream of birds and squirrels who would come to forage in the yard throughout the day.
Mowing the grass could wait, I decided. I had more important things going on inside me, still, and at least I could look outside and see happy things instead of just falling back into mourning my four-pawed losses.
Summer faded into rainy fall, and the first playful dustings of early-winter snow came and went. I had started taking hormone therapy, told the world to start calling me a different name, and settled in for what I imagined would be a long process of rebuilding my entire life. The outside turned gray and dark, and I closed the curtains again.
I didn’t need to mow the grass, anymore; it was all yellowed and falling over anyways, effectively looking short despite being rather lengthy. It could wait until next year. I could wait until later to try and find someone to mow it for me, once I could deal with my rampant social anxiety and the disability I had only just begun to understand. Eventually.
To be honest, I didn’t think much about the yard at all – either the parts still behind a fence, or the parts visible to the street – until someone in the neighborhood left a nasty note pinned to my front door one day, whining (anonymously) about how my home looked from the street.
Their words, laden with vitriol and ignorance, do not merit attention; but they did make me think long and hard about what I was willing to do in the name of conformity to social pressures… and, in light of my rapidly-unfolding journey of actualizing myself as a trans femme, what I was not willing to do.
I threw away the note and vowed never to mow any yard ever again.
Spring came, in due time, and the yard rewarded my decision: flowers I didn’t even know were growing there began to bloom. The tree in the back, still split in half, started to grow new buds and branches – effortlessly adapting to its half-vertical, half-horizontal life as if nothing all that interesting had happened.
Rabbits started forming a warren under the branches of the tree, as it lay sprawled across the yard. They were joined by various nesting birds. Small swarms of insects appeared – in turn, attracting the attention of more birds. I was delighted to learn that I live in a region that has active hummingbird presence year-round – and the hummies, in particular, loved to find the insects that took up residence in the moss that was growing freely on many surfaces in the yard.
It was an affront to all of the social programming and cultural conditioning I’d ever received about yards and gardening.
I had done exactly nothing, and yet there was more life, more flourishing, more diversity, and more excitement going on out there in that yard than I could have dared dream to attract with years of careful cultivation and planning.
Over the next two years, I watched as even more species of flowers began blooming, that I’d done nothing to plant; they had simply migrated there, as is their way, as a result of the life coming and going throughout the space. I learned to recognize a couple of problematic species – ones that liked to take over a lot of air and sunlight – and worked to keep them at bay, to leave more soil and space for other things to grow.
Species of birds that I’d never seen in the area before started appearing – cautiously feeding, at first, then eventually nesting. The rabbits under the tree became a multi-generational family. I decided to carefully clean the moss from the areas where I needed to walk, on rare occasions, but leave it alone everywhere else. I started cutting back the sod of the original grass, as I had the energy and time, to leave room for other plants to take root.
I watched a couple of tiny new trees – descendants of the half-fallen tree, among others – pop up from the disarray and begin to assert themselves. I chose to let them grow where they stood. I could not improve on what they already knew how to do.
I rarely close the curtains, these days. I got a new couch, some considerable time after parting with my dog, as part of the emotional healing process (from that loss among many other things). I made a point to orient the couch so I could look out the windows into the yard.
I spend a lot of time on that couch, now, just seeing what happens outside. I cannot actually go out much anymore. My metabolism is fragile and sensitive, and prolonged time in the cold disrupts my body rather badly. I am severely sensitive to pollen and atmospheric pollution, so between the incredibly prolific spring allergy season and the increasing severity of summer wildfire smoke, most of my enjoyment of the yard happens through panes of glass.
Laying on the couch earlier this fall, looking out at trees and birds and squirrels, I realized that I see things very differently now than I used to, when I peer into that yard. The yard taught me that I would need to write about those things, and that it was OK that it would take me a long time before I could actually sit down to produce this essay.
Over the weeks, I’ve watched it fade into the greys and browns of late autumn, the final unfallen leaves clinging to their increasingly-bare branches as if to protest, “it’s not winter yet!” And for the first time, I did not close the curtains to shut out the cold and “lifeless” scene out there.
I have learned a lot from that yard.
I do not see a dreary, barren, empty space. I do not see cold and damp and unfriendly air, rattling through skeletal branches. I do not see despair or depression or stillness.
I see a yard – a tiny slice of a much larger world – doing what it knows is right to do. This is the appropriate moment to rest. But rest is not idleness; it is not sitting still and hoping things change. Rest is its own form of effort, its own assertion of life.
I see life that knows when it is time to turn inwards and tend to the core of things. Life that knows how to find solace and comfort and wait patiently. Life that does not fear snow, because it knows snow melts again. Life that does not worry about preparation for what may come, because it has done this many times before – it can trust its own wisdom.
I look into this yard and lose count of all the things it has taught me.
That questioning what is demanded of us may be dangerous and scary, but the other side is often rich with joy. That conformity might bring a certain, small kind of peace – but perhaps at a cost we may never understand unless we dare to refuse to conform. That blending in to expectations may buy us a dose of relief, but the only way to truly get through to the abundance of life is to be willing to defy expectations.
That there is no such thing as broken. That being split in half and forced to exist in a strange direction need not inhibit life. That our awkward, splayed branches, spread across a flat space of ground, can serve an even more beautiful purpose than if they were pointed up into the sky like they are “supposed to” – and create even more space for life to flourish and grow.
That ugliness is a myth and a lie, a poisonous attitude of dividing what is “acceptable” from what is not – that what we may deem unsightly may be the honest face of the very thing that could save us from ourselves, if only we could learn to make friends.
That scheduling, planning, and designing are not nearly as universally important as we’re told. That careful attention, and only rare interaction, can yield far more flourishing than continual meddling. That control does not create life – it takes it away.
That eager, insistent intervention is rarely as good as we believe it to be – and that instead, if we wait patiently, and observe respectfully, we can exchange the “effectiveness” of our intended actions for a chance to learn. That, in some cases, we might indeed learn more from doing nothing than by trying to do anything. That if we strive to be wise and thoughtful, when we choose where we place our energy, we can enrich our own life while simultaneously reducing the harm we do to other lives.
That ultimately, the world is full of wisdom, and energy, and life, and vibrance. It is a gift waiting for us to accept it, and reality offers this gift, over and over, no matter how many times we spurn it or reject it or ignore it, no matter how much wrong we do to the giver, no matter how little loyalty or trust we exhibit for the land and the planet that gives us our very existence.
That life, in the end, still loves us, stubbornly and loyally – in the grand scale, if not always in the particular details – and that we can, if we just say yes, receive that love and learn, from it, how to be free.