|Issue 3:1 | Non-Fiction | Amy G. Whitney|
Butler Creek marks the eastern edge of our yard. Where the creek runs past the house, the banks are nine foot cliffs of quartz and clay latticed with poplar root, draped with Japanese honeysuckle. Near the back fence the earth slopes more gently up from water, providing an easy ramp in and out for kids, me, and our aging Labrador retriever. On our side of the creek, the ground is mostly cleared and replanted with nursery-plants under the tall trees. Across the creek our view is of a thicket of privet and saplings tangled together with green briar and poison ivy, all standing under poplar, pine, sweet gum, red maple, and miscellaneous oak.
My husband, Joe, for whom the creek holds insufficient water, has sunk two plastic-lined metal washtubs in one of our backyard gardens for ponds. The tubs are steep-sided, like tiger traps in Tarzan movies and The Swiss Family Robinson. Weíve never caught a tiger in our tubs, but one day we caught something else. I saw it on a cool May afternoon, when I was headed to the hammock with a book. There in the tub nearest the path, a brown and yellow something was slowly paddling, scraping thick nails against the plastic. I stepped closer, over a tuft of ebony spleenwort and purple spiked ajuga. The something was a turtle that quit scraping, then tucked into its shell as I reached down. Water trailed toward feathery moss as I carried the closed-up shell to drier ground.
I had expected to read a book that afternoon. The hammock is a peaceful place, joined at one end to a sweet gum tree, at the other to a dogwood. From the hammock, I planned to watch and hear the back yard between chapters. Most of the spring flowering was over. I could see summer? beginning in the drying pods of money-plant. But I had a box turtle in my hands. Of all turtles, the box turtle is my favorite. I love the drawing in, the folding up, the way the shell conceals the life. Even though I know whatís inside, a closed up box turtle holds the fascination of a jack-in-the-box with an unknown winding mechanism, of a gift on Christmas morning, of mixed chocolate-covered candies that are identified only on the eating. When I set it near the wooded edge of the yard, the closed-up shell was like a stream-polished stone on the lawn, or an odd treasure left by the Easter bunny. The edges of the shell were scalloped, the back of it almost as long as my hand. This shell showed a burst of yellow lines on each section, like the patterns on batiks that Nana brought home from Malaysia, or ancient picture writing I could never hope to read.
No telling how long the turtle had floated in that tub. In a fit of hospitality, I went searching for earthworms. Scrap boards form a path between our little bridge over a drainage ditch and the creek, for walking without sliding on the mud. Under these boards I found earthworms, lying in little swirling grooves right at the surface of the mud. Millipedes clung to the boards, and black beetles ran for the cover of nearby periwinkle vines. I took five lively worms in cupped hands back to the turtle, which had poked its beak out a cautious inch. Only the edge of a skinfold gave hint of a neck. Claws checked for ground beneath the shell.
I held out the first plump purple worm, barely pinched between thumb and finger. The turtleís beak cracked open, came slowly toward my hand. The head seemed almost floating, a cobra-response to a snake-charmerís song. In a blink the worm was gone from my hand and notched into the beak of the turtleís mouth. The turtle pulled in the center of the worm, not gradually like a childís steady sucking on a long spaghetti noodle, but in gulps, short, quick tugs into its mouth, until the worm was totally withdrawn. Head then shrank back toward shell, but I held out another worm, and one by one, three more. Each followed the first in little snatches into the turtleís mouth.
The box turtleís life seems a simple one of eating, sleeping, and wandering a specified patch of ground. I have read that a box turtle might spend its whole life in an area no larger than a football field. If moved a few miles away, a box turtle will head for its home range, orienting to the sun for its direction. The turtleís life span of 30 to 40, and even beyond 100 years might be spent on this smallish patch of land.
Our house has been on this lot for more than seventeen years. Itís possible that this turtle ranged our yard before the building, and this just the first visit back since the chaos of bulldozers, lumber, and men. More likely this was the first trip through since Joe had sunk his tubs. What does a turtle think, on walking across its home and finding it changed? That turtle could have walked into the tub blindly, following an old familiar path, or maybe smelled the water, saw tadpole flash, and just failed to see that the water wasnít a simple puddle, that there would be no way out.
The turtleís fences, defining its home range, are invisible to me, but I can see the fences of this yard. Across the back is a straggle of rusting barbed wire tacked to evenly-spaced rotting posts from before the time of subdivisions. The wire separates our lot from a triangle of woods cut away by the creek and a steep hill from three separate subdivisions. The wire also marks a line between the City of Kennesaw and unincorporated Cobb County. Our yard is in Kennesaw. As a damp woodland, the triangle of unincorporated Cobb behind us easily qualifies as range for a box turtle. Before the building, our yard must have looked like the woods in that triangle; more shaded, less planned, more wild.
The musical movie, Oklahoma!, dramatizes an early feuding over fences. Farmers put up fences; cowboys detested fences. Fences divided the land, interrupted cattle grazing, but they also marked property boundaries, protected crops from trampling hooves and fattening cows. A song in the movie exclaims that the farmer and the cowboy should be friends, but it was easy to see the tension over fences. The Oklahoma backyard I grew up in was surrounded by a six-foot high solidly-boarded wood fence that effectively corralled most toddlers, but all dogs and every child over the age of five managed to get out over the top. In keeping with the cowboy tradition, perhaps, we needed a larger range to roam.
The previous owner of this house put up some picket fencing that reaches out from the sides of the house, divides the front yard from the back. To the east, the line of fence runs straight to the rim of the creek, where it ends. To the west, six feet of fence extends toward Jerryís house. Mostly, the picket fencing defines the width of the property. It is useless for containing animals and children, being high off the ground, wide between boards, and not very tall, and because it doesnít surround the yard at all.
Many of our neighbors have minimal fences like ours, a bit of wire, a token picket, or an incomplete run of precariously balanced split-rail. I like the long view this gives across the neighborhood. It is almost as though houses and gardens were plopped into meadows in an open woods. These minimal fences mark human territories without denying entrance to the box turtles, with whom we overlap. Little creatures can still roam, if they can avoid the cats, dogs, kids, and roads. Some wildlife would make it into yards even with more solid fences, but the token fencing in my own yard gives an unimpeded view of the path of the creek, the water that quivers over rounded stones, birds shaking in the water, rolling droplets onto their backs, and of the bend up the creek into shadowed woods, toward mystery, even though I know it is really the Westover subdivision further on.
In the side yard to the east, between a Lynnwood Gold Forsythia and the Nikko Blue Hydrangea, I have made a burial plot for what doesnít survive the road in front of the house. It started with a squirrel that I found flattened just out from the mailbox. Now this plot contains two squirrels, three baby robins, a ring-neck snake, a garter snake, a screech owl, and a mole. I use a straight-bladed shovel to scoop the critters off the road. I usually get the bodies cleared away before the second run of the school buses. Unfortunately, my youngest boy rides the first bus through, and I discover the smashed animals when he goes out to the bus stop. He has seen all of the dead. I carry my shovel load to the burial ground and consider the arrangement. I am running out of room between those two shrubs, and soon will have to start fresh farther along the shrub border. But I might be able to squeeze something small between the owl and the garter snake if I dig deep and replant the daffodils on top.
And what is a human to do? I drive slowly through the neighborhood. I stop when I see an animal in the road, but once, years ago, I ran over a garter snake. I didnít see it in the grass, and it left the curb so suddenly. I thought it would go under the car if I just veered right a bit, but I squished it.
I have encountered other snakes in this neighborhood. Some made it safely across the road in front of my car; some I uncovered accidentally while gardening. We have put in four big gardens in the last ten years, to add to the five gardens put in by the original owner of this house. Most of these gardens are shaded much of the day, like the one that holds the washtub ponds on the way to the hammock. Out front, fairly near the road, the sun shines unimpeded to the ground. All along Sumit Wood Drive, front yards are where the sun shines, and many of these yards nurture a small fruit tree and two or three tomato plants stuck in among some flowers right in the front yard.
Actually, several yards in this neighborhood veer from uniformity in more than just the placement of a few plants. Lynn and Fred built, demolished, and rebuilt their fence over a two and a half year stretch, leaving the construction and destruction materials out for all to see the entire time. Trishís driveway remains empty, unused, while her lawn is sprinkled with Sport Utility Vehicles. Around the corner on Steelwood, a neighbor has cleared every tree from her yard, while on Emberwood, someone has planted a twenty-foot dirt square with baby pine trees, as carefully lined up as onion sets and with only slightly larger spacing. Considering this variety in the treatment of front lawns, it seemed that no one would object if we made a garden in ours. So, in our front yard we dug an arc across the slope and terraced it with low stone walls to hold the soil.
This garden is fed often from our compost pile and from bags of humus-and-manure and Natureís Helper from Home Depot. The dark and crumbly soil that results is home to many earthworms. This garden hosts some toads, which I think are there for the worms. This garden also gets snakes, which I think are there for the toads as well as the worms.
Snakes donít seem to understand borders and gardens the way I would prefer. Ring necked snakes inhabit the spaces between stones in the garden walls, and I have discovered through heart-pounding experience that garter snakes love to curl up in pine straw. Having left wild patches down along the creek, under clumps of trees, and in a wavering strip along the back fence, I think the snakes, toads, and turtles might use those wild places consistently. Not so. All of these wander, to be surprised under plants and mulches or between rocks in the edgings when I go to weeding. Or in a washtub so thoughtlessly sunk to near ground level, so temptingly full of tadpoles, with no way out.
To adult humans, property lines are as substantial and uncrossable as moats around each private holding. To children, as to animals, property lines are about as substantial as the bogeyman. Joe wants a real pond, but the yard isnít protectively fenced, so children wander through. They like our paths, the creek, the broken gate in back that empties to the triangle of woods that separates our neighborhood from Westover and Shillings Chase. The larger children seem to believe that if they are not on our trails, then they are not in our yard. I spend days and days at the start of nice weather in spring explaining that the trails are for walking on, and that most places that arenít paths are gardens I would rather not have trampled. Sometimes I think those Oklahoma farmers had it right. And I worry about the smaller children who would be drawn to smooth-surfaced shallow water, the flash of fish, and step right in, response to watery past, heedless of the hundreds of millions of years that brought them to shore, and the futility, the danger, of trying to return.
Like children, many plants are frustratingly heedless of borders and boundaries and what adult humans would prefer. A few patches of rue anemone grow in the shade out back. This is a gossamer fairy-wing of a plant, with thread-slim stem, a few brightly green gently lobed leaves, flowers that burn white against the green, and centered in each flower, an airy pouf of stamens each tipped with a golden anther. English Ivy vines, about as dainty as transatlantic cables, reach into the largest patch. Itís our fault. We planted the English Ivy along the creek edges to hold the soil, to keep the bank from eroding back toward the house. The Ivy wonít stay put. Healthy, it grows, and we chop it back. Likewise, a pennyroyal glacier moves a foot or so a year across the front lawn. It started in the front garden, but the trailing edge flowed over the stones and onto the lawn a couple of years ago. I planted it for pennyroyal tea to rinse the dog with, to control fleas. When it flowers in summer, the pennyroyal sends up minty spikes a foot or more tall, requiring a pass with the Weed-Whacker before mowing. Each spike is multi-ringed with lavender colored flowers, a lighter shade than the flowers of related henbit and dead nettle that bloom in the lawn in spring, and more abundantly flowering. Each ring of flowers is the focus of a cloud of tiny bees and flies.
In this neighborhood, a couple of lawns are smooth, uninterrupted bluish squares of Bermuda grass. A few lawns are solidly emerald fescue, Chem-Lawn maintained. The property lines of these lots are sharply visible with no fence at all, their constancy a contrast to the lawns on either side, like ours, which have run to dandelion, chickweed, violet, crabgrass, oniongrass, clover, and more: mosaics, varying in height like highly sculptural carpets, of greens, tans, and low, smooth patches of bare red soil. I, as a human, see in my mind that understood line between survey flags, and know that my life belongs on this side of that line, but in my mosaic yard, nature shows a disregard for human boundaries, for garden edges, for survey markers. Plum tree roots marble the undersurface of the soil in the east yard, flinging up hopeful mini-trees, the beginnings of a thicket, that we mow down. Jerryís poplar and hickory throw shade across our western edge, squelching all hopes of grass, planted to hold the slope. Even the breeze works to erase our lines, carrying dandelion seeds and autumn leaves from up the hill.
Although the creek forms a natural border along the eastern edge of our yard, it isnít as static a line as a strip of installed fence. Banks erode. Water moves. When land for the Westover subdivision upstream was being cleared and leveled, the water in the creek ran orangey-red with silt washed down from the bared earth. Our border doubles as a conduit. The water in Butler creek, our creek, unable by its nature to stay quietly in one place, ripples through the neighborhood. Over time, Westoverís silt washed away, but the water running past our yard carries more than silt from new subdivisions. It carries Weed & Feed, pet-waste, grass seed, cigarette butts, anything that rainwater can lift from a lawn or from a road.
Butler Creekís water flows through the towns of Kennesaw and Acworth and into Lake Acworth, which empties into Lake Allatoona, our source of drinking water. The water then flows into the Etowah river, which joins the Oostanaula River to form the Coosa River, which flows into the Alabama River, into the Mobile River, then runs through the Mobile-Tensaw delta before emptying into Mobile Bay, flowing into the Gulf of Mexico, joining the current that rounds the end of Florida to shoot up along the eastern seaboard before crossing the Atlantic to brush the British isles on its way back south. Water ranges far.
My own home range is small in comparison. I can walk it in a few minutes, even when taking time to check the progress of plants or to listen to a wren. But the ranges of others overlap with mine. The warblers that strip the dogwood of fruit in fall are on their way to Central and South America. Hawks, geese, and ducks fly overhead from nests in the north of this continent. The kudzu that has just started along the road is from China. And I have brought back native Georgia plants to my little patch of suburbia. Although many were left here, mostly backing up to the woods, I have added trout lily, trillium, mayapple, toothwort, foamflower, silver bells, rattlesnake fern, and more.
As a human, I incessantly identify lines that divide this from that, using the premise that two points define a line, but no line is firm if the points move, or if the next organism over measures from a different point. A box turtle might define our tubs as traps. But what is trap for one can be home to another. One winter night, when my family was out watching the lunar eclipse, the boys enlivened the long wait by breaking ice everywhere, ice in bird feeders, on trees, hanging from the rails of the deck, and sealing the tubs. They broke the ice in one tub and discovered quite a large frog underneath. The oldest boy poked it with a stick. One leg moved, and we knew it lived.
Though not my child, the box turtle seemed mine by proxy since I had saved and fed it. Would it, like natives in ancient stories, owe its life to me? More likely I, in the circular way of the world, and as evolutionary latecomer, owe my life to it. I watched that turtle a while, its head slowly pulling back into shell in barely perceptible movement, until just beak and eyes showed, and the world reduced to just me watching the turtle watching me. Finally, I picked the turtle up to move it again, this time over to the compost pile just inside our edge of the woods. I forked a heap of compost, tentacled with earthworms, and plopped the wriggling pile in front of the turtle. Though I hadnít seen the turtle move anything but its neck and head in that long while of watching, after I left the turtle alone for a couple of hours and then came back to check on it, the turtle had gone completely from sight.
Not long after the turtle incident, I found along the path to the hammock a weather-and-time cleaned turtle shell. It looked more like the shell of a mud turtle than of a box turtle, but somehow it seemed to be there for me. I donít know what animal carried it there, but I took the shell to the house, to the living room, and placed it on the mantle as a symbol of hope for diversity, hope for turtles in the yard, exchange of trespass for companionship the way I hope for the sweet gum tree, its spiky balls that barb the yard in early spring as exchange for leaves, brightened to yellow, edged with orange and red, that coat the ground in fall as though with fiery stars.