Monday, July 23, 2007

Jefferson and Dionysius in the Back Yard

I’ve been thinking about back yards. As I write this I’m sitting in a place with no backyard – with no yard at all. It’s an apartment on a steep hillside overlooking the L.A. harbor, and all the other little bungalows and apartment buildings, terraced by law so as not to cut off the view of the row above, are so close together I can hear my neighbor on one side snore and on the other side, sneeze. Sometimes we yell “Gesundheit!”

People cultivate cacti, aloe, portulaca, pansies and hibiscus in pots on their tiny porches and decks. Here and there is a nook just big enough for a thick-necked palm or a medusa’s head of bougainvillea. But no back yards.

One can develop a taste for it: if you can at least see and hear the clanking, ever varied harbor, with its container ships, liners, tugboats, yachts, flags, cranes, bridges, foghorns and of course, the sparkling sea stretching out beyond the breakwater – all that business you don’t have to tend to but which goes on with or without you -- you can actually relax and forget about your claustrophobia in your microscopic high-density bit of real estate. The harbor’s a big complicated front yard, hard-won and shared by everybody on the hill.

For back yards, you have to go to the Midwest.

At home in Flint, I have a fine back yard. Midwesterners generally do: small or large, usually with a swathe of grass that we mow – one week diagonal, another straight across, another up and down. The night after you mow it, it smells fabulous and for most of the summer, there are fireflies courting in the fresh-cut blades. I’m thinking about how sweet that is.

Back yards offer solace and – old-fashioned word – surcease.

One of my first memories is sitting in a galvanized iron tub in a back yard in Ohio, cooling off on a hot August day. Another is shelling peas with my mother -- on our laps, bowls of fat pods, fresh picked and still sun-hot from the garden. I remember how happy she was -- peas right out of her own garden! We ate them that night.

I got married once in my back yard –the leafy triangle behind the 70-year-old house of my first domestic era. We piled up a feast on a long table, and we sat out there drinking champagne until 3 a.m. The next day two dozen plastic corks poked up from the grass like shuttlecocks.

I celebrated my second marriage in a back yard, too – new husband, new house, new back yard to seed with memories. After dinner al fresco, we put up a big screen and showed an outdoor movie of our California rites. We served drinks out of the garage and lit sparklers after dark.


Back yards can be theaters for revenge. A buddy of mine said when he got divorced the only thing he took was his Weber grill – totem of the back yard life. I like to imagine him using it still, vindicated with every juicy bratwurst in his new, happier life.

Back yards are our own little nature preserves, where we exclaim over cardinals, yell at squirrels, equivocate over bunnies and try to get tomatoes to grow. Sometimes, they’re graveyards. Our late cat Joey, a transplant from California who zestfully claimed our Flint back yard, is buried under the bird feeder where he loved to lurk. We had a funeral for him one summer evening after a game of croquet (another backyard must) and after a few toasts, we took turns spooning him into the cone of good Flint dirt we’d hollowed out for his feline eternity.

We like to own our back yards, and in the city, of course, we put up fences – not out of hostility or fear, like at the Mexican border or around the Green Zone, but, I contend, out of respect for our neighbors and a deep-seated taste for privacy. I think we bound our back yards too because we revel in idiosyncrasy and we want that undisputed spot where we can be ourselves.

Not to get too high-falutin’, but it just occurred to me that Midwestern yards reflect an itchy tension in the U.S. of A.: the front yard is sort of Hamiltonian, where we defer to the majority and keep up a respectable, potted-geranium face; the back yard is Jeffersonian, where we assert our personal liberty and, say, flaunt our taste in hostas or let the crabgrass go wild or put a terra cotta Buddha under the mulberry or even, say, hopefully throw out the occasional cannabis seed if we damn well please. Front yard, Apollo; back yard, Dionysius.

So, my fellow Americans, there’s something worth fighting for, if you ask me: the right to back yards. The right to those earthy squares of liberty, where, on certain summer nights, you can lie down on a quilt and listen to the cicadas until, as James Agee once remembered, the night is “one blue dew,” the stars “wide and alive…each like a smile of great sweetness.”

This essay is also available in www.eastvillagemagazine.org under "Village Life: A Smile of Great Sweetness." Photos by Ted.

2 comments:

greg rappleye said...

Great essay.

And you cracked me up about the Weber!

Macy Swain said...

Glad you liked it. I think there's nothing much more redemptively Midwestern than brats on the back yard grill. Especially one salvaged from old travails.