I walk it all the time. It’s at the back of my yard, the yard of the first house I’ve ever owned on my own. I made it my home 15 years ago after a few years renting, following the end of my marriage. My house is now approaching the century mark, built in 1925, in Wasena neighborhood which this year celebrated its hundredth year.
I live on a south-facing hillside yet surprisingly there were virtually no trees on this small city lot. I continue to help in the transformation of the place. I’ve terraced the steep front and added a dwarf pear, apricot, and had a few peach trees come and go. A sister gifted me with an 18” dawn redwood that’s planted along the alley, and now 18’. I’ve steadily replaced the front lawn with wildflowers and ever less mowing. I no longer need a gas mower and am able to comply with the city ordinances by selectively weed-eating with a battery-charged tool fueled by the solar panels on my roof. I have a small inground concrete fishpond—apparently from a time when that fad took hold in this hood—it’s cracked and now serving as a bed filled with my plantings
Despite a rocky yard, I love having my hands in the earth. I’ve established several small garden plots that continue to gain more fertile soil. My other sister gave me some ever-bearing raspberry stalks that keep surprising me with more treats. This year, the example of a friend spurred me to add blue berries and two fig trees. The same wise friend taught me purple dead nettle can be harvested and turned into a pesto. I routinely am gifted (admittedly with minimal effort) with harvests of fruits from the trees, tomatoes, beans, and other backyard basics whose bounty varies each year. It’s extraordinarily satisfying to collect some string beans from the row under the sunflowers at the back of the alley and add them to a meal. I can step out my back porch door and collect kale and sautee it in olive oil with some garlic or add it to a soup right into the winter months.
I bike and walk the streets of my neighborhood all the time, for errands and pleasure. I’ve watched the homes change color, yards change forms, and residents come and go. I know several neighbors, and certainly there are better opportunities to meet more by walking.
When you walk the alleys it’s a more intimate, less public experience. Of course it was more interesting both to me and my teenage son, so we used it more than the sidewalks. It’s a bit more unruly, inhabited by more dogs, cats, and wild critters: rabbits, ground hogs, chipmunks, occasionally the thoroughfare of deer passing to nibble on garden “take-outs” as they journey toward the river. I’ve even been told a sheep farmer visiting from Ireland literally “smelled a fox” in my alley. There are wine berries to nibble on, and wild flowers to see, and random encounters with all manner of discarded items.
I like to walk down the alley behind my house in the early morning (which is what’s in this photo). If I’m awake, there’s always something to catch one’s eye. More conspicuously, for several years there was an old rusty, windshield-busted VW beetle parked in the small plateau adjacent the alley a few houses down. Birds sometimes perched inside though I never saw a nest. Some folks have beautifully manicured backyards. Other folks have wonderfully wild or semi-abandoned yards. This alley’s uphill along a natural terrace, so in places there’s the longer view in several directions. It offers a slightly better sense of the lay of the land, especially in winter. I can glance southeast and see the old mansion that served as a Knights of Columbus facility half a mile away. Looking southwest I can glimpse sunsets through the trees.
Although I continue to meet new neighbors and life is ever shifting, after fifteen years of hoofing it, one can come to feel connected to many in the hood. Dog walkers of all shapes and sizes of course have their reliable routines. I’m the odd dogless walker.
Every home has stories. One neighbor’s uncle and father built his quaint house adorned with a lovely low stone wall around the yard. He never lived elsewhere, right into his passing last year at 73. Down the block a heavyset man who works as a bouncer has a daughter on the spectrum who he has taken care of as a single dad for 15 years. There’s the new couple with two kids in a stroller and two dogs. There’s the spooky house that’s in terrible shape, owned by an aging and two generations resident who no longer lives in it, yet also can’t bear to let his own history pass to a new family, apparently holding on in hopes of some Hail Mary solution to his conundrum to keep his family legacy alive as he passes. A stroll in one direction takes me past the home of my sweet young neighbor with three kids who tragically lost her equally young husband to illness last year. In a small home the opposite direction, a soft-spoken couple with an ultra-gregarious little dog Abby, constantly feed the birds, (and squirrels, rabbits, deer, and in a way likely everything living creature) in their backyard. Further down I pass the eclectically landscaped home of a couple and recall fun Thanksgiving and holiday dinners we shared there, bittersweetly, because they’re now split and both have relocated.
As my yard has changed form and color, so has my home. My once white-trimmed, white siding, red brick house with a whitish stucco foundation is now cream-trimmed, with olive green siding, golden bronze brick, and has a deep umber-colored foundation.
Places have meaning and, I feel, are imbued with and can retain energies. Standing in my backyard I’m flooded with all sorts of memories. I recall collecting bountiful handfuls of veggies and wildflowers, and more slowly watching trees dying or gaining in height, their changes steadily recording the years creeping by. There are images of apricot blossoms surviving the snows and continuing to grow into fruit. A quick glance at old photos confirms people grow too. There’s those mud-filled memories of my son and I slogging away in a trench in the rain, using a winch to restore a failing former garage foundation. That twelve year old boy who dutifully helped me engineer the supports has become a fine young adult and successful engineer. There’s images of nieces and nephews standing beside shrubs that they now tower over.
There’s specific instances—that winter day wandering my yard after learning my father had died after a long illness. The day I heard my son had achieved and accepted a job offer in another state. The recent spring day etched in my mind when that same flowering apricot in full bloom acted as a backdrop following a pivotal conversation with someone whose sweet interaction with me literally reframed my life. There are dozens of centering moments for me all around here: my toes touching the earth; my hands gently patting sunflower seeds in freshly worked soil; my sweaty arms swinging a pick at stubborn roots; my being simply savoring the mockingbirds’ songs; or hundreds of times walking the streets and alleys simply to reconnect with myself or beyond me to life itself.
Sure as the dawn rays streaming through the interweaving, tenacious vines on forgiving trees, and the squirrels’ chatter, wrens’ chitter, and crickets’ chirping in this alley, we all play our roles and contribute notes to the local symphony of our communities, and the grand one of life itself. If we’re fortunate, we may occasionally recognize and appreciate the process to which our presence contributes a small but crucial bit of life-affirming energy.