The backyard erupted after the last rain. For a solid month, the sun shone. Days reached a hundred. The whole world began to smell like dry grass.
At first, what seemed like endless days of sun irritated me. I’m really something of a pluviophile and revel in the gray dimness of a rainy day. But as the hot, humid days ran on, I began to feel better. The Midwest in full summer makes for soppy, haze-filled evenings. I like the way things dry out in high summer. The leaves on the trees droop. The grass turns brown and then blond. Cicadas buzz in the trees and the crickets burp at the side of the road. This ultimately leads into those hot, lazy days before school starts and the dream of summer ends.
Then came three days of rain. It was dark at midday. The rain fell in sheets and then settled off into a steady dribble. The house became quiet. The dogs slept. The cat curled up in its chair. In the evenings, I woke the dogs and took them for long, dripping walks. I had to towel down their splashy coats when I came back home. A calm came over me and I was back in my element.
Underneath, however, I felt a twinge of anxiety. I knew the sun would be back and it would shine on well-watered ground. The grass greened up within a few days of the rain. The poke shot up from beneath the rose bushes. Crab grass and foxtail erupted in the garden. Morning glory and cinquefoil spun up the fences and around the tomato plants. It had rained and the earth burst forth.
My backyard doesn’t see much use these days. In the past, we sat around fires and told stories three or four times a week. We built a playhouse—we call it “The Hut”—for Nick. It isn’t a pretty thing, but a solid shed with a pitched roof and heavy, plywood sides. He and his mates used it all the time for the first four years we had it. I clamored up the hill to tend the garden in the alley.
But these activities diminished. I became a lazy, sometimes gardener. Nick and his friends are old enough now to have free run of the neighborhood—their time of make believe has come to an end. They can go to the pool on their own. The library and its computers lure them from the street to the air conditioning. They ride bikes and roller skates. Playing catch and football took their attention from the Hut. We haven’t had a decent fire back there for a year. I don’t think I’ve been in the backyard except to retrieve the canoe from over the stairwell to the basement and to mow it all down with a weedeater this year.
Now, after the rains, it has turned into a jungle. Grass grows a foot and a half high. The weeds and native plants have taken off on their own. Their open territory grown over, the dogs now run along paths they’ve blazed through the undergrowth. The place smells green laced with the tingle of false blue indigo. River oats in the raingarden—a small depression into which the whole yard, the whole hill, drains into—now wave their stalks waist high.
I’ve put off getting out there with the weedeater for a week. As soon as that rain fell, I should have been out there shearing the yard like one does a sheep. Since the yard is so small and filled with terraces, raingarden, and the Hut, I can’t use a mower. Sweeping back and forth with the weedeater is the only way to attack the growth, and attack I must. The yard has grown past a gentler, more loving approach. I have set myself up for a battle with nature.
I sit now, putting off for another day the inevitable battle I must face. The weedeater is old now. The apparatus that feeds out line automatically doesn’t work anymore. It will be: Cut one swath until the line wears out or tears off against the many rocks and fence rails, then stop, feed out more line, restart the engine, and move on another couple of feet.
Ultimately, I will have to figure out what to do about the backyard. The Hut will have to go. Corrugated, galvanized steel sheets never stuck well to the roof, an engineering flaw on my part. In a heavy wind they flapped and clanged before they flew off and lodged against the fence. For years, I would dutifully get out on a ladder and slide the sheets on either edge underneath the sheets that somehow I put down better. I put rocks and boards on the floppy sheets to keep them on, but there always came a wind big enough to blow them off again.
This year, I quit refitting the sheets to the roof. Was it the weight of age or just being tired of playing the same game over and over? A layer of plywood covers the entire roof under the sheets. But I’m sure that now they have deteriorated to the point where the rain runs right through.
Another problem is that when we built the Hut, we used a few pieces of wafer board for the floor. Under the leaks, the boards swelled and became powdery, fragile as ice. The floor behind the door went first, since I didn’t know how to seal the front door against the elements. Now, a board halfway across the floor has degraded.
This is the kind of thing that wakes me in the night and dogs me in my sleepless hours. Taking apart the Hut will take days of work. I will have to hire a dumpster to haul it away. It stands up on a terrace about a third of the way up the steep hill, which means it will have to come one piece at a time out of the backyard.
As for the rest of the yard, I don’t know. One of the retaining walls collapsed in the spring rains last year. It took me a good long while to dig out the rocks and make separate piles of earth and stone. Then, it took a good deal of work to put the wall back up, stacking rocks one layer at a time and shoveling dirt in behind them. An eroding pile of soils stands at the bottom of a curve in the wall. I don’t know what to do with it. It was like putting a complicated engine back together and finding a pile of parts leftover.
I suppose once the Hut is gone and the pile of dirt shoveled elsewhere, it will be easier to deal with the remaining detritus. We have a round glass-topped picnic table out there that never fit and we never used. I don’t know that the bulky-item pickup guys will take it. A round fire grate also rolls around out there, its base for the fire long gone.
I suppose I want to get the yard to a point where I can just go out and look at the jungle. Sitting back there, I’m free of street noise, light from the streetlamps, and the gaze of my neighbors. As unsettling as its state has become to me, it is still a refuge.
As I become more uncertain of myself with age, I look back there and think that’s where I need to be. I have to live with the pain of daily life and the struggles of writing for a while longer. I have faith. One thing I know is that when the pain gets to great, I will do something.
The something I have to do today is get out there and chop it all down. When I get through, the place will look good again for a short while. When the fall comes, perhaps, I will get a dumpster and a few guys from the day labor center to take apart that Hut. Once it’s gone—along with the picnic table and fire ring and all the worn out dog toys—I might be able to sit out there once again, master of all I survey.