The Backyard

I love my backyard. Bordered by the yards of my neighbors and totally canopied by trees, the yard is an oasis, an escape, a completely green sanctuary in the middle of the city. I fell in love with it the moment I saw it. Well… I guess you could say I fell in love with its potential.

Backyard, circa 2003

First of all, it was covered in concrete. I convinced one of my high school students to come help me jackhammer about 1000 square feet of concrete in one weekend–my first ever experience with power tools and the beginning of a beautiful adventure in tearing out, fixing up, re-envisioning, and re-building…both my backyard and my life.

When we learned that a wheelbarrow wouldn’t fit down the tiny alley, I realized I was either going to hand-walk each piece of concrete out or I was going to make it all work together. In the process oAdd Imagef re-working the yard I discovered I  wasn’t the first resident to make a compromise between ease of exit and “making it work.” 

Hidden in the dirt I found: 

• two wrenches
• the concrete foundation from an outhouse
• six glass bottles from the 1930’s
• a porcelain doll’s head
• a pile of leaded glass, buried two feet down
• chicken bones
• an entire fireplace mantle
• metal grating from an old outdoor stove
• a child’s bicycle

A soil test came up super-positive for lead and other crazy metals. With no easy exit, everything that had ever *been* in the backyard, must have *stayed* in the backyard. I decided to embrace it. 

The busted up concrete became the border for the raised beds along the fence line. I tore down a fence that separated the tenant’s side so I could share the whole backyard with my neighbor. I made that fence into a planter for tomatoes, greens, peppers, and herbs. When my neighbor’s tree fell on my yard,  I had it chainsawed and piled up the wood for burning in the fire pit. I ripped up a diseased blood orange tree, planted a willow tree in its place, and then ripped up the willow when it took over the yard. 

I had finally worked and re-worked the yard to exactly what I wanted. I’d moved every square foot of dirt to another place in the yard, planted raised beds of banana trees and sweet olive, bought teak lawn furniture, grown organic vegetables, and enjoyed the tin-roofed overhang out back (especially during a rain).

Then Katrina hit, and the backyard was destroyed. An enormous tree from my back neighbor missed my house by 10 feet and collapsed the back overhang, another neighbor’s fence was re-distributed over my entire yard, and everything that had been alive in the yard died from the standing water and excessive heat. I was gone from the house from August of 2005 to January of 2007, and in that time the wilderness had reclaimed the yard, which resembled some kind of jungle scene from Apocalypse Now.

I worked on the place for another year, getting the new trees taken down, moving more dirt, re-building fences, and re-planting new vegetables for the garden. And while I got the yard back to where it wanted to be, I found myself living there more than half the time. I did yoga in the mornings among the vegetables, ate dinner under the tin roof. Crawfish boils and late night bonfires dominated the spring. A hammock. A new grill and smoker. Tiki torches to light up the evening. 

I found myself thinking of the backyard as another living room, and then I began finding  ways to bring my life more in balance with what I felt when I was out there.

Backyard November 2008


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