My Little Patch of Wild
Penelope is two, and our postage-stamp backyard is her favorite place. A turtle-shaped sandbox sits atop the patio, a patch of grass grows under the canopy of an old ash tree, and flowerbeds line the perimeter. As she hides Popsicle sticks in the sandbox, I weed cracks in the patio. I pull strands of ivy from the fence and scan the flowerbeds for neighbor’s cat’s poop to throw away before she gets her fingers in it.
When I get out the trowel, gloves, and bulbs, Penelope runs to join me. I give her tasks:
“Fill up your bucket with mulch sticks.”
“Dump them around the tulip Mommy just planted.”
“Pick up the piles of weeds and put them in the big paper bag.”
She performs these jobs like a golden retriever playing catch, so happy to be helpful in things she loves to do: pour, dump, and dig. It’s fun to garden with Penelope because it requires these forms of child play and toddlers are industrious and helpful by nature. As a mother, I can see the benefit of spending so much time taming an urban backyard, but not too long ago, I would have scoffed at the idea.
After I graduated college, I hopped a plane to Montana to spend the summer interning at an outdoor education center. We lived in old forest service cabins off the grid and 20 miles up a dirt road from the nearest town. I learned how to harvest wild edibles and deploy bear spray in the event of a run-in with a grizzly. Carrying a survival kit in case the weather changed or I got lost, I spent all my free time hiking and climbing in Glacier National Park. I was 20 years old and had grown up in suburban New Jersey.
I spent the next two decades chasing the wild, moving from Montana to Turkey to Spain to Washington. With each new adventure, I pushed myself to personal and physical limits in worlds I couldn’t organize or contain. Needing to be open and awake to survive exhilarated me. I came to believe the only way to truly live was to explore new, untamed lands.
I have many moments now when I look at the fence or the lawnmower in my urban backyard and can’t believe the places I’ve been have led me to this. I’ve successfully navigated wildernesses all over the world, and now I spend my leisure time in a small, enclosed, un-wild space. What kind of adventure is this? Won’t I suffocate without any surprises?
But at two, Penelope is constantly surprised in our backyard. I point to wavy leaves protruding from the earth that weren’t here last week. “Tulips are coming,” I tell her. She’s not sure what that means, but she’s excited about having a visitor.
A black beetle enters stage right. Penelope surveys the surroundings until she settles on a blade of grass. “Here you go, Beetle,” she says. She makes an offering to anything I name—the ash tree, gladiola blades, tulip buds. Her gifts are often sticks, berries, or stones. Why wouldn’t another living thing enjoy the same treasures she does? I hover over her to ensure she doesn’t crush the beetle with her act of love; I want her to be able to sit in this magical encounter for as long as possible. “See my beetle, Mommy?” she beams.
When I think about it, my childhood garden was my first wilderness, too. My dad had been cultivating our ½-acre suburban backyard since retirement. The Cleomes and Zinnias were always plentiful, inviting a menagerie of fauna into my world. Tiger swallowtails. Monarchs. Painted ladies. I poured over pictures in my field guides in colder months. And when summer came, I ventured into the backyard, armed with a net. I wanted to possess their beauty, even if for a short time. When I turned 12, my father and brother gave me a homemade bug box. I collected swallowtail caterpillars as they appeared on the dill mid-summer. I watched them form chrysalides and emerge as butterflies, beating life into wrinkled wings. Every day in my backyard held a new adventure.
Penelope is young compared to the “me” I remember traipsing barefoot through the garden, yet she’s already showing the same curiosity and connection. My heart warms every time she shouts, “Look, Mommy! My bug!” and gets on her belly to watch an ant crawl.
When she grows up, who knows to what wilderness my “empty nest syndrome” will lead me. I know I’ll be able to rock-climb, ski-tour, and teach abroad again if I want. Perhaps some of that I will do with her. But at the moment, none of that is important.
Now is my time to return to a childhood backyard, to tame this little patch of wild–the one within me and the one in our garden- so my daughter can encounter nature in baby steps. The Echinacea I sowed may not see butterflies for some time, but Penelope nearly knocks me over to touch the grub I unearthed while planting it. She reminds me that nature’s surprises can be found in the smallest of places. And, our daily adventures feed me more than I imagined. Witnessing her first encounters with nature feels like Queen Anne’s lace stirring in a breeze I’d almost forgotten.
Caroline N. Simpson is a 2020 Established Artist Fellow in Poetry (Delaware Division of the Arts). Her chapbook, Choose Your Own Adventures and Other Poems, was published by Finishing Line Press in 2018. She teaches high school English in Wilmington, Delaware. carolinensimpson.com