The Wilds of the Suburbs


When I was a kid, we didn't have cable. Well, we had cable when I was really little, but when I reached elementary school age, my parents cut the cable cord and we were left with basic stations that we'd get over the air. That meant that on a rainy Saturday afternoon, the only interesting thing we found to watch was "National Geographic" on PBS. By today's-kid standards, this doesn't sound very exciting. But it was to us. It was wonderful. My family would gather around the T.V. and watch the epic battle of lioness vs. antelope unfold before us on that magical box in our family room. I remember being so devastated when a baby impala was captured that I had to leave the room to mourn. Thanks to "National Geographic", I learned all sorts of things about the earth and caught the bug to travel and explore different places. I dreamt of living in an exotic place, surrounded by wildlife, witnessing the real-life drama of predator versus prey.

Well, kids, I'm living the dream. And, as it turns out, I have no idea what I'm doing. Since moving to the suburbs, I have come face-to-face with a skunk on my back patio, a pregnant opossum waddling through my back yard, raccoons living in the tree across the street, and a family of rabbits whose burrow lies somewhere in my shrubbery. I'm sure that my mother is rolling with laughter every time I call her with the latest tale of Allison vs. Nature. I mean, this is a woman who grew up on a farm watching her mother kill water moccasins with a hoe while out for a stroll. The apple didn't fall far from the tree. My mother has been known to chase bats out of a house with a broom and to use her BB gun to pick squirrels off her fence with a sniper's precision. Y'all, she's like a 97-pound Crocodile Dundee.

Anyway, this leads me to my latest battle. It's embarrassing, but I'm just going to say it. About three weeks ago, my house became some kind of destination retreat for wildlife to die. Not only did my house reek of rotting mouse, but something bigger and fouler died under my front porch. Now, I don't know how many of you are familiar with the smell of dead rodent. But I will say that once you smell it, you never forget it. My whole house stunk to high heaven. And the front porch, if possible, was even worse. There was no escaping it. If you think I'm exaggerating, let me present to you Exhibit A: my eldest child. He came home from school, walked in the house, started gagging, and had to run back outside for air. I met the postal worker on the sidewalk for a week so she wouldn't have to go up to the front door. It was bad. Really bad.

When I told my mother about it, she matter-of-factly said, "Well, you're going to need to get your hoe and rake it out from under your house. It's either that or you're going to be smelling it for about six weeks." Now, for one thing, I don't have a hoe. The second problem is that there is no way to access the area under my porch without dismantling the whole thing. (We can't even figure out how the poor thing got under there. We imagine that whatever it was burrowed underneath the stairs, then, in total darkness, thought, "Oh dang! What did I do?" And promptly died.) So, we had to deal with the smell for about two weeks. (At least it wasn't bad as the six weeks for which we were preparing. And, thankfully, the trusty Orkin Man found two dead mice in the basement ceiling, which were responsible for most of the in-house smell. It still doesn't address how they got in, but that's a different post for another day.)

Anyway, Mother Nature must have spread the word among the animals that our house was the place to be, because, since this era of decomposition started, a family of great horned owls has moved in directly across the alley from our house and they've positioned themselves to watch our yard. Now, I know that some local residents are annoyed by the nighttime hooting antics of this particular group of nocturnal neighbors. I, for one, am thrilled. As long as these feathered friends are camped out near us, I don't have to constantly apologize to people for how bad my house smells. It's like having a team of exterminators in my backyard.

Yesterday, when the neighborhood kids discovered the owls, perched high in the very tall tree, there was wide celebration in my alley. I was nervous that they would scare them off (which, according to the Illinois Raptor Center (Yes, this exists!), is a concern). I had a moment of thinking, "You darned kids! Stay off my lawn!" And then I remembered how excited my 8-year-old self would have been to see owls in the wild. And in my neighborhood. So, this afternoon, I stood in my backyard with my own kids and we watched them.

As we were watching the owls, a peregrine falcon swooped in and landed in the tree in our own yard (see the picture above). For my kids, who, instead of watching "National Geographic" on PBS, watch "Wild Kratts" on PBS Kids, seeing a peregrine falcon in our yard was the highlight of the year. Peregrine falcons are endangered and, thanks to Chris and Martin Kratt, my son can rattle off all kinds of facts about them, including that they are the world's fastest animal (when in a dive) at 200 mph. (Side Note: The Kratt Brothers have a huge fan base at my house. For Halloween two years ago, my son had me make an adult creature-power suit for my husband to match his own child-size one, so they could go as Chris and Martin. Wildlife is serious business over here.)

So, to reiterate: I got to watch a member of an endangered species in my own yard. That is incredible. I had a moment of gratitude come over me and I remembered a song that I used to sing as a child (words by Cecil Frances Alexander):

Chorus

All things bright and beautiful

All creatures great and small

All things wise and wonderful,

The Lord God made them all.

Verse 1

Each little flower that opens,

Each little bird that sings,

He made their glowing colors,

He made their tiny wings.

Verse 2

The purple headed mountain,

The river running by,

The sunset and the morning,

That brightens up the sky;

Verse 3

The cold wind in the winter,

The pleasant summer sun,

The ripe fruits in the garden,

He made them every one:

Verse 4

The tall trees in the greenwood,

The meadows where we play,

The rushes by the water,

We gather every day;

Verse 5

He gave us eyes to see them,

And lips that we might tell,

How great is God Almighty

Who has made all things well.

Isn't it wonderful to be surrounded by such beauty? Maybe you don't notice it. I don't notice it as much as I would like. Sometimes I'm trying to play referee to my kids. Sometimes I'm trying to answer emails or texts. Sometimes I'm so focused on the things that make me "busy" that I forget to appreciate what is all around me.

After the peregrine falcon flew away, we spotted robins, cardinals, a hummingbird, and two other kids of birds that I couldn't identify. My girls dug for worms in our garden and I watched an ant carry something much larger than itself while I carried my baby and thought about what he's seeing for the first time.

Last week, while we waited for the school pick-up line to move, we found cloud animals in the sky and my eldest daughter mentioned that she has a favorite tree that she looks at every day. I had no idea. She's never mentioned it. As it turns out, it's a tall pine tree in the front yard of a house across from the front door of the school. I had never noticed it before. Now I see it every day. I wonder what else she sees that I don't.

So, I have a new goal for myself: I'm going to try to notice one thing of beauty in nature every day. Essentially, I'm going on safari in the suburbs. Even if it's just for a minute, that minute is a moment to be grateful and to remember that we are all beautifully and wonderfully made. We have our own National Geographic specials going on all around us. We just need to take a minute to see them. And spring feels like the perfect time to look.

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Allison Harvey