By Terry W. Johnson
Recently I took a ride down memory lane. It is a journey I take quite often from spring through fall. When I embark on these trips I don't venture out on a busy highway or even a dusty country road. They are trips taken without cranking up my car or old faded red pickup truck. The reason for this is simple: These cherished treks never extend beyond the confines of my yard.
You see, these journeys into the past take place while I am sitting on the bright yellow seat of my John Deere riding mower. Even the loud drone of the mower's powerful engine cannot prevent my mind being flooded with the sights and sounds of a treasure trove of memorable events that have taken place in my yard.
For more than four decades, my wife Donna and I have been working to make our yard more beautiful and wildlife friendly. As a result, our yard has provided us with countless hours of enjoyment watching the sights, sounds and behaviors of a never-ending parade of wildlife. The yard has also served as our own personal refuge from the stress of everyday life. It is also our direct link with the wild plants and animals with which we share the world. More importantly it has been the primary place where our daughter Angela and granddaughter Anna were introduced to the wonders of the natural world.
Indeed our yard and its inhabitants are an integral part of our lives. For that reason, it is only natural that the sight of various trees, shrubs, feeders, birdbaths and other places I encounter as I mow trigger memories of wildlife-related experiences.
For example, as I make a pass by an old children's swing set, I recall both my daughter and granddaughter urging me to push them harder so they can soar higher and higher. I also remember the spring Carolina chickadees nested in the open end of the pipe supporting the swing.
Along the edge of the yard I mow past a nesting box. I fondly remember how Anna and Angela have helped me paint, erect and check a number of them over the years. I will never forget their excitement when we opened a box they had their first glimpse at newly hatched bluebirds holding their yellow-rimmed mouths wide open, begging for food. Over the years the nesting boxes have provided the family with the opportunity to observe the nesting habits of other birds such as brown-headed nuthatches, great crested flycatchers and Carolina chickadees.
As I roll on past a backyard bird feeder, I memory of my daughter and wife spotting a yellow-headed blackbird feeding there on a cold winter morning comes to mind. And how can I forget the flocks of evening grosbeaks that many years ago used to descend on the feeder to gorge on sunflower seeds?
As I mow beneath a water oak tree standing in the side yard, the image of my granddaughter collecting the shed exoskeletons of cicadas strewn beneath the tree's arching limbs is as sharp as ever.
By the same token, when I mow the grass growing beside the garage and my home office, I recall those memorable evenings I accompanied Anna around the yard searching for toads. Once one was spotted in the glare of her flashlight, she would rush forward and grab them, never worrying about getting warts from touching these nocturnal amphibians.
When my mowing brings me near the back of our property, which we have left in a natural state, I recall my wife and daughter showing me a strange-looking grasshopper they found there. A little research revealed that it is named the toothpick grasshopper. One look and you would agree, it indeed looks like a toothpick with six legs.
As I mow an old garden spot near the barn, I can still see Angela's and Anna's chubby little hands dropping bean and radish seeds in the soft, moist earth.
When I cut the grass in the front yard, I always recall the time I was walking to the mailbox and spotted a gray fox trotting across the yard no more than 40 feet away. It paused, and for a brief, magical moment, we looked into each other's eyes before the elusive predator trotted on, disappearing into a nearby woodland.
As I mow the grass along the driveway I remember my wife telling me of encountering a fox squirrel as she walked to the mailbox one morning. When the large squirrel spotted her, it stopped in its tracks and stood up on its hind legs, studying her for a moment before making loping on its way.
Whenever I cut the lawn around several butterfly gardens found around the yard, I can see my wife bent over tilling the soil and planting the seeds plants that have attracted a myriad of butterflies such as gulf fritillaries, eastern tiger swallowtails, fiery skippers, pipevine swallowtails, pearl crescents and dozens of others. Not to be forgotten are times I have watched American goldfinches plucking seeds from spent zinnia blooms.
In the backyard I have to mow around a couple of large, flat rocks. They are left because I like to recall Angela and Anna turning them over looking for sowbugs, slugs and snails.
I have to be careful I don't knock over the birdbath when I mow near it. When I circle it I can see a kaleidoscope of birds that have come to this tiny cement pond to drink and bathe. These visitors range from colorful birds such as bluebirds, orchard orioles, cardinals, blue jays and tanagers to those sporting more subdued colors such as mockingbird, phoebes and sparrows.
When I pass by the deck I recall the family watching migrating sandhill cranes passing overhead in the fall. In addition, I can see the family sitting in the dark on the deck listening to the sounds of whip-poor-wills, chuck-wills-widow and great horned owls in the distance. I also like to recall the time my daughter and wife stood on the deck and watched a tufted titmouse pluck hair for its nest off the back of our sleeping dog.
These are but a few of the memories that course through my mind as I travel down memory lane each time I hop aboard my lawn tractor. While they may not sound significant to you, they are treasures that have increased in value with the passage of time.
Recalling them as I cut broad swaths of grass also makes this routine chore a lot more fun.
Terry W. Johnson is a former Nongame program manager with the Wildlife Resources Division, a backyard wildlife expert, and executive director of TERN, the friends group of the Nongame Conservation Section. (Permission is required to reprint this column. Contact email@example.com.) Learn more about TERN, The Environmental Resources Network, at http://tern.homestead.com. “Out My Backdoor” columns archive.