The Nature of Backyards

I seem to have lost momentum, or maybe it’s motivation. Either way, I’ve been pretty slow about doing a new blog entry. To try and remedy the situation, I’ve decided I would start to post some writing from my school days.

I worked in a grocery store for more than a dozen years before deciding to go back to school and get a degree. While trying to decide on a major I asked myself, “How much fun would it be to take a bunch of writing classes?” The answer? “It would be a lot of fun.”

To get a bachelor’s degree in writing, you have to take more than a few of these fun writing classes, and so I have more than a few stories that I could share with you. To start off, however, I’m going to give you one of my creative non-fiction pieces from a class called Writing About Place. This essay was written in October of 2012.

The Nature of Backyards

Some of the tomatoes are still green on the vine. It is mid-September and the days seem unnaturally cool. Autumn doesn’t officially start for several days, but it already feels as if fall is here. If the frost comes too soon, we will be throwing blankets on the tomato plants, or bringing green tomatoes inside and waiting for them to ripen. The tomato yield this year has actually been pretty good, with tomatoes filling the kitchen table quite regularly. If the plants had been in the ground a month earlier, it would have been a bountiful crop. I dug out a parcel of dirt right in the middle of my back yard in an effort to give the plants more sun, but as the shadows grow longer across the yard, the neighboring box-elder trees are providing more and more shade for what has become my tiny tomato forest. As I sit here in the backyard of my North Minneapolis home, looking at the yellow extension cord draped across the lawn, I think about the peculiar collision of nature in our lives, and how it makes this yard such an enjoyable place to live and work.


It was just a couple of years ago that I saw my first raccoon in the city. I’ve heard about sightings for years from friends and family members, but I had never managed to get a peek of one myself. My first experience was when they moved in next door. The house had been abandoned for several years after a string of different owners had occupied it. The new family was a mama raccoon and her three babies. We saw them one morning when they were heading back into their house through a gap in the roofline. It must have been the young ones’ first time out as the mama raccoon was trying to coax them up the side of a porch post. Regrettably, the young ones weren’t quite certain they could make it. We got the camera out and took pictures. The mama raccoon was not at all happy about us being there, gawking at her unfortunate predicament. After a lot of hissing and coaxing, she finally managed to wrangle them all inside.

I sent my sister, who lives in the back woods of Upper Michigan and sees raccoons all the time, a photo with the caption of “Our New Neighbors.” She replied that they were not at all good neighbors to have. It is interesting that what was an interesting and entertaining event for us was just an everyday nuisance problem for her. The nature that she had come to despise was for me, a grand adventure. We have so-called wild squirrels and birds that always run or fly about the yard, but there is something just a little more exotic about the raccoon. It isn’t nearly as exciting as it would be to see a mountain lion, a coyote, or even a fox, but there is still that sense of the wild with a raccoon, a collision with the wild that isn’t supposed to happen in my own back yard.


According to local legend, our house was only the second built on this old block. Nothing but farmland and a few other houses back in 1904. There is a nearby graveyard with the name of Crystal Lake Cemetery. I was always curious about this, as Crystal Lake was about three miles away in the suburb of Robbinsdale. To further add to the confusion, there is another suburb beyond Robbinsdale called Crystal. There is another local legend that there was once an immense lake in North Minneapolis. I concluded that Crystal Lake must have once been much bigger, and was slowly drained off for farmland and housing.

I eventually got my hands on an antique atlas from a geography expert. With his help, I solved the riddle of the disparate naming of Crystal Lake landmarks. In this old book, before Minneapolis had yet expanded into the North, the countryside was divided into townships. The area that now covers North Minneapolis, Robbinsdale, and Crystal were all within the confines of Crystal Lake Township, named after the lake. So, when they plotted the cemetery, it is likely that it was still in Crystal Lake Township, hence the name. Then, when Robbinsdale was established, it left only one small part of the township remaining, which eventually became the city of Crystal.

It is interesting how the natural feature of one small lake influenced the way we now think about three different cities. It is often the case that we name things because of the way nature has influenced us. Even the city name of Minneapolis has a natural influence, a mixing of the Dakota Word Minnehaha, meaning laughing waters, and the Greek word polis, which literally means city. These two words colliding became Minneapolis, the city of waters, named for Minnehaha Falls, as well as its abundance of lakes, streams, and of course, the Mississippi river that runs through the heart of the city. I look toward the direction of the river, almost a mile away, there are too many obstructions to even see the river gorge from here, but the river is still a constant reminder of life here in this river city.


This isn’t the first year that I have grown tomatoes, but I never have been very good at it. It is difficult to know exactly what I am doing wrong, because there are so many things that can go wrong with tomatoes. This year, I had ten tomato plants that I started indoors. I planted six out in the yard, and saved four in case I needed to replace any. It turned out I never did need to replace any, and I ended up with four tomato plants in pots that I put along the fence.

This fence bordered the yard where our friends, the raccoons, had previously lived. Three years after the raccoons had moved in, the house has been rehabilitated, and it now hosts a family that had been displaced when a spring 2011 storm of tornadoes collided with the Northside of Minneapolis. The storm damaged hundreds of homes and felled thousands of trees as it tore across the Northside. One day, while I was out watering the tomatoes, a young girl from the family next door had an unexpected question.

“What happened to that tomato plant?” she asked. “It’s growing out along the ground instead of standing up.” This particular plant did not have a cage around it like the other ones in my garden did.

“That’s the way they grow naturally,” I replied. “Tomatoes are a vine plant, and if they don’t have something to grow up against, they will just grow out along the ground.”

This really got me to thinking about all the ways we try and harness nature to do our bidding. For the tomatoes, I cleared the ground, kept the weeds away, watered regularly, and even fertilized the soil. I went to great lengths to put cages up around the tomato plants and encouraged them to grow up into them. I pushed the branches this way and that, the bitter smell that came from touching the vines and leaves belied the sweet taste that would come when the tomatoes were finally eaten. It was easy to keep the plants under control at first, but the cages that house most of my tomato plants are not very strong. The plants are now leaning over, causing the cages to bend under the weight of the ever ripening beefsteak tomatoes. I’m going to have to look for something sturdier if I plant again next year. Maybe I will build a trellis, anchored deep into the ground, a monument to the garden crop growing among the more decorative plants.

I look elsewhere in the yard and see a crabapple tree that I had transplanted several years ago, with its still-green leaves and tiny apples that will never be large enough to eat. I chose to dig up a semi-wild tree, because I thought it would be more natural than one purchased at a store. Still, I prune the tree, cutting off branches in a way that I think will make it look more beautiful. Now, I wish I had bought a tree that might have produced something useful. Would that be less natural somehow, and how important is it for this tree to be natural? The main reason for planting the tree was to have blossoms in the spring. The apple blossoms will be nowhere near as fragrant as the lilacs on the other side of the yard, their aroma wafting on the wind, but I hope they will be prettier to look at. Alas, I imagine a Honeycrisp apple tree from Menards would look just as nice, and there might have even been apples to eat.

Then, there is the ever present lawn, with its mix of the long lush bluegrass that we want, and all of the weeds that we don’t. There are dandelions, of course, no longer flowering, but still sitting dormant in the yard, some kind of big leafed weed that has gone to seed and seems to be everywhere, patches of crab-grass, and the soft clover interlaced throughout. I actually kind of like the clover, with its puffy white flowers, but it’s just one more thing that should not be there. Or should it? A weed, after all, is just another plant that is somewhere we don’t want it to be. And if I like the clover, maybe it isn’t a weed after all.

As I look to the future, I think about the tomatoes and the oncoming frost. I wonder if I will grow them again next year. Maybe I will focus on ridding the lawn of weeds instead. I look further ahead, wondering if I will grow to be very old in this yard, and if a very long time from now, I will be buried in Crystal Lake Cemetery. The frost is just one more force of nature that threatens to make its way into the yard. Nature is ever present in our lives, no matter how we try and tame it. Whether it is the oncoming winter, the incursion of raccoons into our urban center, the natural landmarks that help us define our geography, or even the fury of a tornado, there is no escaping our ongoing collision with nature. For me, this clash is evident every day, in the observance of my own backyard.

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