Found in the Back Yard

During June and July this year we have focused our attention on the small hill in the back yard, along the side street. It is a hill, of course, only from the perspective of the lower yard behind it; its top is actually at street level.

The hill hides miscellaneous rubble — broken pieces of concrete, bricks, stone — all bound together and concealed by plain dirt and clay and tree roots. Its most prominent features are two large, old trees, a slippery elm and a silver maple. When we moved here the hill was covered by a dense mass of poke, garlic mustard, and an apparently limitless population of maple, buckeye, slippery elm, boxelder, mulberry, and black walnut seedlings, saplings, and suckers. Poison ivy and grape vines grew well into the tops of all the trees, dragging their branches near the ground, and camouflaging the smaller trees as mounds of vine. A third large tree of unknown species was already dead when we moved in, probably killed by the grapevine in its canopy that lent the illusion of flourishing foliage on the tree itself. A large part of it fell onto the street this spring.

Each summer since we moved here we have pulled vast quantities of poke and garlic mustard, cut grapevine and attempted to pull it out of the trees, and, at some personal risk, battled poison ivy across the area of the hill. I cut up the fallen parts of trees and disposed of them, either by bundling branches for the city’s compost collections or by using selected pieces for other purposes. Some of them now form a small border between the grassy walking area next to the picket fence and the more wild area of the hill, which will eventually be filled with flowering ground covers.

While we struggled with the weeds, a small population of wild black raspberries that huddled at the northern edge of shade cast by the trees on the hill has expanded into a thriving patch, now rapidly encroaching on the yard. They will be moved at the end of the summer.

As we cleared out small trees, fallen tree limbs, and the weedy ground cover, the ground itself emerged. Mostly what we found was rubble, twigs and leaves, random bits of trash that had either been thrown into the yard or blown in from the street, and more poison ivy. But occasionally we have found plants that are much more interesting. We think that this part of the yard had once been a flower garden, perhaps a rock garden, and despite the years of neglect some of the hardier plants have survived.

Fingers in the woods?

Fingers in the woods?

We found, for example, a few spindly Autumn Joy sedums, which we moved to a sunnier location. And, of course, we also found natural woodland understory plants such as spiderwort, various mushrooms, and curious fungi like these “fingers”.

A week or so ago, about the time we were finishing the largest part of this cleanup, Lisa was reading a mystery novel, The Tavernier Stones, by Stephen Parrish. The novel opens in a peat bog near Hamburg, Germany, with two boys’ discovery of a “bog person”. The boys, on a spring camping outing on the bog, are surprised by the effects of their campfire on the still frozen peat:

… the peat began to crack. A fissure radiated slowly outward from the center of the fire, rending the mossy soil along a zigzag path as though etched by a lightning bolt.

Fingers emerged from the crack. The boys saw only their black tips and thought they were knobby roots, or maybe pieces of glacial till.

The tips grew into appendages. The appendages joined into a palm. When a thumb finally appeared, the boys extrapolated what lay beneath.


I went back out to look.

Well, there’s no peat and no bog on the hill, and so far no arm has appeared. I’m disappointed, but I think a bog person is unlikely.


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