An exotic getaway in the backyard

July 04, 2002|By Thomas Belton

HADDONFIELD, N.J. - My next-door neighbor came over the other night and regaled me with stories about his vacation photographing grizzly bears in the Rockies.

A few days later, a co-worker thrust a photograph in my face of himself and a toothsome white shark that he'd caught off the Great Barrier Reef. Indignant and duly humbled, I smiled appreciatively but secretly wondered why I'm not off on some exotic getaway.

Glancing about, the answer is simple. The shingles on my house need tightening, the backyard garden is ever filled with voracious grubs that require disciplining and the blue jays that pester my dog require constant supervision. The job jar is always filled with life's dull little duties. So I sigh and accept my fate.

But in return, I get to see my kids' smiling faces flush from their summer activities, which I monitor as a brimmed chauffeur or chief cheerleader and sometimes medic but all-around good sport. My wildlife adventures are of the backyard type. My naturalist's joy is in watching my own critters grow up, cut their teeth on summer activities such as diving competitions, dance recitals, fencing and soccer.

But sometimes even this seems futile. For if I try to impart my years of wisdom to the kids, they cut me to the quick, relegate my bon mots to so much trivia, ridicule me and put me down, like an old scratched CD.

A bad day at the pool is holding myself in check as flirtatious troglodytes chat with my daughter, or my son challenges me to one-on-one basketball, only to use his height advantage again and again. And if I seek solace from my wife, she just waves me off because I've interrupted her poolside cabal that is forever plotting the overthrow of the school board.

So I retire to my backyard with trowel and hose in hand, water my plants, dig those blasted weeds and nurse a beer, watching the grasses grow. But strangely, something happens in the backyard that I hadn't anticipated. I find I like hanging out with the vegetation; even the lowly grubs seem good company.

I lay down in the grass the other day and looked at the world from a worm's view. A baby sparrow landed beside me. It had captured a noisy cicada and was trying to subdue it before swallowing. Surprisingly, the cicada - a feisty little devil - put up a monumental fight, buzzing like a power drill until it scared the chick away.

A butterfly crossed the yard, its yellow and orange wings beating a staccato tattoo on the air, sending it up and down as if tossed by hurricane winds. A strange little fly with orange eyes landed on my hand and dragged a leg across its antennae - like a cat licking its whiskers - then waggled its wings and seemed to shrug. A pair of squirrels chased each other around my oak tree in delight, playing the way my kids did when they were too small to leave the yard.

Here is a naturalist's dream, the ticking of time's clock silenced, immeasurably, lost against the beauty of these blazoned grasses. The wooly caterpillar on the azalea bush as photogenic as any grizzly bear, the carnivorous sparrow as fearsome as any great white shark. Who needs to travel? The world's my carpet, and it begins right here.

Then, suddenly, over my shoulder, I heard a strange cacophony: my daughter, leading a monkey troop of her friends over the picket fence, up through the cedar tree and onto the garage roof, where they balanced precariously and proceeded to drop a rope and haul up lawn chairs, blankets and provisions for a week before finally settling in to picnic and play cards.

"Wait," I shouted and quickly ran for my camera. "They'll never believe this back in the office," I chuckled.

Thomas Belton is a free-lance writer who lives in Haddonfield, N.J.

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