Home and the Woods

From the window of my home office I look onto the backyard and the patchy remnants of a lawn ravaged by an unusually hot summer. There is a dwarf Japanese maple, a slim pillaresque juniper, the leafy stump of a ginkgo tree that someone tried and failed to kill, a jasmine vine reaching for the beams of our covered patio, and a tree which I’ve been unable able to identify but which looks like it grew from a Dr. Seuss book. On one side of the house is a modest rhododendron and on the other a rose that’s gone feral in a gap between fence and garage, its branches reaching more than seven feet high.

The birds we see are familiar enough. There are evening robins and no end of crows; there are scrub jays and hummingbirds, chickadees and the tiny amiable bushtits that move in  groups through the trees like a softly peeping choir. One bird we rarely saw in the San Francisco Bay Area but see every day here in Portland is the northern flicker. The flicker is a woodpecker the size of a scrub jay with a spotted breast, a gray head, red wing and tail shafts, and bright red malars (in the male). In the spring mating season, flickers drumming on your home’s wooden siding will tell you if you have an insect infestation that needs addressing.

I have this idea that I ought to map it out and write up a natural history of our little territory, naming all the species of plant and animal that make themselves at home here, and those we see passing through. I’m curious to learn to what degree fall and spring species overlap, and to track our summer visitors against our winter visitors. My daughter got a jump on me and has already begun naming and describing the neighborhood cats in a little book of her own. There’s Carbonel, for example, a bony black tom that lives up the street; around the corner is Titus, a fat light-gray tabby patterned like a snow leopard.

Sometimes I think about the forest that grew here before Lewis and Clark paddled through and people like us began settling the area. Walking the neighborhood in the evening with my family, I imagine us passing down ghostly aisles of fir trees. But while the wolves and bears may be gone, replaced by dogs and cats, the forest itself isn’t really gone. It’s only changed. The trees are still standing in the form of 1920s bungalows like our own, built with beams of old-growth wood and shingled in pine and cedar. Like so many creatures of feather and claw before us, we’ve only made a temporary home in their branches.


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