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All my relations

Our chipmunk friend

It was November when we moved into our “fixer-upper” in Ridgefield. At that point, the house had been vacant for nearly two years. The interior was bleak and exterior untended. Yet, we loved the location and were ready to make amends.

There was absolutely no landscaping –  only a large, sorry patch of pachysandra on the rear slope. Looking outside now through the dining room window, it is hard to believe this is the same property.

That season, I was busy with several remodeling projects so we hired a landscaping crew to do a quick cleanup of the late autumn lawn. The straggly hedges in front were the next to go, as well as a 20-foot tall pine and a tired old crab apple tree. That was the easy part of the job…

The following spring we began to dig and cut and rake away years of neglect on the exterior. Annie and I drove 25 pick-up trucks full of debris to the dump as we unearthed huge tangled limbs and heaps of trash buried by the previous owner. We counted the skeletons of eight Christmas trees, plus many golf balls, old badminton rackets … Fortunately we border a wooded lot owned by a generous neighbor. I have no doubt that we scattered hundreds of tarpfuls of clean leaf debris upon Dan’s forest floor.

Our little abode sings!We hired an arborist to prune and cable the 80 to 100 foot trees at the rear. Then slowly and carefully, we pruned the lower tier of trees and raised the canopy, increasing the air circulation around the house. One Saturday afternoon after cutting down a large limb that choked the rear patio, Anne and I felt the energy shift. In one of those real “Ah ha!” moments, our wind chimes began to sing even though there was no breeze. Feng shui in action! The whole yard breathed a sign of relief as the flow of energy circulated.

We had a vision to restore this neglected property.

It included fencing and walls of stone, shade and sun gardens, drainage improvements, a veggie garden, and a healthy lawn. Whew! I wonder if I would ever have begun some of the projects if I’d known – ahead of time – how much work they would be.

We built a custom fence with elegantly sweeping lines along the eastern property line. But before we could start, a large diseased tree needed to be removed. Our bordering neighbors agreed to split the cost and down it came. The tree crew cut the overgrown bramble from the area as well – and that left “only” the bittersweet root structure to be eliminated. So we pulled out the remaining shoots on the property line, then got down in the hole with a sawzall reciprocating saw and cut at the roots. Easier said than done! But we persisted and finally were able to dig the holes for the fence posts.

One day while working on the fence posts our neighbors Peggy and Ben walked by with their children. Eyeing our labors as we slashed and ripped those roots from the dirt, sharp-witted Peggy stopped to tease, “I thought you guys were tree huggers!” Well, you can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs. We built that fence, and later added another on the north border creating a very private backyard.

We hired a stonemason named Marco to build two curved loose-laid stone walls on the back slope. We back-filled them with gravel and loads of prime soil to create terraced gardens where nothing but hardscrabble and weeds had been. Annie began to plant the shade garden. Later we set stones to make a path through the fern bed that climbed to an upper platform playfully dubbed “The Bandstand” … by guess who? Peggy. From up top on the platform we survey the road and all those who pass beneath and we are nearly invisible to the world below. We love to end our day up top, sipping a beer and enjoying the view.

From The Bandstand, steps lead to a path across the back fence to a hammock area and then down more steps to the vegetable garden, making a circular route around our backyard. Anne, in her brilliant determination, had me sawzall the roots of the small trees that had sprouted in the proposed pathway then we covered the path in bark shavings for a soft footfall. Those little trees were gone for good. Tree hugger?

We were persistent … and then some.

A peaceful kingdom reigns.

As we worked I began to see some interesting behavior from our other neighbors – the birds, squirrels, and chipmunks.

Generations of cardinals nest in the trees and come to our feeder; the male calls out looking for his lifetime mate who is never far away. The lifespan of a cardinal can reach 20 years! Acrobatic squirrels use our fences and walls as highways in their continuous search for food. I watch their playful chases around the exposed trunks of the big trees. I have seen them mating on the pickets of the rear fence in the universal pattern of play and union. I realized that not only did the animals live here along with us, but I instinctively feel that they enjoy and use what we have created. This property is theirs as well.

Recently I have developed a rather personal relationship with a yearling chipmunk who inhabits Marcos’ stonewall near the rear deck. Now, don’t ask how I can tell one chipmunk from another … but I KNOW this little guy/gal by the eccentric prairie dog posturing and wine-cork popping sound it makes when I sit on the deck, sipping tea, meditating, or talking on the phone. I guess he/she likes the sound of my voice and the squirrel-like lip puckering sound I make when the squirrels are frolicking by. As when an infant becomes familiar with the voices of his/her parents before birth, I imagine that this little chipmunk is familiar with the sounds I make.

I started leaving a trail of pecans and almonds near the nest on the wall, and then closer to my chair on the deck. When I come out with my late afternoon maté mint tea, I signal with my puckering call and eventually, the sweet little chipmunk comes to the deck and runs between my feet.

I know what you are thinking …

Chipmunks that know me? This author is loopy with anthropomorphic projection! …  but I think not.

On several occasions the chipmunk has left small pebbles where the nuts were placed … gifts of nature – returning what the circle of life offered.

I guess I am a tree hugger after all.

Our back garden and furry friend.