December 14, 2022

Growing up in urban Bangladesh, my day-to-day experience of Nature is of highly controlled fragments – my mother’s garden, roadside trees – hemmed in by walls, pavement and asphalt. My sense of unbound Nature expands when I come to attend grad school in mid-western US. But despite its grand size, the campus green is a friendly beast: manicured, charming and not remotely a threat, barring a squirrel gone rabid.

Nature feels static, like the green blob behind a portrait on canvas. I rarely pause to notice it, let alone feel any fear, unless I am visiting Nature on its own turf, like a state park with ‘Beware of Bear’ signs. In my imagination, Nature lives out there.

Fast-forward some dozen years: my husband, kids and I live in semi-rural suburbs.

The woods behind our rented house give me pause. But it’s far off, I reassure myself; separated by hay pastures, paddocks and multiple fences. From the safety of my kitchen I watch the wild things – coyotes that menace our landlord’s goats, deer that lightly jump the four feet fence and turkeys that graze along the edges.

Only when we move into our own home, with an undeveloped tract lining the entire back perimeter, do I start to perceive Nature as an entity, a distinct feral she. At first, I am uneasy. Suddenly there is no mediary between us, save for a generous swath of grass where I plan to grow a market garden – fruit and produce to sell.

I keep looking over my shoulder as I pound in fence posts, measure beds. The previous owners had kept the edges of the woods trimmed; had even opened a path into a clearing they maintained, perhaps twenty feet inside the trees. As months pass, it grows peaceful to walk in there. I imagine being in a deep forest, that Nature and I are somehow buddies. Blue jays flit about. My blue jays, I think affectionately, though the rabbits, possums and raccoons, I mostly tolerate.

I never feel menaced. I am naïve.

Perhaps Nature, too, is wary of me, busy with shovel, stakes and yards of plastic mulch, a dozen paces from where her mugworts grow with abandon, lush and six feet tall. A landscaper dude keeps my side trimmed to a few inches of defeated grass.

Nature and I seem to have an understanding, the first season or two. We are civil, respecting each other’s boundaries. Mostly I am too busy, face down in dirt, to realize when she starts testing mine. It’s actually a bear that alerts me.

When I tell people about a black bear in our yard, they expect a thrilling account of snarling, face-to-face encounter. Here’s what actually happens.

We know a bear has been sighted in our area, as reported in dramatic pictures by an alphabet soup of news outlets. One harrowing morning it visits my child’s school and ambles about until the police come and herd it back into the woods behind the school.

The next day, I am out of sorts. I linger in the kitchen until my husband heads out to work. Reluctantly I make for the back door, picking up feed and fresh water for my chickens. Just as I am about to open the back door, horns blare out from the street in front of our house – a warning from the morning commuters. The garage door flies open as my husband rushes back inside shouting, ‘Bear! Bear!’

I run to join him in the living room. He is looking out the big French windows overlooking our backyard.

‘Did you see it?’ I ask him, heart pounding.

‘No, I was just backing out,’ he replies, ‘when other cars started honking. They saw the bear cross, the drivers said, straight through our lot heading for the woods.’

We press our noses to the glass, eyes searching, sweeping through the backyard, the emergent June garden and the budding woods. Nope, nothing remotely big, black and furry. Then I notice that the garden gate closest to the woods – and right next to my patch of ripe strawberries – has crashed to the ground.

No way I want to go out there, but there are chickens to feed and let out.

I call Animal Control. I am reassured to see a bear of a man step out of his truck. He strolls around my backyard exuding authority in his dark blue multi-pocketed uniform and matching shades, muttering into the radio strapped to his barrel chest. I nervously let out the chickens and hammer the broken gate back up.

‘The bear’s long gone,’ the officer declares finally. ‘They’re just coming out of hibernation, looking for nuts and berries. You don’t have a bird feeder, do you?’ I shake my head, thinking of my patch of ripe red strawberries.

‘He must have blown through,’ the officer says. ‘Trust me, he’s more scared of you than you are of him.’ I look at him dumbly.

My peace is definitely blown through, bent at an irrepairable angle like the steel post that holds up the damaged gate. The woods look sinister. I mumble a greeting to it when I go out, suddenly respectful. But I am on edge. I want to stamp my foot and scream. How can Nature do this mean thing to me?

I start carrying a pitchfork.

When I see our neighbor Bob out in his backyard, I run over. I feel a rush of affection for his yappy little dogs, for needing to go potty outdoors several times a day. Solitude is so overrated.

‘A bear ran through our yard,’ I inform Bob breathlessly.

‘Oh yeah?’ Bob lights up the inevitable cigarette and chuckles. He’s middle aged and untidy. We have little in common besides the boundary line of rocks and trees that separates our yards. He laughs on seeing my pitchfork.

‘Tell you what, you know that open field by the main road that way?’ he indicates with his cigarette. I nod. There is a field, eight or ten acres, used for growing hay. It is a mile or two from our house, connected by the woods.

‘Well, a couple of years ago, I was driving by,’ Bob takes a drag. ‘And I saw this thing running across the field. I thought, it can’t be! So I stopped the car to look.’

I wait as Bob pauses for dramatic effect.

‘It’s too big to be a bobcat, I thought, then I saw its tail.’ Bob makes a wavy motion with the cigarette hand. ‘Yep, I’m pretty sure it was a juvenile mountain lion.’

Thanks Bob. Just the assurance I need – bear and mountain lion.

Nature, in my mind, finally acquires a capital ‘N’.

‘Pay attention to me!’ she says.

Every hair on my neck complies, standing up to salute.

No longer do I just glance at the woods. That summer, I take a good hard look. I notice our boundaries shifting. Japanese knotweeds that crowd the left corner are sending out stubby shoots my way. Left uncut, each shoot hardens into an eight-foot bamboo, and tilts out like a leafy grabby arm. On the right, mugworts have become a dense impenetrable mat. Both species are suckering their way into the grass – my grass, my side! I realize that our landscaper dude is mowing in ever shrinking circles.

And the path into the woods? Spiky brambles of Rugosa have closed it off, just like in the tale of Sleeping Beauty. A tick lands on me when I try to cut through.

Slowly and slyly, Nature is invading my space.

I buy a hedge trimmer, one that makes a satisfying deep-throated growl when I turn it on. This is war. Come spring, I thunder along the edges, grimly shoving Nature back wherever she has breached our imaginary divide.

There, I think, hands on hip.

That summer, my ruthless cut spurs vigorous new growth: brambles curling, knotweed spires, poison ivy scampering and clambering and grinning its three lobed grin.

‘Nature abhors vacuum,’ I remember reading somewhere.

To my chagrin I realize that my grassy yard is essentially a big vacuum.

And it’s frightening how fast Nature eats it up. She is ruthless, intent on reaching my house and swallowing it whole.

I cycle through denial and anger, those first two stages of grief.

A sudden suspicion makes me look sideways, towards the rock and tree boundary between my yard and Bob’s. And what do I see? Slender new saplings of some wild berry. Poison ivy flowing out from between rocks to colonize new ground. Bittersweet lianas as thick as my thumb lolling over the rocks and prying them open with roots. Canes of wild thorny blackberry arcing out with their greedy rooting tips.

Into my grass!

My unguarded flank is also under attack.

I spend late fall snipping and hacking and trimming, ripping long ropes of poison ivy out of my poor abused grass. I free the rock wall; in the process I find a voles’ nest with tunnels leading straight into my garden. I scrape away parasitic vines choking the big stately trees. I regard the rock and tree boundary as my ally, holding back chaos.

But who am I kidding?

‘You’re on borrowed land, my land,’ Nature tells me, the mean girl in green.

‘Okay I get it,’ I concede. ‘But let me have it for a bit longer, okay?’

She shrugs.

We have this conversation again, and again. And all the while she keeps nipping my flanks, whenever my attention strays to my garden, my source of income.

‘But I’m one of the good guys: not using chemicals, pesticides. Why punish me?’ I cajole her, clearly bargaining.

She rustles her leaves. I hang my head in depression.

Eventually – and I’m still working on it – I accept that Nature is just doing her thing. She is communicating to me her boundaries and keeping me at bay, protecting her blue jays and possums and raccoons.

And that, one day, she will swallow me and my house. Finis.


Teaser photo credit: Black Bear from Yellowstone National Park. By Jim Martin – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=7816500

Nayeema Eusuf

Nayeema is a Bangladeshi-American market gardener in RI

Tags: connection to nature