For decades the way to start my day has included taking my cup of coffee and at least one of my cats out to the back yard, in all seasons and weather, to work, to be inspired by the beauty of the new day, to mull over assignments, commissions, issues as my hands performed simple daily tasks, planting, harvesting, trimming, digging, and all the pieces fell into place. I’ve always said I think best when my hands are busy. Working at home, I love to get an early start on things so that when the phone starts ringing and the emails come scrolling in, I’m already in process. I’ve photographed dewdrops and snowflakes and butterflies and tomatoes, I’ve had some exercise, my creative senses are thoroughly awakened and I have new images to share with the world.
Not so much since my beloved cherry tree fell down one day last July, flattening a good bit of my yard front and back, the cold frame along the fence in my garden, my fences that helped keep the deer out of it all, even the two lilacs underneath the window where I feed the birds on the side and corner of the house. She was a big tree, probably the most important in my entire backyard wildlife habitat. She provided home and food for many creatures, and though she ended up shading a section of my growing area so that I lost some of my favorite flowers and a portion of my vegetable garden, she countered that loss by providing privacy for me, cool shade on hot summer mornings, constantly whispering leaves in the darkness at night, a delicate tracery of bare branches in winter.
I parked under her younger branches the first time I came to see this house when it was for sale and I was looking for the starter home I would buy. I knew the house was small, but just as important as the house to me was the yard around it, enough space for privacy and for all the ideas I had, and when I walked under the cherry tree, through the gate and into the back yard I knew this place was right. My mother always joked that I hadn’t bought a house, I’d bought a deck and a yard, and in part she was right, I would not have chosen this house but for this little piece of land that surrounded it. That overgrown, unkempt, unloved yard has been one of my favorite canvases for the 26 years I’ve lived here.
After the tree fell the branches were all cut and chipped and hauled away, but the large trunk section, a prime piece of straight cherry almost 30” in diameter, was left for someone to come later to cut up for either board lumber or firewood or both. I planned to use pieces of the branches as edging for my gardens and as rustic little seats here and there around the yard. Knowing that cutting and removing the trunk would have people walking all over my garden and the brush that had grown along the fence at the edge of the yard was actually holding it from rolling down into my neighbor’s yard, I decided to leave the yard as it was and tackle it when the big obstruction was out of the way. I’ve grown accustomed to the big open space outside the window, enjoy the extra light, and, just as I did when I moved here, I’m looking forward to building my vegetable garden with projects I should have taken care of anyway, and refreshing the sunny rock garden on that side of the house, built when I moved in, and smothered in deep shade for the past decade or more.
Months later that tree trunk is still there because it is very large and in the corner of three yards, on a small slope, with no easy way to get vehicles near it. I’d normally have kept things growing into December, be starting tomatoes and peppers in January, getting my cold frame along the fence set up during a January thaw for hardening off seedlings and starting lettuces, turning the compost and spreading some on the beds along with a little aged manure of some sort, thinking about the peas and eggplants I’d photograph, mornings in the kitchen blanching green and yellow beans and making mulberry jelly, all the summer meals with fresh tomatoes, the smell of soil and warming sun on my shoulders, Mimi patrolling the brick paths in her role as feline garden steward handed down by Cookie and others before her. Normally I’d also be out there even when I wasn’t gardening, while the soil and plants rested, finding inspiration in what I’d left standing weathered by the elements, enjoying the winter quiet as the wind whistled through the tops of the trees and looking up at the changing sky far above me. Every morning it has been a place to start, afternoon a place to take a break, evening the buffer that surrounded me while I worked.
I’ve avoided the back and side yard since last July. It was partly the mess and partly the leftover trauma that a tree had nearly fallen on me on a sunny, hot, still summer afternoon, and its connection with my brother’s death the following day. I started out looking for time to think about things, and when I wanted to go outdoors Mimi and I ended up spending time in our little courtyard outside the dining room window, as you’ve seen in photos. But the front of the house doesn’t suffice for our morning meander. I want my privacy and Mimi wants to stretch her legs, but we ended up not going outside at all for most of December and part of January, which left us both feeling literally ungrounded. I have felt untethered, my mornings kind of lost and unfocused without my early creative awakening and focus. That part of me that wants to grow things is looking for a purpose.
All those “un-“s point to things I want to have but don’t—feel grounded, literally, feel tethered to my own energetic flow and internal schedule, being able to focus on my work, and I know Mimi feels the same about her own life. I stay up far too late far too often because I don’t start my day with an energetic little romp, I don’t start with creative focus, and without the rise and fall of my energy the day doesn’t feel that it has a beginning and an end. Even in posting here I’ve lost my schedule, missing the time each day when I’d share favorite thoughts and images and the day each week I’d share cats for adoption, rescue stories, portraits, news. I knew decades ago when I decided to start freelancing after work, and then to work at home, that being able to follow my own daily energetic flow was part of what would make me successful, and I needed to be sure I could preserve that. I lost a big portion of it in taking care of family members for the past 15 years, and the tree just cut me loose.
I’ve looked at that section of the yard and felt strange all the time for neglecting it, literally turning my back on it. I think it misses being walked on and poked at. I also find it a little frustrating to hold back the ideas I have, I want to get started, but I feel I should focus on work and not spend time fooling around out in the yard.
But a couple of weeks ago I decided Mimi and I were going to go out there on purpose and see it for what it is, our post-apocalyptic back yard, and start visiting it again. Mimi loves it no matter what, and found the branches and trunk sections a convenient way to keep her tiny paws off the cold wet leaves covering the grass, and she still has her picnic table and recumbent mulberry tree. I found beauty in what’s there, as always, and though it’s not what I’d like it to be and I have a lot of work to do before it is, I can live with it the way it is until I can change it, and enjoy the process.
And though I’d intended to write this post last weekend and did not, I gave myself a pass and let myself think about what I’d say. Then I’d wanted to post it this past Sunday but couldn’t sit down and focus. Here it is Tuesday, and I was going to let it wait until this coming weekend, but I think Mimi and I want to share this. For one thing, a friend will be able to come here with family and cut up the tree trunk for nice cherry firewood for the whole family and by May we should have our yard back. I have a lot of work to do out there and there are portions of it I can start on right now.
Plus we have some new rescued kitties to share and another rescued kitty who needs a little assistance, new portraits and artwork, new products and lots of photos. Time to focus and get things done. If the daffodils are brave enough to come out, so am I.
Thanks for listening. I am looking forward to a wonderful year.
Read other Essays and Rescue Stories on The Creative Cat.
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Weekly schedule of features:
Sunday: Essays, Pet Loss, Poetry, The Artist’s Life
Monday: Adoptable Cats, TNR & Shelters
Tuesday: Rescue Stories
Wednesday: Commissioned Portrait or Featured Artwork
Thursday: New Merchandise
Friday: Book Review, Health and Welfare, Advocacy
Saturday: Your Backyard Wildlife Habitat, Living Green With Pets, Creating With Cats
And sometimes, I just throw my hands in the air and have fun!