Close Encounters of the Urban Kind

Written by Susan Rae Sampson, Volunteer Writer

All it takes to encounter nature in an urban environment is a setting that’s even just a little bit wild. Just mildly wild is what my neighbors and I got in Seattle as we moved into our rows of tidy houses on 40’x60’ lots, on streets with broad planting strips, on blocks bisected by alleys separating our back yards. When our plat merged with another plat that was staked out along different compass points, builders left a triangle at the corner of the subdivisions undeveloped.

I’m sure that whoever platted our neighborhood in Seattle was just doing what was profitable 100 years or so ago; he didn’t intend for it to be wild. But by now, the triangular lot between plats is an open space that supports mature trees, raucous crows, and an occasional flush of meadow mushrooms.

Most of our planting strips are mowed down to crew-cut grass, but some of the alleys are slightly overgrown with blackberry brambles and naturalized escapees from gardens, like fennel and mint. (One friend cleared her lot of brambles and discovered terraces underneath, planted with an Italian garden, including an espaliered fig.) Wild animals have discovered the alleys, and we neighbors have discovered the animals--not that all of our encounters have been felicitous. Joanne was charmed by the sound of squirrels on her roof, until somebody told her they were actually rats in the attic. Caroline came face to face with a hissing raccoon that was fishing in her koi pond.  Driving home late one night, Fred saw a coyote trot nonchalantly down the alley and up onto a back porch to look for dog food, or else for a small pet to eat. A lady at the health department assured me that I didn’t need to worry about my bats, so long as they stayed up under the eaves. Animal control responded to capture a swarm of bees.

The late poet Stanley Kunitz was an avid gardener who once compared a poem to a garden that needed to be pruned, but not too much. His ideal for a poem also describes an urban garden that is just wild enough to be a natural habitat: “There has to be a certain degree of domestication in a garden. The danger is that you can so tame your garden that it becomes a thing. It becomes landscaping.” I, for one, prefer a slightly wild garden to a sculpted landscape.

Kunitz,Stanley,The Wild Braid, p.78. Copyright 2005,  W.W.Norton & Co. 

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