The back yard that flanked our little 1950’s-era tract home seemed virtually boundless, to my fuzzy recollection. Using an aerial view, it measures just under 350 square yards; not exactly huge.
But how many wonders it contained. This small space was a marvelous universe, a creative wonderland with many personalities.
It was a habitat
The back yard was roaming grounds to many different pets. Throughout the years it contained a succession of four or five dogs, one of which was my own. There were eight or nine rabbits of various breeds, a one-eyed box turtle named Ulysses whom the neighbor dog liked to pick up in his mouth from time to time (how he kept getting out of the yard we never did figure out), and if I am to believe the stories, ducks.
The rabbits liked the yard. We kept them in cages we built ourselves, and despite the copious amounts of their odorous “by product”, we managed to keep their cage areas fairly clean. Occasionally we’d allow them to roam freely around the yard, under our watchful eye. It was nice to watch them frolic, kicking their back feet high into the air. They would sometimes scamper under the deck but could usually be lured out by carrots or lettuce coupled with patience. The neighborhood wildlife was particularly fond of our rabbits, though, and managed to find ways of opening their cages. This always meant a grim discovery and a period of time without rabbits. We always assumed it was cats that did it, but either way we eventually gave up trying to keep rabbits at all.
It its early days, the yard boasted a dense lawn. Over time the grass was gradually worn away, until my dog (an Irish Setter) destroyed what few tufts of greenery were left. This dog had a peculiar but apparently joyous ritual he’d undertake in the evenings when mom would bring her small glass of wine outside to sit in the hammock held up by the leaning pine. He would frolic about the yard along a specific circuit, brainlessly barking into the sky and flinging dog drool in all directions. I could never understand the purpose of that habit. We eventually paved the entire lawn area with decomposed granite.
It was a theater
The deck that wrapped around the back side of the house was my space ship, an intergalactic vessel that would take me on many adventures battling aliens and evil robots. I imagined it with a bridge, a main deck, an engine room and crew’s quarters.
In later years, when I purchased a super-8 movie camera, the yard turned into the set for nearly all of my experimental special effects films, most of which centered around lasers “blasting” whatever objects I could find, such as tires, crates, cinder blocks or left over lumber.
My older brothers put on several dramatic Halloween productions, complete with zombies, mummies, a vampire and a werewolf. These were portrayed by actors gleaned from the abundant stock of neighborhood kids, with my oldest brother usually playing the part of an undead civil war soldier. I was too young to participate in the performance, so I was relegated to watching and being used as a fright gauge. My favorite rehearsal rendition was when my brother begrudgingly allowed the actors to inject humor into the action. At one point, when a corpse rose out of the leaves and yawned and cursed his alarm clock for letting him oversleep, I laughed so hard I thought I’d pass out. Meanwhile my brother would be rubbing his temples in frustration, fretting about whether his production would ever match his dreams.
It was a refuge
There were at least two tree forts in the back yard, as well as other nooks and caverns created by myself or my brothers. I knew of at least two underground forts, one of which was accessible only by a narrow tunnel that I could never bring myself to crawl through, despite my brothers’ assurances that they would help keep me from getting stuck. Since I never ventured inside, I never experienced its majesty personally… but I was told that it was wondrously expansive, with side tunnels and room for several people at once. It also held a treasure box filled with various sorts of wealth. The fort eventually caved in after a particularly heavy rainstorm. The treasure box and the other items that were kept down there were never recovered.
At the fence corner was a large Pampas Grass plant, easily eight feet tall and just as large in diameter. My brothers had burrowed into it along the fence line, creating a hiding place between the grass and the fence corner. If you could stand getting sliced by the razor-sharp grass getting in and out of the place, it made a nice little fort.
Near the corner of the yard was a pine tree. It started out as a live Christmas tree then was planted in the back yard. It suffered some insult one year causing it to lean over severely. From then on it grew out of the ground at a 45 degree angle for some distance before curving to upright. The size of the tree and the angle of its trunk made it a fairly simple matter to climb. In fact, there was no need to climb it at all: one could simply get up speed and run up the trunk to get to the lowest branches, and clamber up the rest of the distance the traditional way. Climbing to almost the top of this tree brought you to a small tree fort, consisting mainly of a thick scrap of plywood as a floor and not much else. It sat nestled in a division in the tree trunk, where it grew in what amounted to two separate trunks. Because the tree grew out and over the fence line, this fort actually sat directly over our neighbor’s living room. I’m sure they had no small amount of concern that one day one of those neighbor boys would come crashing right through the ceiling. It was a tough climb, but it was a marvelous place to achieve solitude, and to see an unobstructed, panoramic view of Carmichael.
It was a Mid-Century Modern Shangri La
Soon after moving in, my mom and dad created a wonderful patio area. There was a lush little fern grotto up against the side of the house next to the dining room window. This was surrounded by natural stones and aluminum tiki torches. The patio itself was paved with large, exposed-aggregate concrete pavers set in a large grid pattern so common to that time. One grid square was unfilled, and served as a built-in fire pit. This was flanked by two butterfly chairs. It could have easily graced the pages of Sunset magazine, in all of its 1959 glory. I can imagine my parents entertaining family and friends here on mild evenings. I recall relaxing by the fire on that patio a few times, though I don’t believe we ever got the tiki torches to work. Eventually tree roots forced the square pavers into a perilously undulating landscape. We had to tear them up and try to relevel them, but we never could get them to lie flat again.
It was a mystery
I seldom ventured into the east end of the yard; it had the feeling of being beyond the habitable borders of civilization, for no particular reason. Nothing really grew there except a Mimosa (or Silk Tree to our parlance). Eventually it succumbed to a mysterious disease and it withered and died, rendering that part of the yard a barren wasteland surrounding a dead tree trunk. Eventually we tore the tree out and dug a Koi pond, and transformed that area into a private patio for the master bedroom remodel.
It was a jungle
The greatest feature of this back yard was, in my estimation, the wisteria.
My mom and dad had planted a wisteria vine in a pot in the front yard to grace the entrance. As it grew, it aggressively grabbed unwary visitors with its tendrils, so my parents decided it would do better in the back yard. They planted it up against the deck.
The wisteria flourished, scaled the deck railings and overhangs in no time, and then aimed its grabby little tendrils for the trees.
It really liked the trees. Once established there, the vine could extend its reach practically without limit.
And as that leaning pine grew up, so did the wisteria. The pine, the wisteria and the ash tree in the back were all linked together in a thickening jungle of vines. It was a veritable highway in the trees, forming junctions and thoroughfares through branches at many different heights.
Thick, heavy vines. Vines that would easily support the weight of an adventurous kid.
Thus began my explorations into the trees, well beyond 50 feet off the ground. It provided an easy means of getting on the roof of the house, a quick corridor to the tree fort I mentioned earlier, and access to other locations in the trees that were also perfect for building more tree forts. I had access to a veritable mid-air city.
Another side effect of this exuberant growth was the wisteria blossoms. Every spring, thousands of beautiful lavender wisteria blossoms could be seen growing from the highest points of the pine tree. It was the tallest tree for miles around, and since it displayed these completely inscrutable blooms each spring, it became known as the flowering pine, a landmark to the neighborhood.
At some point it became apparent that the vine would not last forever. With that in mind, I set about the task of recording the splendor that was the vine in full bloom, from ground level to the very heights it could reach. Armed with my super-8 movie camera, I shot about two minutes of film in an attempt to capture the magnificence that was the Flowering Pine.
The vine died many years ago, as did that pine tree. My mother sold the house in 1998. Fortunately she passed on to me a seedling from that vine, and I have that seedling growing in my back yard right now.
Here, I present the film that I shot thirty years ago.
1) I apologize for the nausea-inducing camera movement. I didn’t really grasp the importance of keeping a shot steady.
2) The film starts out being shot from standing on the ground, moves to the high tree fort, and then ends up at the very top of the tree.
3) Music really makes a difference in a film’s feeling, especially simple ones like this.
4) Most of my super-8 movies came out so dark that it was hard to watch them. Thus, all of the old movies I had converted to video, like this one, are given the production name “Nearly Dark Films”
5) Just thinking about being up that high without any safety harness makes me a little queasy. I’m not sure why I was so unfazed by it when I was younger.