Johns Hopkins Magazine -- June 1998
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JUNE 1998


Urban Jungle
By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Bruno Paciulli

I'm afraid that, in the wrong hands, our small, urban backyard might become a parable. It wouldn't have the moral brilliance of biblical ones or the intellectual bite of secular fables where non-human creatures comment on the human condition. (By the latter, of course, I have in mind great ones like Fable of the Bees, Animal Farm, and Gilligan's Island.) No, our backyard would be more of a middle-level parable, somewhat muddled, and with a moral I probably wouldn't like if I could figure out what it is--in other words, a parable for our times. Here is how it might go:

In the beginning the native plants flourished, and they were called lawn and crabgrass. Then came Middle Woman and Middle Man, so-named for their age, class, and taste. And they said, "Neither will we mow nor fertilize. Instead, we will deck and we will plant only those things that can be set upon tables, such as roses and herbs." And so they uprooted the native plants and clothed the nakedness of the ground with wood, and things to grill food, and pots, and small patches of growing things that were alien to the place. For such soil as remained bare, they followed the sacred teachings of Sunset Magazine and covered it with small white rocks in the fashion of the Japanese.

As they surveyed what they had done, Middle Man and Middle Woman were not satisfied. In their eyes, it was indeed a beautiful place, yet it lacked life. The only other creatures to sojourn there were few and pitiful. Their forlorn numbers included young Possum, who failed at the most elementary skill of his kind. Having not convinced Middle Man of his death, he was last seen waddling sleepily in search of more gullible hosts. Also wandering through was Cat, whose first name Middle Woman pronounced to be "Sweet" and Middle Man believed to be "Damned." Alas, Cat soon became unwelcome. For her, small white rocks in the fashion of the Japanese were functional rather than decorative, and merely marked the place as another rest stop on the great alleyway of life.

It was the birds of the air that Middle Man and Middle Woman most wished to see and hear. They scoured the earth as they knew it, and all the catalogues and malls upon it, for things that might attract lovely and melodious songbirds to brighten the almost-perfect little world they had created. The devices they chose were three in number and generously stocked with seeds and nuts, but at first no birds came. Then came a few. Soon the land and the sky above fulfilled the prophecy of the great master Hitchcock. Still the birds continued to come, and they sang, and spilled seed upon the ground, and made rude noises, and did things that required frequent cleansing of the deck. Although their hearts were good, Middle Woman and Middle Man had created a vast class of welfare wrens, not to mention a mess.

In the blink of an eye, these indigent creatures were nearly displaced by beggars of a different species. Squirrels without number crossed power wires and threaded through rose thorns to partake of the largesse. Several sturdy rogues defiantly made launching pads out of devices guaranteed to thwart them. In the rare moments when their gluttony ceased, pigeons now strutted like schoolyard bullies. Even greater greed and evil, however, soon arrived in the person of Rat. Contrary to the furtive nature of his breed, he skittered and scurried for seed in broad daylight and in plain sight. About the end of his brief career, the sources are silent. Those who believe in afterlife say that Rat now forages in a great garbage dump in the sky. Those who believe in the migration of souls say he now engages in telephone solicitation.

In this place that was to be one of beauty and low maintenance, violence quickly followed upon greed and bullying. On a pleasant morning Middle Man and Middle Woman awoke to find a new Cat with remarkable leaping abilities batting a feeding place, sometimes hanging on it as sunflower seeds cascaded onto his head and squirrels chattered rodent obscenities. Yet for the pretty little birds whose beauty the Middles wished to see, and whose lilting songs they wished to hear, the skies were no safer than the ground. On a strangely quiet day there came an uncommon visitor, perched on a nearby pole, surveying all he could behold with the remorseless eye of a gunslinger. Quickly consulting the learned scribes of the Audubon sect, Middle Woman discovered the wondrous and horrible truth. A Hawk had come. For him the would-be paradise the Middles had, in their hubris, tried to wrench from nature, was a fast-food restaurant and the beautiful singers were his McBirds.

Hawk has gone. Cats come and go. Squirrels and pigeons rule. And the welfare wrens eke out an existence on the remainder. And, thus, perhaps it has always been. Or perhaps the true moral to the story is that there are worse things than mowing a lawn.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.