Wild Life

Wild Life

Confined to her Brunswick home, a writer discovers the many wonders of a tiny downtown plot.

Susan A. Olcott and her kids in their backyard in Brunswick, Maine

Who would have guessed that we have six maples on our tenth-of-an-acre lot? Or that the beautiful little blue flowers by the woodpile are Siberian squill? Not I. Nor was I aware that the southern edge of our land measures 101 of our 9-year-old daughter’s feet or that the backyard is 55 “Lili feet” deep. My husband, Chad, and I have owned our Brunswick property for more than 10 years, but it wasn’t until last spring’s shelter-in-place order that we began to really acquaint ourselves with every mucky corner.

When we bought our 1890s Colonial Revival, we received a landscape designer’s map detailing the existing plantings — an elegant Kousa dogwood by the deck, a scraggly miniature pink rose bush near the garage, a lone lilac tucked among the hemlocks next to the back gate — and those the previous owners intended to add. We planned to make our mark too, but after installing some ferns beneath the maples and a few window boxes, things got busy — life, jobs, twins — and we homed in on the essentials: raking, shoveling, and preventing Lili and our other daughter, Phoebe, from pulling up tender shoots and sticking them in their mouths.

We did look up long enough, however, to witness an amazing variety of wildlife in our fairly urban midst — let’s just say we can see Domino’s and the cars on busy Maine Street when the trees aren’t leafed out. But this pizza-perfumed habitat hasn’t prevented deer from bounding along our back fence or a porcupine from skittering up the locust tree by the woodpile. Eight eagles perched on the same locust one early spring day, likely en route to the Androscoggin River to fish. And just before Easter one year, we discovered that what we thought was a lingering patch of snow was actually a snowshoe hare. After the final thaw, we found several piles of droppings, indicating that we’d had a frequent guest.

Lili displays the map she drew of her family’s downtown Brunswick backyard.

ABOVE Lili displays the map she drew of her family’s downtown Brunswick backyard.

Our bunny didn’t return this year, perhaps on account of the fox Chad spotted one morning from his quarantine kitchen office — or all the human activity. The bustle began in late March, when the girls, desperate to get outside after a morning of homeschooling, proposed a stick fort. Sure, we thought, you can pick up the yard! But when I checked on them later, I was shocked to find a first-rate spindly shelter leaning against the forked locust tree, complete with a pine-needle path leading to its triangular doorway.

Construction continued over the next few days, with the girls layering on more stabilizing sticks and unearthing an old tarp, which I helped them weave around the supports in an attempt at waterproofing. After the pink saucer-sled “roof” was placed, we celebrated with a round of hot chocolate inside, feeling like giddy new homeowners in our empty place. Next, of course, came the interior decorating: a wonderland of stump stools and tables set with acorn-cap cups and bark plates.

“We’ve owned our Brunswick property for more than 10 years, but it wasn’t until last spring’s shelter-in-place order that we began to really acquaint ourselves with every mucky corner.”

When the next-door neighbors’ two daughters spotted our pink-topped palace, they descended the hill to check it out, which led to the next project — a Tupperware “mailbox.” Lili and Phoebe used markers to decorate it with a fancy scrolled letter and their dwelling’s name, “Fort: Have a Nice Day,” and set it outside the entrance. Then they designated a fencepost where they and their friends would tie a blue ribbon when someone had “mail.” Messages, pictures, coloring pages, and popsicle-stick people flew back and forth. One day, a gold-painted rock appeared next to the mailbox and a note inside explained that more were hidden in our yard. The girls eagerly embarked on the treasure hunt, then re-hid the stones next door. When a muddy path emerged between the yards, we had our latest project: a set of firewood steps sunk into the slope.

Having finally put our stamp on the property, it was time to update the map. But the landscape architect’s faded old scroll was nowhere to be found. So we measured the lot ourselves — discovering in the process that Lili’s foot was exactly three-quarters of an actual foot — and sketched the dimensions on a pencil-and-marker diagram that depicts the fort and steps, along with the deck, picnic table, and some prominent plants, such as the half-dozen maples we counted. Then the first wildflowers began to push up along the edges of the fort. To find out their names, we employed a low/high-tech approach, consulting May Theilgaard Watts’ 1955 Flower Finder and the app Seek to identify lungwort, Siberian squill, and wood anemone, then added them to the map.

ABOVE Phoebe ascends firewood steps — a quarantine project —  to her friends’ yard. The girls and their neighbors hid gold-painted rocks for each other on the two properties.

Before this period of home confinement, I’d often ask the girls where they’d like to go for an adventure and hope they’d answer “somewhere new.” I found it mundane to stay in our yard, as they frequently wanted to, so, after some cajoling, off we’d go in the car to play along a stream or run on a trail we’d never explored. But they, and a global pandemic, have taught me you don’t have to go far to find fun and a diversity of natural treasures. It’s all right there on a wee tenth of an acre in Maine if you look closely enough.

Susan Olcott has conducted experiments aboard lobsterboats while getting her M.S. in marine science, planned and led snorkeling and kayaking trips in San Diego for the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, accompanied kids on bike tours in Europe and the U.S., taught biology to military personnel in Sardinia, Italy, and published essays about all her adventures. Her articles on food, science, and community have appeared in edible Maine, the Harpswell Anchor, the Times Record, and ZEST. And her articles about children’s books and nature education have appeared on the Horn Book’s Family Reading blog. She serves on the board of the Brunswick Community Education Foundation and chairs the Brunswick Marine Resource Committee.