“What will the neighbors think?”
I grew up in town so small that, in the words of Garrison Keillor, “you didn’t need to use your turn signal, ’cause everyone knew where you were going.”
Our neighbors were part of our extended family, people with whom you celebrated birthdays, graduations and births, with homes where you could spend a rainy Saturday or an overnight sleepover, and yards that you played in for hours and mowed the grass when they were on vacation, which generally meant they were visiting their great aunt in Springfield.
I’ve lived in many houses and apartments since then (ten, I think), but for several years now we’ve lived in the country, where I would have to get in my truck and drive if I wanted to chat with any of my neighbors. We wave to all of them as they drive by when we’re walking the dogs around the field next to the creek, but I only know one or two by name. I know if I ever needed them they would be here for me and I hope they feel the same, but I also know they’re not just going to walk up and knock on my door unannounced. It’s a good system and we all seem to like it.
Fifteen or so years ago, when I lived in an Arts & Crafts neighborhood in a historic district of Asheville, I bought from the city a deserted lot across the street from our home. It is nearly an acre in size, but nobody had ever shown any interest in it because most of it was a steep hillside covered with prickly brambles with thorns the size of a shark’s tooth and every bit as vicious. It took me a couple of years and one trip to the emergency room, but I gradually cleared away the underbrush and the dead trees, allowing enough light to filter in through the canopy of tall pines, oaks and poplar trees to foster a colony of lush, green poison ivy.
When I sold the house, I kept the empty lot across the street, justifying the property taxes and extra work to maintain it by explaining that we might someday build a modern Arts & Crafts bungalow if we tired of country living. And like all Arts & Crafts neighborhoods across the country, this one has experienced a rebirth, a revitalization these past fifteen years. Many of the houses have been bought by people who came here knowing what the Arts & Crafts movement represented, and have invested time and money restoring not just the interiors, but the exteriors of their homes as well, including their yards.
Yards which run right up against my empty lot.
The problem is that the brambles and the fallen tree limbs have staged a strong comeback, protected by a dense, dangerous green moat of poison ivy. The property no longer looks like a city park, though it is still a lot better than the impenetrable tangle that I had first tackled with my chainsaw and machete. It seems that in my absence the empty lot had also become a hot topic of conversation among the neighbors, prompting one of them to alert me to the likelihood of some calls for action on my part.
My lack of due diligence in keeping the empty lot carefully manicured was not simply the result of my fear of the poison ivy or the menacing thorns. The lot had also become a dumping ground for those neighbors who did not want to disturb the appearance of their yards with piles of bagged leaves, grass clipping, dead shrubs and their own downed tree limbs.
Nevertheless, I spent two days last week armed with saws and spades and rakes and machetes cutting down the brambles and wading through the poison ivy to retrieve some of the fallen limbs. What I had forgotten is that living in a neighborhood is a bit like living in a fishbowl. Everyone with an interest in the empty lot either walked, jogged or slowly drove by, and most stopped to offer a piece of advice (although a sweet little girl and her mother did bring me coffee and a muffin on Saturday morning).
By the time I loaded up my tools that afternoon and retreated back to my farm, I had a pretty good idea where my neighbors stood on the issue: which ones preferred the natural, over-grown look, which ones wanted each bramble cut and every ivy leaf sprayed, and which ones were now wondering if they could still stack their bags of leaves on it after dark.
For my part, it became something of a compromise: cleaned-up around the edges, but still very natural.
As for the bags of leaves, I suspect they will be just as likely to return as the poison ivy.
Until next Monday,
Have a great week!