Guest Commentary

In civilized society, nature just doesn't cut it in city yards

Not long after the monsoon dried up, my partner and I received a death threat from our property-management company. Oh, it wasn't a threat against us--we always pay the rent on time, and they were happy to renew our lease for another year.

It was a threat against our yard.

Apparently, our yard no longer passed muster in a civilized society, and it would be necessary to submit it to the professional attention of a landscape assassin. Having done battle with the forces of vegetation control in the past, I contacted the property manager to try to forestall the charade. But she insisted that our mess needed to be assessed, so we dutifully scheduled an appointment and anxiously awaited the day of reckoning.

When the eager landscape-assassination technician arrived for a walk-through, our fears were confirmed. Out front, he quickly pointed to the Texas ranger, bursting with purple blossoms from the summer rains. "I can cut that back," he said. My partner protested that cutting off all those beautiful flowers made no sense, but this first bit of resistance did not even register. He pointed to a young tree at the corner of the yard. "I can take that out." She explained that we like that one, even though it's an exotic, because soon, it will be big enough to provide a bit of privacy. "But it's in a bad place," he counseled, seemingly miffed at its unauthorized sprouting location.

As he made his way through the yard, he pointed out fallen cactus debris in various places and said he would clear it all out. But some of those bits and pieces were cholla buds that were still very much alive, destined to add to the thick, thorny area where the cactus wrens like to hang out. Admittedly, the elephant ears, devastated by the double whammy of a hard freeze followed by withering drought, had fallen to pieces and made quite a pile. But even that deadfall harbored an entire colony of fat collared lizards that chased each other all over the yard, doing little pushups and flashing their colorful bodies in a way that fascinated us, not to mention our cats.

"It's habitat," explained my biologist partner.

At this point, Mr. Cutback probably began to suspect that he was not in the yard of normal Americans. He proceeded around back, where he instantly spied the lush, sweeping branches of the neighbor's misbehaving African sumac dangling over the fence into our air space. "I can cut that waaay back," he said with relish.

"Actually, we like that. It shades the compost over in that corner."

Now he was really getting confused. "But it's not your tree," he complained. "It's hanging in your yard." He acted as if some sort of crime was being committed, and we were asking him to look the other way.

Next target: the lantana, completely out of control, blazing with unruly flowers. Ms. Biology explained to him that the butterflies love the flowers, and the birds eat the berries, the bulk of which would be lost to his mechanical attentions.

It continued that way around the whole yard. Thrust: "I can weed-whack all of this," he said to the various plants around his feet. Parry: "Isn't this a native species?" Thrust: "I don't know about that. It's a weed!"

Finally, he announced that after virtually denuding the place, he would apply a chemical that would render any remaining seeds sterile, so that nothing would grow back. "But there's wildflower seeds all over the place! We paid good money for them at Native Seeds/SEARCH!"

That sealed it.

Plan B: Before he could return, I spent a whole day pulling the "weeds" in the front yard by hand, trimming some branches back from the house and the carport, and generally bringing us into bare-minimum compliance with today's twisted standards of flora-fascist control. Then I called the property manager and said there would be no need to send the landscraper back, because I had taken care of everything.

We were grateful that they decided to take my word for it. Surely grateful, too, are the various warblers and flycatchers that came to pluck the bugs thriving on the native plants, the juncos and white-crowned sparrows that came to feast on the nontoxic seeds, the Cooper's hawks and kestrels that came to hunt the lizards, and all the other wildlife that's used our yard since.

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