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City House in the Woods

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I couldn’t believe it! After what seemed like a lifetime of financial struggle and years spent repairing mobile homes that continued to decline in value despite our efforts to maintain them, our little family was finally going to have our first real house. We’d searched for months for just the right place. My biggest criteria—somehow within our limited budget, it had to have a yard.

The reason I’d settled for mobile homes was that they were affordable enough so that we could have a large yard. I love to garden, so I urged flowers, fruit, berries and vegetables to grow from each plot of ground. I bought our first aging mobile home with savings. It was bigger and more economical than an apartment, but sat on rented land. No matter how many sunflowers and hollyhocks I grew along its walls, it still felt like we were living in a tin box.

Eventually, we sold that mobile and moved into a larger mobile home, on a third of an acre of our own land. There I planted hundreds of strawberries, and enjoyed picking apples and cherries from fruit trees in our front yard. I dug a pond and raised goldfish until a great blue heron swooped down and ate them for lunch. We stayed in our second mobile until finally, after years of fixes and upgrades, we’d built enough equity to look for a house.

A real, stick-built house! No more tin boxes for me.

My husband had commuted over 100 miles round trip from our home to his job in Factoria, Washington, for many years. So we looked at dozens of houses near his workplace. Most of them were fixer-uppers. None of them had more than tennis court-sized yards. After months of searching, we found it. A medium-sized house on almost an acre of woods, right in the middle of Everett!

Part of the property was a wetland area, which the previous owner said attracted many species of birds. I was willing and able to live with the wild species who lived on our land and excited about what I could do with our new home.

I planned to add berries and native plants to our new, bigger yard. It wasn’t until we finished unpacking that I realized that though I’d worked on other properties, I had no idea how much work taking care of a mixed wetland and woodland would be.

The previous owner was an avid birdwatcher, but was unable to do much yard work. Most of the property was a tangled mess of dead branches, blackberry vines and weeds. I’d often head outside for what I thought would be an hour of yard work, only to find myself scratched and sweaty, hauling dead branches several hours later.

My husband, son, and I spent months uncovering trees that were strangled by morning glory vines and ivy. We discovered a five-in-one pear beneath a tangle of overgrown periwinkle.

I spent hours moving dirt, which left me with strained muscles. The work was so hard that I sometimes wondered if my back would hold out. But I was determined to see what the land would look like with healthy trees and open spaces for the birds to build nests and forage.

More months passed. We chipped piles and piles of brush, dry blackberry canes and overgrown tree limbs. At one point, our chipping pile was ten feet wide and over twenty feet long. As we ran our aged chipper, we kept our spirits up by remembering that the chips would cover the gardens, protecting the native plants.

One spring day, while pulling up dead grass, I discovered a willow stump beside the water. Though the tree had been cut long before we’d moved in, the stump hadn’t died. Dozens of slender, green shoots sprang from it.

I clipped one of the thin branches with my pruner and pulled. And pulled. And pulled! Until, finally, the end of the branch sprang toward me. I’d noticed mallard ducks trying to land in the open water, only to hear them quack in frustration and take off again. No wonder they hadn’t been able to find room enough to swim.

As I continued to clip and pull, I felt like a misplaced launderer, tugging sheets from a frontload washer.

Most of the shoots were at least fifteen feet long. They traveled beneath the bushes that lined the water’s edge and emerged in the middle of the wetlands. Over a hundred branches had sprung from the willow stump.

As hours of work became days, I was amazed at the tenacity of the decapitated willow. Though its trunk had been severed, it not only survived, but flourished with such tenacity that its limbs were able to travel many feet under water to find enough sunlight to grow.

There were other surprises—the rotted stump that seemed to breathe until I broke it open and discovered a mole burrowing inside and the small bird blind that sat beside the water, toward the back of our woods.

During the first November in our city house in the woods, I hung half a dozen bird feeders and several suet holders. I joined a backyard bird watching group and dedicated a couple hours a week to sitting quietly outside, noting the various species of birds that took me up on the offer of free food.

I was amazed at the variety and number of birds I saw. Many were familiar—Oregon juncos, chickadees, house sparrows, and Steller’s jays. I also discovered many birds I hadn’t seen before—golden-crowned kinglets, pileated woodpeckers, boreal chickadees and green herons.

At times, there were so many birds that their colorful shapes fluttered around me like fall leaves. Their diverse songs sounded like a chorus. As I stood amid their myriad colors and sounds, I felt glad for the months of hard work. In the spring, when a mallard hen led twelve fluffy ducklings across our now clear wetland, all the hard work, scraped elbows and backaches faded into insignificance.

Watching the birds return to our yard was like a birth—for the birds, and for us. As we laughed at a red-shafted flicker woodpecker who claimed the entire wetlands as his own, we felt a sense of completion. Making a home for the birds made this unusual piece of property a home for us, too.


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