It’s 5 o’clock on a cool Saturday morning in July, and I’m sitting outside on the deck in the backyard “working” and drinking coffee with the string-lights shining in the bamboo-and-reeds ceiling overhead. My writing day starts early, when my mind is empty of chatter and most of the world is asleep. Dawn is an hour away, and right now my only company is a mourning dove somewhere nearby and a small orb spider off to my right waiting patiently in the center of its web. Small bugs—the night’s catch—are sewn up in it, waiting to be consumed. There’s a light rain falling, the drops pattering on the roof. This corner of the yard, which we think of as the jungle, is a tiny natural oasis, and the quiet solitude is a perfect place to write, except that this morning I’m endlessly distracted by the place itself.
The deck I’m sitting on with its bamboo roof is a leafy bower, completely shaded by overhanging trees. There’s a big ficus tree that started out its life as a houseplant, an African sumac that Viki, my wife, brought home from the nursery in a 2-gallon container 30 years ago, and a tall, straight camphor tree that nobody planted and must have grown up from seeds dropped by birds. During the day, the canopy of the camphor tree forms a lime-green cloud above the dense foliage below it, although from my makeshift desk, the top of the tree is hidden.
A small forest of fig trees makes up the interior of the jungle. Because of the heavy shade from the larger trees roundabout, the fig trees developed long, slender trunks, weaving together, spreading out horizontally as well as vertically. Limbs grew downward and took root where they touched the ground and now support the horizontal trunks, which appear to be natural bridges rather than tree trunks. At the edge of the jungle, the fig leaves are as large as dinnerplates. Ferns grow at the base of the figs, another gift from Mother Nature. In the dense shade, the ferns are sparse, scattered throughout the jungle, but at the edges, where filtered sun reaches them, they grow in dense clumps.
A baby possum about as big as my hand wanders into view, nosing around in the ferns in search of grubs and snails and fallen figs. It disappears down an outlying finger of the jungle toward another corner of the yard. I watch for its return, but apparently it’s gone off about its possum business, and my attention shifts back to the jungle, where the rain is dripping through the foliage, plinking onto the leaves of a split-leaf philodendron, our only contribution to the menagerie of plants. The philodendrons won’t thrive in the ground, so they grow from big ceramic pots propped up with river rocks. The rocks and pots are half-buried in leaf mold, and their air roots snake through the ferns and around the base of the fig trees, sending up new leaves rolled up like scrolls. The undergrowth has an earthy smell that’s particularly nice on this rainy morning, a morning that is changing by the minute.
I haven’t noticed that it’s dawn, but I see that the big angel’s trumpet flowers, only barely visible above the fence beyond the jungle, are pale orange rather than the twilight ivory color that they were 10 minutes ago. The local mockingbird has just put in an appearance. It’s sitting somewhere above me, singing the same few notes over and over again, a melody that’s thousands of years old. Soon it will swoop through the yard, maybe stopping to pick up something from the lawn, and then over the fence into the neighbor’s avocado tree, where I’m pretty sure it has its nest. The mockingbird’s perch-to-perch circuit has gone on unchanging, season after season, as far back as I can remember, although my memory of this backyard in Old Towne Orange only goes back 42 years. The denizens that appear during the night and early morning hours—raccoons, possums, an occasional skunk—have been going about their business here for centuries, which puts some topspin on what we short-sighted humans think of as ownership.
Our resident fox squirrels, which occupy a leafy nest in the ficus tree, tend to sleep in, but this morning they’re up with the first rays of the sun, running across the roof overhead. They long ago staked a claim on our fig trees and orange tree and the walnut tree in the neighbors’ yard, and they chewed pieces out of the jute rug on our deck to improve their leaf nest. No doubt they supposed it was their jute rug. Both of them have climbed into the orange tree behind me now, where they’re peeling oranges with their teeth and spitting out the pieces of peel.
Over the past four or five years, the backyard lizard population has grown after a long scarcity. I take this as a good sign. We’ve got blue-belly fence lizards and alligator lizards and the elusive Gilbert’s skink. The lizards tend to come out of the jungle when the day heats up in order to sit on the hot walkways and garden rocks and survey their surroundings. From time to time in the past, we’ve turned over a flat rock or a stepping stone in the jungle (the stepping stones long buried now) and discovered a worm salamander or two underneath. Worm salamanders look like cartoony earthworms but with a head and feet. They appear to be smiling. Given their rarity, finding one is a cause for celebration.
The summer rain has stopped, and it’s early daylight rather than twilight. Two Anna’s hummingbirds have showed up, and one is hovering over the grass a few feet from me, darting around and making sudden lunges at gnats and whatever tiny bugs live in the lawn or on the shrubbery. The other is dipping into the purple flowers of the Nile lily near the shed. There’s a hummingbird nest with chicks in it on a low branch in the ficus tree behind me. The tiny nests are compact and perfectly round on the bottom, made mostly of spiderweb that binds the nest to the twig it sits on. The mother comes and goes, feeding the chicks and buzzing loudly past my ear to warn me to keep my distance.
The figs themselves are visible in the jungle now that the sun is up. Many of the ripe figs have burst open like flowers, four-pointed shadows against the translucent green leaves. Fig-eating beetles, the beautiful green scarabs that fly around like drunkards, are avidly devouring the fruit. For a month or so, the jungle will function as an airfield for flying beetles that will perch on your finger like a parakeet, if you’re attracted to that sort of thing. As the day wears on, there’ll be parrots and towhees eating figs in the upper branches. Yellow warblers, hummers, western bluebirds, and a half dozen other species stop in throughout the day, consorting with the bees and the beetles.
I can smell bacon frying and coffee brewing—our neighbors up and about. The air, I notice, is weighted with the sound of distant freeway traffic. The orb spider is literally consuming its elegant web, as it does every morning, gobbling up the entrapped insects. The mockingbird flies around the busy fig trees, giving the rest of the creatures a hard time, as if it’s angry that they’re indifferent to its antics.
It occurs to me that with the exception of the territorial hummingbird, the jungle and the creatures that inhabit it are utterly indifferent to my own antics, as I sit here tapping on the keys of my computer, trying to figure something out. They’ll be here again tomorrow morning, coming and going in the living present, as they have time out of mind, with no need of a philosophy. Not carrying pocket watches like storybook animals, they live outside of time, never realizing that nothing lasts for long.
It occurs to me how completely we live in our memories, and how the present is passing into memory as quickly as the morning is passing away around me. There’s the mockingbird on the roof of the shed, singing again—a song that was ages old before the first human beings wandered into what we’ve come to refer to as Old Towne Orange. And here I sit, an interloper in my own backyard, trying to fix all this on paper before heading in for a second cup of coffee.