I've never cared much for nature writing as a genre because usually there's too much wafting, glimmering and shimmering. Things seem to happen outdoors that seldom happen in real life. Animals, for instance, often come off seeming more noble, contemplative and spiritual than humans. I think nature can be just as drunk, self-indulgent and spiteful as any human being, which is why my backyard has come to serve as the perfect setting for a short story by that master of gritty fiction, Elmore Leonard.
It's just another day at the hummingbird bar where an ugly mood hangs in the air like second-hand smoke. Every hummer is nudging for position as if it's the last five minutes of happy hour. The jukebox keeps playing that one shrill metallic song. Punch-drunk on sugar water, the males zip awkwardly up and down like wounded helicopters, trying to impress the ladies or scare off other males, or maybe both. The females fidget on the sidelines waiting for their turn at the juice just as some saucy oriole plops down on a sugar-well bar stool nearly tipping over the joint with her girth.
"Why, yes, I am a humming bird," she seems to joke, "just listen to me hum the Battle Hymn of the Republic."
She tries desperately to blend in but the piercing stares of eight pairs of eyes convince her she took a wrong turn at the juniper bush. She takes just a sip of her drink and quickly flaps off.
One of the more combative humming birds comes within an inch of my ear. I shouldn't have worn a red shirt today. I curse the noisy bunch and threaten to replace their sugar with Splenda as retribution. But in the end I relent. I restock their bar with the good sugary stuff because I know what it's like. Sometimes we all need a drink and an excuse to puff out our chests.
On the other side of the yard, the squirrels are barking at me as they tap-dance down the power line's high wire. The yard has become their circus tent, and I'm being treated like a non-paying spectator. They think they are so cute and clever hiding their winter stash all over the property. In truth, they are belligerent and rapacious. They loot the dog's bed for their nesting material. They squabble with the magpies over some useless bit of turf. Neither group will back down but they agree to disagree as if one group is Hamas and the other Israeli Likud.
I discover they have been storing their festering piles of seeds and nuts in my silvery Airstream trailer. I silently loathe their existence and put an iron frying pan over their entryway. I throw their stash in the compost heap with no regrets. This is war, and I'm not the United Nations.
The rabbits are as timid as the squirrels are brazen. They freeze in their clover patch thinking this renders them invisible. They posture like shy teenagers who think if they are quiet for long enough, you'll stop asking questions and leave them alone. They are new to the local ecosystem and flourish because this neighborhood has only housecats and lazy dogs. Their only enemy is the little girl next door who has a slingshot and an eye for mischief. So they live a lavish life as a solitary link no longer connected to the food chain. They lounge in the clover and snack unmolested on the vegetable gardens. Yeah, they are cute, but cute will only get you so far in this world; just ask Lindsay Lohan.
There are also a couple of quail families in the mix. Like the rabbits, they are recent immigrants and still wide-eyed with wonder about the possibilities in this brave new world. They don't yet know what to make of all the hawks and owls. Sometimes they pop out in the open for the briefest moments while at other times they prance about as if they owned the place. One covey is a perfect nuclear family of a mother, father and five chicks. The other is a single mother with a lone chick. Ah, the gritty stories she could tell. Was her mate eaten by a hawk? Or did she split because he was fooling around with that barfly oriole? You'll have to read the sequel to find out.
Dennis Hinkamp is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He lives in Logan, Utah, and would like to thank the cast of characters in his backyard for inspiring him.