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‘Nuisance’ yard a wild, interconnected ecosystem

Rachel Turiel

I was hustling out of the house, ignoring my un-walked dog’s aggrieved expression, when I found the yellow slip tucked into our front door. A citation from the City of Durango informed us that we had violated City Code section 17-51: Maintaining a Nuisance.

The city’s website proclaims “it shall be unlawful to maintain a nuisance . . . defined as anything . . . injurious to the health or morals, indecent or offensive to the senses.” Or more frankly, explained Code Enforcement Officer Steve Barkley, an anonymous neighbor complained about our “overgrown mess of a front yard.”

If our street were featured on “Sesame Street” - “one of these things is not like the other” - any young viewer could pick out our funky, multilayered, diverse front yard among the homogenous green sea of lawns. In this 500-square foot patch of ground, we’ve planted drought-tolerant and native trees, shrubs, vines and flowers, and let them choreograph themselves into their own ecosystem: ungovernable, interconnected, in flux.

In the past 24 years, mature chokecherry trees have soared and died back, leaving young upstarts to carry the torch. Wild roses march forth pinkly in their own expanding parade. Self-sowing sunflowers reach toward the sun until the towering cottonwood turns out the lights by 3 p.m., blissfully shading every overheated organism, humans included. Grass that was once tended is now calf-high, neither mown nor watered, what Barkley calls (and has no problem with) “a free-range lawn.”

On the radio, I heard about “No Mow May,” the national movement to forego lawn mowing in spring to increase habitat and food for pollinators when sources are scarce. A few tips followed. Number one: Tell your neighbors why you’re letting your lawn grow.

Let this be my opportunity.

Dear neighbors, it is true, our yard is overgrown, given the expectations of tidily maintained turf. Lawns are America’s single largest “crop,” and require trillions of gallons of drinking water, dubious herbicides and precious weekends spent tending.

We have a different vision.

Every spring, I feel relief hearing bees circulate through the yellow currant blossoms. The green onions spear up at the feet of roses, as emerald as any lawn. In September, robins and grosbeaks strip the crabapple tree like their own ear of corn. Goldfinches and pine siskins pluck seeds from heavy, spent sunflower heads. And who knows how many other, less conspicuous species thrive in the diversity, adding to the rich, wild web of interconnectedness? My only yard work is to view it all from the porch, in delight.

We let fallen leaves lie where each tree has flung them. Perhaps those brown leaves don’t exude “curb appeal,” yet they always decompose, returning nutrients to the soil, feeding life next spring. The remaining grass is intermixed with clover, dandelion, yarrow: a pollinator’s buffet.

Seventy-five % of world food crops rely on pollinators, whose numbers are declining. Biologist Israel Del Toro reports a fivefold increase in the number of bees among unmown yards in Appleton, Wisconsin.

I am fond of my neighbors. I don’t disparage lawns; I just think they can be improved upon.

What resources in time, chemicals and water are we willing to devote to maintaining an inedible monocrop? This is both a personal and community question. Las Vegas recently banned ornamental grass. San Diego is refunding homeowners for each square foot of replaced lawn. Climate change requires that we adjust. There will be outer shifts involving water use - and inner shifts - regarding what we value and see as beautiful.

Is it a nuisance we’re maintaining or perhaps an oasis?

Rachel Turiel wrote a parenting column for The Durango Herald for 10 years. She’s been published in The New York Times, High Country News and Edible Southwest Colorado. Reach her at www.rachelturiel.com