Table of Contents

The point of all this yard out back business? All is revealed.

Discussion || Kari Medig

Unless you ask what you're missing, you'll see nothing different.

Conversation || Joel Robison

He'd be among the first to tell you that magic is everywhere. But not everyone makes magic come alive like Joel Robison.

Discussion || Bruce Kirkby

Going further makes you appreciate what you have at home.

Reflections || Nadine Sander-Green

A backyard is something to take care of. Find pride in. A moment of feeling like we are connected to something larger than ourselves.

What has thousands of birds, purifies water and flows towards 15 million people?

Bruce Kirkby

Leaning into the meaning of the yard that never ends.

If it weren't for the backyard, I realized, we wouldn't know each other at all.

@nsandergreen

Still Life with Backyard

Reflections || Nadine Sander-Green
Nadine Sander-Green
Writer || Observer

Nadine has worked as a circus-camp instructor, journalist and hiking guide. She's also an arm wrestling champion and interpretive dancer. When she's not at work on her novel, she can be found... actually, she probably can't be found.

@nsandergreen

This winter I got lucky. I rented a ground floor apartment in Toronto's West End, and it came with a backyard.

There were wind chimes and mourning doves. A stone Buddha sat next to the fence, looking at peace with his urban life. When I got stuck writing, I stood barefoot outside on the stone terrace. That's where I untangled my thoughts. I forgot I was half a block away from Queen Street, where dozens of Indian restaurants line the sidewalk and sirens are more common than bird song. I forgot about the bus lurching in front of the house. I forgot about the nearly 3 million people crammed into this concrete grid. I forgot I was in the city at all.

I moved from a small town in the Rockies to Toronto, in order to go to writing school. My plan was to forget about home while I tried to write my first novel. If other writers spent their whole lives in cities, I could at least manage two years.

I decided I would fall in love with Canada's largest city. I went to plays and concerts and coffee shops. I wore lipstick at night because I knew no one would say "Wow, you're wearing lipstick!" I thought maybe there was a secret creativity vault I could only access by living in a big city. After all, there must be a reason why so many artists decide to hunker down in apartments with only a balcony, or more often just an open window, for a backyard.

On weekdays I took a bus, a subway to the end of the line, then another bus called the 192 Rocket (trust me, it lives up to its name — I've never wanted a bus to have seatbelts before) up the highway to school on the edge of the city.

@nsandergreen

When I woke on the weekends, I creaked open the gate and walked three blocks down Queen Street to my favourite coffee shop. It was quiet at eight in the morning. The odd streetcar rolled down its track, and pigeons flapped from one garbage can to the next. Empty pizza boxes and cigarette butts littered the sidewalk. Even the bars looked hung over. The sky was forever grey. "It's okay," I told myself, as I entered the café. "I'm not here for the beauty. I can handle this."

When I got back to my apartment, opening the gate was a relief. The melody of wind chimes melted the city away. The yard wasn't big. I could probably cross it in five giant steps. Sometimes the city seeped in on the solace (one morning I watched a couple rats chase each other around poor Buddha) and then I missed home. Missed the colour green. The smell of pine and sap and chimney smoke. Most of the time, though, having my own little pocket of calm was enough. It kept me sane. The backyard was where I could gather energy for charging out into the chaos and grey.

The apartment backyard was immaculate — more like a dining room than the kind of backyard I was used to. Often my landlord was outside, filling the bird feeders with seed or letting his dog play.

Toronto backyard

Photos: Allison LaSorda

My landlord worked from home. When I first moved in I was nervous to run into him. I wondered if I was crowding him. Maybe he wanted to be alone. He always stopped me before I unlocked my door and asked me how I was doing, if I was liking Toronto. After a few months, I started spending more time in the yard — pacing, thinking, watching the doves flock to the feeders. Any time not writing and staring at a computer screen felt like a reward.

In my last week there, as I was packing my bags for the summer, I saw him wheeling the garbage through the terrace. I ran outside to say goodbye. "I'm so glad you came out," he said, giving me a hug. If it weren't for the backyard, I realized, we wouldn't know each other at all.

Parkdale backyard

Opening the back door is like turning the focus on a camera lens from blurry to sharp. It's a small reminder that just past the gate, the world is out there, waiting.  |  Photo: Allison LaSorda

Wilderness is hard not to crave when you're surrounded by concrete. I couldn't wait to fly back to my home in the Kootenay Rocky Mountains. When the plane lifted from the ground, I tried to think of words to describe just how massive Toronto was from the air. Sprawling. Never-ending. A concrete jungle. None seemed to explain just how far the city stretched. I watched what looked like tiny toy cars gridlocked on the highway just before the plane disappeared into clouds.

Six hours later, a much smaller, louder plane flew over a stretch of forest before touching down on the tarmac. I couldn't believe how quiet it was. The silence buzzed. The Rocky Mountains towered higher than I remembered. Where is everyone? I thought, as I drove through the one streetlight in my hometown.

When I opened the back gate to my parents' house, I was flooded with memories. It's the sensory details that are stamped into my mind: the hiss of the sprinklers coming on at six in the morning. Wet morning grass on my bare feet, then on my palms as I kicked upside-down into a handstand. My sister and I sun tanning in our one-piece bathing suits, Dance Mix ’92 blasting from the tape player. It's such a good vibration. It's such a sweet sensation.

As a kid, there was an absolute freedom to afternoons in the backyard; of not knowing what time it was or forgetting to bandage up a bloody knee because who cared?

My parents' backyard has the opposite feel of my Toronto yard. It's wild and unorganized. The grass is replaced by a vegetable garden. Stalks of rhubarb, clothes drying on racks, a greenhouse, a canoe, firewood, and compost bins all fight for space. Since I've been home, my mom has already taught me how deep to plant potatoes and identify which greens are ready to pick for salads. The backyard represents who my parents are, and what they want from their own personal wedge of outside. They are the artists. This is their dream. Their kids have grown up; there’s no need for trimmed grass. Why not use the space to feed themselves?

Unlike my Toronto backyard, my parents' yard doesn’t exist to provide relief. Instead, relief is all around. There is a forest right behind our back alley with a huge network of trails. If I'm looking for a way to re-charge, I can go for a run or haul my bike from the garage. Within minutes, I'm in the middle of nowhere. Even downtown, instead of concrete jungles, there is a quiet swimming hole. A few days ago, after my first bike ride of the season, I stripped to my underwear, took off my shoes, and jumped in. Underneath the almost freezing current — eyes clamped shut, breath tight in my chest — the entire world disappeared.

As a kid, there was an absolute freedom to afternoons in the backyard; of not knowing what time it was or forgetting to bandage up a bloody knee because ... who cared?

 

For me, I think backyards are more than simply owning a bit of land.

I think a backyard is bit of a meeting place. We don't have to make a plan to get together in the backyard. We can bump into each other. Talk over fences. Wave from the street. We can disappear into our houses, but not our backyards.

And it's a place where we help each other, no strings attached. In Toronto, my landlord rolls the garbage can out on pick up day. And I roll it back to the garage. Here at home, as I write this, my neighbours have come over to help with the spring planting. I'm listening to laughter. The sound of shovel blades piercing soil. A backyard is something to take care of. Find pride in. A moment of feeling like we are connected to something larger than ourselves.

Now, far from a Toronto apartment, I'm writing my novel from my childhood bedroom. Chapter seven. Thirteen to go. I'll spend most of the summer here. A galaxy of glow-in-the-dark stars are still stuck on the wall, and I can see the backyard out the window.

When I get blocked, I sit on the back step with a coffee and stare at the backyard. There is no secret to creativity in the country or the city. Wherever I am, it's just me and my mind, trying to string words together. It doesn't matter if I'm looking at a stone Buddha in the city or a garden overlooking a forest. But a yard is a place where I can leave my mind and connect with real life. Opening the back door is like turning the focus on a camera lens from blurry to sharp. It's a small reminder that just past the gate, the world is out there, waiting.