One of the many things that shocked and rather horrified me about the Midwest when I first moved there was the lack of fences dividing backyards. Sometimes there weren't even shrubberies or hedges--sometimes there was just a long communal yard, which I suppose was great if you liked your neighbors well enough to socialize with them, but what if you didn't?
The same state of affairs exists here in Pennsylvania. I don't get it. Have these people never realized the truthfulness of one of the mottos of the West, "Good fences make good neighbors"?
Actually, mere "fences" are only for people with really big plots of land--five or six acres--where all you need is something to mark the property line. If you live in some residential area and your neighbors' houses might be within fifty feet of yours, you need not a fence but a six-foot-high masonry wall so that they can't easily see what you do in your yard and you can't see what they do in theirs.
Except for a short stretch behind the garages, there's no fence or hedge or any sort of marker of the property line dividing my lot from my neighbors' on either side. As they are reasonable and nice enough people, this is not a problem, although I don't find it ideal. But the back of my lot is marked by a waist-high chain-link fence with a gate in it. And that is a problem. That is where I need a six-foot-high wall.
Let me tell you about my neighbor Bernie, the jerk with whom I share that fence. It drives him nuts, first of all, that I remember his name when he cannot for the life of him remember mine. He's about 70, lost several of his fingers in some sort of professional accident--he used to be a self-employed house painter and carpenter--and spends most of his retirement, provided the weather isn't dreadful, in his garage, which holds a TV, an easy chair, and a liquor cabinet. (I learned all this when I first moved in and we were on speaking terms.)
Bernie is the kind of guy who likes a yard that consists entirely of a chemically controlled lawn, which he treats himself and waters nightly, and large expanses of concrete, which he hoses off rather than sweeps. He has lived with the same scrawny girlfriend for about two decades, and as a concession to her, he allowed the planting of several nondescript shrubs right by the house. Each summer, they also hang one lonely plastic bucket of red geraniums on the metal arm of the clothesline.
It drives Bernie nuts that I like ornamentals, and that the week I moved in I started digging up the yard in order to plant flowers and foliage. It made him even more irate that I took the old-fashioned approach to composting, and would simply stack plant clippings and such in a corner behind the garage, and bury vegetable peelings in whatever spot I was planning to plant in a few weeks down the road. "You'll attract critters," he told me one day.
"I don't mind critters," I said.
"You should," he said. "Some critter's got a hole under your garage. You need to put back the glass around the hole so it cuts itself when it comes out. You knocked out the glass when you was digging." I'd already noticed both the hole and the glass, which I'd purposely removed.
"I don't mind critters," I repeated, not commenting on my indignation that he felt entitled to enter my yard and inspect the way I maintained it.
"I do," he said.
"Why?" I asked. "You don't have a single thing in your yard that ‘critters' like."
"Critters don't belong around people," he said. "Gotta get rid of ‘em."
I shrugged and walked away.
He tries to find a way to blame me for whatever goes wrong in his yard. One spring his lawn came in with dreadful patches of yellow dead grass. "You killed my grass," he accused without preamble one day when I was out digging and planting.
"How?" I asked.
"By digging," he said. "You dug up grubs, and they ate my lawn."
I stared at him. "That's ridiculous," I said. "First of all, I haven't found that many grubs, and any grubs I find, I kill. Secondly, if grubs from my digging were killing the grass around here, my lawn would look as shitty as yours. Barb's lawn would look shitty. Trudy's lawn would look shitty. But they all look fine. It's just your yard, and the dead patches are all in strips. Admit it: you over-fertilized."
But he turned away.
And then one day I heard an unpleasant metallic scratching. It went on for almost an hour, a frantic, desperate noise that would lull for a few moments before starting up again. I finally couldn't bear it any longer and went out to investigate. It was after sunset and hard to see what was going on in the yard, but the noise was dreadful and persistent enough that the source of it was easy to locate, which is how I found a trap in Bernie's yard right by the back gate, with a desperate little vole in it. I released the vole, replaced the trap, and went back to my house.
It wouldn't have been so bad if he'd attended the trap and taken care of the vole as soon as it was caught. But it was obvious that he was prepared to leave the animal in the trap all night, meaning that the animal had to be terrified and desperate all night, and everyone had to listen to it try to claw its way out of the trap.
A few days later, when he was out in his yard, I asked, "What's with the trap, Bernie?"
"I don't like critters," he said. "They can get into your attic."
"A vole?" I asked. "Because that's what was in the trap. A vole is going to get into your attic? They burrow in the ground."
He didn't reply.
"What do you do with the critters you catch?" I asked.
"I drown ‘em," he said.
"But why?" I asked. "Why do you want to kill these critters?"
He didn't reply, just continued walking around his yard, inspecting things.
"Why, Bernie?" I insisted.
"I don't talk to ignorant people," he announced without looking at me.
"Must be awfully quiet at your house, then," I replied, and continued my own work.
And that's when war was declared.
The trap, which is far too small to contain anything but chipmunks and voles, appears every so often, always baited with peanut butter on bread. I would understand his dislike of the kinds of critters this trap is designed to attract if he had a garden they could actually damage, but as I've already mentioned, the only flowers in his yard are that hanging plastic bucket full of geraniums. One of my colleagues is very upset about a chipmunk that has been eating all her bulbs--there's simply a hole, she said, almost every place there used to be a flowering bulb, and chipmunks are a likely culprit. Earlier this year when I complained to a friend about tulips that just didn't come up, even though my hyacinths and daffodils did fine, she told me that tulips bulbs are apparently quite the delicacy to rodents. But I never saw any holes in my garden I didn't dig myself, and aside from those few lost tulips, things thrive as long as I water them.
I also wouldn't mind the trap so much if Bernie were truly trying to prevent "critters" from getting in his attic or setting up house in his garage, if he put the trap under the eaves of his house or by the garage door he always leaves open. But he doesn't. He leaves the trap at the back of his garage, by my garden--and two feet from the gate. This makes it very easy for me to go through the gate and release whatever animal gets caught.
Yesterday morning I heard the tell-tale metallic scratching when I got up. I didn't bother being subtle: I strode straight out to the gate, opened it, and stood in Bernie's yard while I fumbled to open the trap. Even before I opened it I could see what was in it: a sparrow. I released the poor bird, set the trap back down, and left it. It remains exactly where I set it yesterday morning, still shut, which means I don't have to worry about it.
If I can, I try to set off the trap before a creature gets in it. I can sometimes do this with a garden hose, but while I am obvious and deliberate about freeing a trapped animal, I prefer to be surreptitious about my attempts to disarm the trap. If I'm still up at 11:30 p.m. and the trap hasn't been sprung, I might decide my back garden needs watering.
Bernie has never once confronted me about freeing the animals he traps. I don't know if he has never noticed me in the act (I rather suspect he has, since his kitchen window affords a perfect view of the gate) or if he's too cowardly and lazy to bother.
What it comes down to, in the end, is 1) that Bernie likes killing small wild animals just on principle and I don't (I don't try to kill them unless they come in my house, which is why I once beat a gopher to death with a shovel), and 2) his principles are too rigid to allow him to figure out ways to prevent my interference, like moving the trap, and 3) moving the trap to where I can't see it would defeat a primary purpose, which is to annoy and upset me. But my impulse to save the animals is stronger than his impulse to kill them, and any annoyance I feel is mitigated by satisfaction at freeing the poor things. And while he has probably managed to drown a few before I've rescued them, most likely when I was out of town some time, I still get there before he does more often than not, mostly because he's too lazy and indifferent to check the trap very regularly.
I realize that if a big brick wall separated our yards, I couldn't do any to rescue a critter caught in a trap just on the other side of it. But a wall would prevent Jim from noticing that I've dug up parts of my lawn and put in ornamentals, that I've established beds and borders along the fence and am enriching the soil with vegetable peelings and fruit rinds. I could put some solution scented like fox urine or something all along the fence so critters wouldn't want to climb up it and would instead be content to stay in MY yard. And I would rather look at a brick wall that have a view of Bernie's unimaginative, boring yard.