Shoebox-sized chunks of bark surround the water oak that still lies where it fell two years ago, decaying more each day. The azalea bushes and magnolia saplings are still entwined by vines, and multiple seasons’ worth of leaves still sit piled along the fence. Taking stock of all that still needs to be done in my backyard, I estimate it would take that proverbial “month of Sundays” to clean up. That’s a defeating thought because I just spent a full Sunday working on it. Then I recall my husband’s frequent phrase to me when he tries to lift me from my struggles with the backyard: “you like the ‘natural look’; besides, it’s all just nature trash anyway.”

But is it really “trash”? The yard isn’t filled with plastic wrappers, empty bottles, cardboard boxes–all those discards of once-useful things. When I stop a minute and look closely, it’s obvious those dead logs, leaves, and vines are actually still of great use; Nature has found other purposes for them. In fact, there is more activity in and around the fallen oak tree now that it’s decaying than there was when it was upright and healthy. Sure, the branches had offered a resting place for birds and squirrels, the few limb crotches were used for nests. But as it died (for a reason I still don’t know), I watched bugs take up residence, and then woodpeckers come to feast on them creating dozens of holes that the squirrels further enlarged. Those holes became homes for the squirrels and many other birds, far more than had nested in the tree when it was alive. (A rat tried to move in, too, but was promptly evicted.) In fact, the tree became a veritable apartment building, as full of activity as any city building! Even the “ground floor” bustled, teaming with carpenter ants, a sought-after meal for lizards, who in turn attracted a few snakes. When the tree finally fell it no longer acted as residence–except to bugs, but they’ll live anywhere–but became a playground, a school, and a bigger snack bar. Several families of Carolina wrens, cardinals, blue jays, mockingbirds, and brown thrashers have used the log to train their young ones in what makes a great meal and how to find it. Broods of fluffy baby birds have strengthened their legs by bounding back and forth over the log, and have tested their tiny wings by leaping from it.

Even my own three kids have learned from the “trash” in our messy yard. They’ve asked all sorts of questions as they’ve walked with me through the yard or sat with me on the patio. And they’ve made many discoveries on their own: befriended box turtles that hide in those piles of leaves along the fence, have been equally intrigued and grossed out by psychedelic-looking mushrooms, have watched wood rats nibbling seeds, been awed by hawks soaring overhead (no doubt hunting the rats), discovered the most amazing golden orb spider webs (complete with the gorgeous and very large spiders), and made extensive collections of wildflowers and feathers. Yes, once in a while they have stumbled upon a dead bird or mouse, but there is wisdom to be gained from seeing all parts of life.

And life is in the messy. We find can only find it in the active, flourishing, and overgrown. What newness, what discoveries, what experiences can be found in the perfectly manicured? What wisdom can be gained from the always trimmed and tidy? If there is no activity to observe, or if it’s always predictable, no questions need to be asked. Life is also in the dead, fallen, and decaying. If all the leaves are raked up and all the rocks removed, where will the to-be-discovered hide?

I will probably still try to tame the vines and rake up more leaves, but I won’t see it as trash anymore. My husband is right: I do like the “natural look”–I like the living it brings into my life. ~