The Backyard

Blue HeronFlorida is a unique and special place in the world. Known for the beaches, in reality it is so much more. By taking the drive from Pensacola to Key West, you have the opportunity to observe an amazing diversity of ecosystems. From forests of the Panhandle to the pine flat woods of Central Florida, the winding Kissimmee River Basin to the coastal estuaries of Southwest Florida, and from the Everglades’ sea of grass all the way to the coral reefs off the Florida Keys there are not many places you can find such a wide range of diversity over such a short distance. It makes my blood bubble with excitement when I think this is my backyard!

So, why not start traveling by just walking out the back door into the backyard. With a little patience and good drink in hand chances are something is going to get your attention. I’ve had the luxury of living in so many different environments in just the Tampa Bay area alone. I grew up in South Tampa, spent my teenage years around the palmettos and pinewoods near Brandon, then the banks of the Hillsborough River, the estuaries around upper Tampa Bay, the Hillsborough River watershed cypress swamps close to Wesley Chapel, and full circle back to South Tampa. The amazing thing is even living in the heart of the city by taking a few steps out the door, I am reminded of the serenity of what is Florida.

Never was this more apparent than on a Christmas morning in the home I shared with my ex-wife in Temple Terrace. Temple Terrace is one of the colder pockets so the temperatures usually go a good five to ten degrees below what the weather forecast is for metropolitan Tampa. There was a lot of frost that morning, which is rare for December in Florida. We sat in the family room by the Christmas Tree opening gifts. It was a particularly special Christmas because my grandmother had come to spend Christmas day with us. We all were drinking our coffee and enjoying each other’s company when we noticed what we thought was a dog in the back yard.

It was walking across the frosty grass from our neighbors yard toward the swampy wetlands that backed up to our yard. As the critter crossed in front of the glass doors where we had the best view, it was not a dog at all. It was a fox carrying a dog toy in his mouth. He must have sensed we were watching because I remember him picking up his pace at that very moment. Then, he was gone into the woods. From the moment we first noticed the fox to the moment he disappeared with the toy, maybe ten seconds passed, but every second is seared into my memory of that morning. I joked he was shopping for Christmas. That fox became the inspiration for Charlie Fox in my book, Dewey’s Christmas Adventure.
Black RacerA highlight of Florida is that you don’t have to go exploring all the time to find adventure. Sometimes it comes to you. Sometimes it’s right there in front of you(or behind you) in your own backyard. Often you don’t even know it’s there. The truth is it’s not even hiding. All you have to do is open your eyes, grab a chair and wait. Keep your camera close by. The highlights of this movie are going to be just a matter of seconds. You won’t expect to see what is almost certainly seeing you.

One night I woke up in the middle of the night to what sounded like chatter in the backyard. I had put up a fence made of chicken wire and wooden posts along the back easement to help keep the conservation area behind the house from overtaking the yard. I used some scrap wood on hand to make wooden trays to fill with bird seed which I nailed in a few places along the fence. It was a weekend and I had done the customary Saturday yard work that day. I filled the bird trays with food as I always did when I finished the yard knowing full well it would be gone by the next day. I get up out of bed to see what the commotion is out back, but it’s so dark I can’t see a thing. We had large trees on three sides of the house from the conservation area so unless the moon was directly overhead on a clear night, the backyard was very dark.

I hunted down the mega powerful flashlight that can shoot a beam of light to the moon and shined it toward the woods. At first I saw nothing. Slowly scanning from right to left along the 4 foot-tall fence line I came to the first bird tray. There was a large raccoon perched along side the tray helping itself to the seed. That was not the cool part. I knew the coons were regulars when I filled the trays with seed or especially cracked corn. I continued to pan the light because that critter was not making a sound. Instead, just to the left side of the tray , three baby raccoon sat in a line chirping and giggling like three school kids. They noticed the light and eight pair of red eyes stared right back at me. It was like the fox. These guys decided they were hungrier than I was threatening and continued about their business. It was obviously too dark to take any pictures so I just went back to bed with that image in my memory. Later, that scene became the inspiration for Mac the Raccoon in Dewey’s Christmas Adventure.

Everyone has a backyard of some sort. The common backyard is one of green grass, a wooden fence, maybe a few Red-Tailed Hawk Patrol's Tullamoretrees and shrubs, and the tire swing. But that is not the only backyard. The backyard can be anything. It can be a roof top. It can be parking lot. It can be a view from a skyscraper or an entire neighborhood. Regardless of how it is defined it is always going to be the backyard. It is a source of life, love, adventure and inspiration. I wrote an adventure story and it all came right from the backyard!

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