After a good rain, we traipse through the backyard, my youngest daughters and I. We are hunting for snails.
We find one! A massive snail, the length of my six-year-old’s hand, glides across the path, his eye-stalks quest this way, then that. He is clearly driven by some sense of purpose—but where is he going? Where has he just been?
My daughter can’t help herself—she taps his shell, and the snail folds abruptly inward. He waits. Have we gone away yet? One stalk emerges, questing this way and that. The second emerges. Then he cautiously, patiently, he unrolls the rest of his slippery self and proceeds onward.
Our backyard is full of characters like this snail—chickadees sassing cats from the top of the fence, squirrels shimmying along the power line, roly-polys somehow always underfoot. And I can imagine James Witmer, author of A Year in the Big Old Garden, looking out at the inhabitants of his own backyard—sitting on a porch maybe, with his own kids—and asking these questions: Where is that cardinal going? Where does it live? I can see him inventing backstories for his nearest neighbors.
Because that is what A Year in the Big Old Garden is: a collection of sweet stories that revolve around those everyday backyard adventures of cardinals, rabbits, cats, and squirrels. The personality Witmer grants each animal feels accurate—a squirrel, though able to talk and have aspirations for his squirrel life, behaves the way any squirrel skittering through my own backyard does. The birds are birdlike, the bunnies behave like bunnies.
Through these lovable and believable characters, Witmer tells stories that feel at once old and new. I sense in them a hat-tip to Aesop, a wave to Thornton Burgess, and a respectful nod to Beatrix Potter. Witmer is clearly writing as part of an older tradition, and yet these stories feel as inventive and original as they do welcoming and familiar. Joseph Sutphin’s black-and-white illustrations carry on this pleasant tension between old and new as well.
Right now, when our yard is our world, these stories remind us how populated and colorful it is: we have our own family of chickadees living in a backyard birdhouse, and a neighborhood cat that—to our chagrin—SCHWALUMPs her way through our garden beds. We have the snails, congregating along the edge of the house, enjoying one another’s company in silence. A Year in the Big Old Garden gives us eyes to see the stories each of these creatures might live out around us. (And it makes us giggle as we read, which is always a plus.)
A Year in the Big Old Garden
James Witmer (2019)