Column: In praise of the unsightly brush pile, a home to many

  • Micki Colbeck photograph Micki Colbeck photograph

  • Micki Colbeck. Copyright (c) Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to

For the Valley News
Published: 3/27/2021 10:30:18 PM
Modified: 3/27/2021 10:30:15 PM

Luka, my beagle-dachshund, stands on two short, stout out-turned legs atop the snow-covered pile of fruit tree trimmings. Annie, my long-haired mix of many unknown breeds, plunges her nose deep into the snow. Years of pruning has created a pile that never seems to get taller — or to shrink down — and provides shelter for the wild residents around here. It sits in the yard between the neighbor’s towering pines, the flowing Ompompanoosuc and my 150-year-old house.

Someone as heavy as me would fall through this brush pile, but Luka scampers up in search of squirrels — fast, little, red squirrels (Tamiasciurus hudsonicus). One runs from under the dog’s feet and bounds and leaps toward a crack in the house foundation. The two dogs give chase, yet they soon return to the brush pile to dig. The smell of squirrel lies heavy below and my girls, being scent dogs, are not fooled by what they have seen.

I stop to watch, in no hurry to return to the house. It is early March, and the longer days can be felt in the warming air. The snow is crumbly like broken windshield glass and skiing across it is loud and scraping, but it is better than staying home or walking the roads. Spring in Vermont is, as some old timers call it, just bad sledding. The skies grow gloomy with fog from melting snows. The roads lose their firm whiteness, becoming greasy ruts of mud. I have trouble getting out of bed in the morning. It is as if winter has just worn me out.

But then, on a ski into the fields I see a pair of mallards flying upstream and later, a belted kingfisher swooping low over the water. The cardinals are singing nonstop and the tufted titmouse is doing what I would hardly call a song, but then I am not a female titmouse. I look for the mergansers who appear every year around now, and I start to fantasize about green hills and flower gardens and the soft, clean air of summer. I remember the wrens who will take over every bluebird house and the song sparrow who will sing for months from this very brush pile.

Later in the day, a barred owl sits atop a bluebird house near the pile, slowly turning his neckless head to look for a meal. One reckless squirrel scurries out on a nearby branch chattering at the owl, then retreats back to safety, over and over. The large, slow owl is no match for the brushy undercover and the quick little rodents with many tunnels. Reflecting on ignored advice to tidy up the yard, I am grateful I have left this unsightly pile, this wonderful home to many, to sit in my yard for the last 20 years.

Micki Colbeck, of Strafford, is an artist, a conservation biologist and a member of the Strafford Conservation Commission. Write to her at

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