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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Pigeons, Kibitzers Dash Dream of Grassy Patch

For the past few years I've been living in Moscow's southwestern region -- in Novo-Peredelkino, to be exact, a district close to, but not to be confused with, the wooded writers' retreat. The other, world famous, residential amenity has in common with mine a large and marvelous expanse of forest, a mix of hardwood and coniferous trees sprinkled with glades, meadows and ponds, the various natural and contrived openings of sylvan landscape. And on these, of course, attend one of the great beauties of any woodland: the diverse concentrations and intensities of light, from the dapplings of a deciduous forest floor, to the brilliance of slanting shafts that penetrate the canopy and fall moted and dazzling to the must of needles and leaf mold at the foot of the trees.

A principal difference between the writers' dachas and the area in which I live -- apart from the architecture (of which, more in a moment) -- is the immediacy of the forest. We, apartment dwellers, have to cross a big road to get to it; they, the elect, are instantly and constantly in its midst. But in this case, despite periodically heavy traffic, second best really isn't bad at all. In a matter of minutes, one is among the trees.

The trees, the forest, and what one can find there -- the marvelous, scented air filtered by leaves and needles, different in kind from the air of the streets, the range and variations of minuscule and gentle sound, at radical variance to the mechanical clamor of everyday life, carrying on its routines just a few meters away -- are all a basic part of the background here, an element to which, other factors being equal, one can repair at any time, for a reviving dose of spiritual renewal.

This is a background, I might add, that, for those attuned to it, infuses and affects all activities, all transactions and exchanges from the minute and trivial to the gross and pretentious and that affected and infused the sequence I shall now describe.

But first, a brief mise-en-scene.

My area, bisected by a four-lane highway into central Moscow, is characterized by 15-story apartment buildings -- concrete slabs with balconies -- put up in a hurry in the '50s and '60s. Although the primary factor of the situation at that time -- a desperate housing shortage -- mandated speed, amenities of setting, far from being overlooked, were thoughtfully and pleasingly provided. Lawns, shrubberies and trees afford generous massings of green to anchor, contain and even counteract the looming concrete. And, despite heavy human assault and inadequate maintenance (soccer games on the lawns cause patches of bare ground, which are then not reseeded, and so forth), the genesis of the scheme is still clear: expanses of green intended to provide a natural frame, or rather, a frame of reference to the natural world, the origin and container of all living things. The frame and setting now, although still evident, is as often as not depleted and attenuated, a somewhat ghostly, pleading echo of its original self.

And like the bushes and trees that stand among the buildings, all of the above -- all of the words heretofore set down -- also constitute a frame, a reference. In this case, to a morality tale of sorts, or rather, to what I think is most probably a morality tale.

The facts are these. Outside my window, there used to be a lawn, a small green patch the size of an extra large carpet, planned for the space that lies between the inner roadway for residents' cars and the building in which I live.

Over time, the green patch suffered the fate of most local green patches. People cut across it to get to the road; it became worn. In spring, an atrocious sump of mud, by summer it is a miniature dust bowl, an oblong of bare earth, that generates, with the faintest stirring of air, puffs, plumes, even clouds of sandy red dust. These drift, ineluctably, through any open windows, particularly, of course, through open windows on the ground floor and, most particularly, since I most directly confront the ex-lawn in question, through mine.

Having come of age in the United States during a period of direct civil action of dramatizing and attempting to resolve public issues in the streets, my first inclination in this case, too, was action -- an inclination given a shove to the starting line by fortuitous circumstance. One of the students in an English language class I was teaching worked for a seed and fertilizer company, and had available, for anyone who might want them, free sample packets of grass seed.

Since I was the only one who expressed an interest, I got her entire supply -- just enough, as it happens, to reseed that piece of lawn.

So, on the first propitious day, having borrowed a spade and rake from our building's lady janitor, I went out to dig up the hard, impacted ground, a task which, without question, provided a superb instance of the adage "easier said than done." This job constituted serious -- and I mean serious -- toil, of the blistered-hands and aching-back variety.

Eventually, however ("eventually" meaning hours later), the ground was ready, and I sowed the seed. In a mood, I might add, of some tempered triumph, tempering having been provided free of charge, by local residents.

Local resident: "What're you doing there?"

I: "Planting grass."

L.R.: "It'll never work."

I: "Why not?"

L.R.: "Too many kids!"


Second local resident: "What're you doing there?"

I: "Planting grass."

S.L.R.: "You don't mean to say you're taking away our shortcut!"

Later that afternoon, brief but heavy rain pounded the newly seeded grounds; the force of the downpour uncovered many seeds. Hordes of pigeons descended on the feast and found all the other seeds as well. And from that day to this, our alternating swamp or desert with nary a green stalk looks as it always, in my experience, has looked.

Basic moral questions:

1) Is this a Didactic Tale, illustrating the Sin of Hubris?

2) When in Rome, should one do as the Romans do? (Or not do as they don't do?)

And, however one might answer these -- or other -- questions of morality or deportment, in Novo-Peredelkino, pigeons feed on seeds, the locals are ready to kibitz and, as a background to all human activity, the vast green forest rustles and breathes.

If I try again next spring, my plan of operations will definitely include a scarecrow.

Lily Emmet is a translator living in Moscow. She contributed this essay to The Moscow Times.