From my back porch I have a panoramic view of east Berkeley and the San Francisco Bay, with the city skyline sparkling across the water. On clear nights the downtown lights twinkle high against the sky, doubled by their reflection in the smooth, dark bay. Below them, the lights of Berkeley are dimmer. They are front porch lights and streetlamps and backyard motion detectors, partially covered by the lush foliage of the yards in my neighborhood—Meyer lemon trees, camellia bushes, ivy and ferns and roses. 

My porch light casts a wide arc over my own backyard, which I share with the property’s owner, who lives in the big front-facing house attached to my apartment, and with Howard, the other tenant. The light from his cottage shines through the branches of a magnolia tree 50 feet away, winking a coded message to my porch lamp. Between them, they light up the entirety of our humble yard, a novelty in the middle of the row of beautifully landscaped plots on our block. 

Ours is filled with plants and trees, just like the rest, but also with other things. There are two motorcycles in our backyard, leaning either on the ground or against a tree. Neither appears to be in working condition. There are also two upholstered bench seats from an old van; they sit back-to-back in the middle of the yard, providing sunny afternoon resting spots for the neighborhood’s horde of outdoor cats. The van seats are flooded with pine needles from a tree that towers over them, and leaves and vines from the green undergrowth have begun to creep up their sides and wind themselves around the armrests. There is a metal frame from a queen-sized bed propped up against the neighbor’s fence. There is a small copper statue of a toad with its mouth opened wide, now burnished to a seafoam green. Lying on the ground there are two bathroom sinks and one kitchen sink. A rivulet of rusted tools meanders from them to the other side of the yard, where a tarp-covered washer and dryer stand near the cottage. There is a set of patio furniture, unusable and rusty with age. There is a pile of bricks, a rickety wrought-iron table, an old gas grill, and an unidentifiable sheet-covered object. Four bicycles, a clothesline, foam padding, and plastic tubing. And flowing over everything there is a layer of leaves and vines and branches and pine needles, tamping down the utility of these fixtures, obscuring the logos and clogging the buttons.

If I stand on tiptoes I think I can see my old apartment building in the city’s Mission district. Its dark, domed roof looms over a row of shiny windows on the top floor. Behind them my former neighbors, my ex-husband among them, go about their business—turning on and off the lights with the high-tech switches that took me a week to figure out, plugging their devices into the sixteen outlets with which each room is equipped, using the space-age toilet with the lid that automatically closes after flushing. There is no backyard in my old building. They have a courtyard on the second floor instead. It is fringed with planters that host upright, evenly-spaced, perfectly-colored flowers. One section is an herb garden that the residents never visit, except for one who lets her small dog use it as a bathroom. The floor is stone tile, and everything is contained by a brown stucco wall. On the other side of the wall, crowds wait to get into one of the Mission’s more popular bars, where live music reverberates from the second floor every Sunday night, level with the apartments surrounding the courtyard.

When I moved to Berkeley, the property’s owner told me not to worry about the backyard. “It’s all going away,” she said. “I don’t even know whose it is anymore, mine or Howard’s or my boyfriend’s. Some of it has been there for years. But don’t worry; we’re working on it.” I assured her I didn’t mind and signed the lease without giving it a second thought. I hadn’t wanted to move across the bay, but it was a good location, with a short-term lease and reasonable rent, and I decided I couldn’t pass up that combination while I figured out what to do with myself.   

Moving was short work, and after I had finished all my trips up the creaking wooden stairs to the studio with the slanting floor and the ancient gas heater, I began to unpack the few boxes I had brought from the apartment in the Mission. I arranged my books and lined the green kitchen cabinets, and as I hung a plant in the window I saw the fog rolling in over San Francisco, cutting off the skyline from view. Dusk fell and I looked down onto the yard and its detritus, growing dim in the impending darkness. Crickets chirped and ducks quacked somewhere nearby.

I awoke before six the next morning to footsteps on my porch, followed shortly by a loud thump. It was still dark, and after a terrified moment I crept to my kitchen window and looked out, getting my first glimpse of what I soon learned to be the local morning ritual: the neighborhood cats performing a ballet of remarkable leaps to and from my railing and the van seats in the yard below. I went back to bed, only to be awakened an hour later by the rising sun and the noise of birds, tens and hundreds and thousands of birds, greeting the day. I reconsidered my wake-up time and made a cup of tea to take to the porch.

The evenings, I’ve realized, are different. The cats and birds and other creatures go to sleep early, leaving me alone on the porch with my tea or a beer, looking at my shadow cast in the glow of the light above my door. I leave the door open behind me so I can listen for anything that happens in the apartment, anything that might require me to get up and go inside to answer it, turn it on, open or close it. But there are not many things inside that require that kind of tending. There is no smart device, no television, only the slowest of wifi. I have to put the toilet seat down myself. There are only my few things and the alluvial fixtures of the backyard—which have not changed, despite the owner’s promise.

Friends often ask why I chose to move to Berkeley after so many years in San Francisco, and when I’m planning on returning. It’s far away there, they say, and quiet, and unexciting. It’s a small town compared to the city.

Those things are all true. Most of my friends are in the city, and half of my belongings are still in boxes in my old apartment. I miss my old neighborhood, my café, the people on the street, the fog. But still, I don’t know when I’ll go back. My ex-husband asks me periodically when I’m going to come get my things. I put him off, telling him I have no space for them, I don’t know what to do with them. But he keeps asking. 

So in the evenings, when I sit on my porch, I look down at the backyard and imagine going to collect the rest of my possessions and putting them there, next to the bed frame or the old kitchen sink. Letting them settle into the soft ground, letting the vines wind themselves around the boxes and break down the cardboard. Leaving them behind like the other things there, forgetting whose they are.


Q. Sarah Ostendorf is a longtime Californian who now lives in Los Angeles. She is a professor at Occidental College, where her teaching covers gender, sexuality, nature, and genre theory. In addition to her essays, she is working on her first novel.