AH, WILDERNESS – RIGHT HERE IN MY YARD

Burlington County Times, August 27, 2001

The other day, I saw someone wearing a Pinelands Preservation Alliance t-shirt driving a Ford Expedition with a “Save the Pinelands” license plate. I’m sure she had a valid reason for needing an SUV that seats eight people, but there was a certain irony in an ecological message on a car that gets 12 miles to the gallon. It was like a pulmonary specialist who smokes, or ordering a Diet Coke with a hot fudge sundae. (Hey, I’m not being a hypocrite. I happen to prefer the taste of diet soda.)

But our whole attitude towards nature is full of irony, especially when it comes to our own back yards. Our yard is certified as a Backyard Wildlife Refuge by the National Wildlife Federation, but we have a lawn service that uses fertilizer and pesticides. (My attitude is the same as the U.S. armed services – don’t ask, don’t tell.) We have a fence around our yard to keep out the deer, and then I complain that we haven’t seen as many deer in the area as in the past. I believe in the importance of using native plants and limiting introduced species, but I planted a Japanese honeysuckle in my yard. Ironically, this invasive species is flourishing, while the native honeysuckle in the garden is slowly dying.

A few months ago, a Sunday newspaper magazine ran a cover story on how to control pests in our backyards. I eagerly scanned it for tips on non-toxic methods to stop the chipmunks and woodchucks from devouring my vegetable garden. But I didn’t find anything at all about using ladybug beetles to control aphids or eliminating Japanese beetle grubs by not watering our lawns. There was no advice about attracting birds or bats into the yard to eat insects. Nor was there any mention of how to recognize beneficial bugs. Instead, the author’s advice can be summarized in one sentence: “Make your yard as park-like as possible.”

But it’s precisely because we’ve made our yards – and all our surroundings – as park-like as possible that we have wildlife invading our properties. We have destroyed their natural habitats, causing them to look for suitable substitutes. It’s a mixed blessing. The animals’ adaptability is why peregrine falcons, once close to extinction, can successfully breed on window ledges on skyscrapers when they no longer have craggy rocks available as nesting sites. But it’s also why squirrels whose tall trees have been destroyed shelter in our attics instead.

I find it ironic that I have gone to the trouble of inviting wildlife into my back yard by providing water, food, shelter, and protection, only to grouse about the wild life that have taken up residence there. Examples: I am probably the only person in all of southern New Jersey who cannot grow zucchini. I used to be able to grow it. I used to have so much that I couldn’t give it all away. One year, there were so many zucchini, green peppers, and tomatoes in the garden that I made and froze gallons of gazpacho. But then there was a summer of no rain, when the squirrels discovered that the tomatoes were a great thirst quencher. And then the woodchucks discovered the yard, which I expect to collapse from all the tunnels crisscrossing under it, and developed a taste for zucchini, roots and all.

This summer, I moved all my vegetables to containers on the deck. To my dismay, woodchucks not only can climb steps – not surprising, since they can climb small trees – but can climb into containers. I saw one the other day sitting in the middle of the container, happily munching on zucchini leaves. This time, he left the roots and stems.

As soon as I was successful in keeping the squirrels off the bird feeders, the chipmunks invaded. Chipmunks, I soon realized, are small enough to get into the openings in the cages surrounding bird feeders, are light enough to sit on weighted feeders, and love safflower seeds. It’s not unusual to see a chipmunk whose cheeks are bigger than its body. I saw one running across the deck just before I discovered that something had eaten all the parsley I’d planted in a container for the swallow-tailed butterflies. A very fat chipmunk with, as my husband wry noted, very good breath.

I have accepted that nature isn’t pretty. I’ve watched sharped-shinned hawks eat colorful songbirds, leaving piles of bloody feathers in the snow. I’ve seen baby rabbits drown in a torrential downpour, and disappear from their nest under the deck shortly after I noticed a snake nearby. But the time has come for me to accept that I can’t have it both ways. I can’t sit back and enjoy the wildlife without also admitting that it will do just what it is supposed to do, be wild. I can buy veggies from local farmer’s markets. They can’t.

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