Earth Day Lessons From a 'Backyard Jungle'

James Barilla got his backyard certified as a wildlife habitat. He got more than he bargained for.

AP110519033291.jpgA grey squirrel eats a nut in St James Park in London. Squirrels. Grey squirrels made short work of James Barilla's peaches. (Kirsty Wigglesworth/AP)

When James Barilla decided to certify his backyard as a wildlife habitat, he got an immersive introduction to the complexities of human-animal coexistence. It's one thing to want to promote biodiversity and give back to nature. It's another to see the real-life ramifications of those actions, which don't always work out to human advantage. The following is an excerpt from My Backyard Jungle, the book Barilla subsequently wrote exploring the complexities of nature activism both in his backyard and across the globe.

In my estimation, the Chilean peach has made great strides in recent years. Most of the time, it no longer tastes like a ball of sawdust soaked in corn syrup; it actually tastes a bit like a peach. Actual juice may in fact emerge from a bite; actual tree-ripened hues may be detected on the surface. It's not terrible, not for early February, when most of us are looking at a foot of snow on the ground and praying Punxsutawny Phil or whatever they're calling this year's groundhog isn't going to see his shadow.

But no matter what the little sticker says on the fruit flown in from the Southern Hemisphere, whatever you're getting in the supermarket in the middle of winter isn't really a peach. If you've had the pleasure of an encounter with an actual peach, one left on the tree until the Brix measurement of its sweetness is off the charts and a single bite makes the whole thing melt like ice cream toward your elbow, you know what a real peach is. You also know that finding such a fruit isn't easy. Taste and travel are for the most part mutually exclusive in the world of fresh produce, and peaches are probably the least amenable to making the trip to market. A peach purchased at the grocery store, it's safe to say, is usually a disappointment. 

Imagine, on the other hand, that those delicate fruits never sit in a packing warehouse or the cargo hold of a jet, never get jostled in a crate in a pickup bed, never get crushed in a heap at the supermarket. Imagine if you, the farmer, walked out one fine warm morning to find that perfect peach for your breakfast--right there on your own tree. How simple, how rapturously flavorful, how carbon-friendly that piece of fruit would be. Take one for you, and one each for your little ones, too. After all, the commercial peach is often drenched in systemic insecticides and fungicides, enough to put it near the top of every list of contaminated produce.

Sound a bit like catalog copy? That's probably because I've been under their spell for years. I love leafing through gardening catalogs, love the photos of abundance on the bough, the hyperbolic descriptions of the flavors, the way the horticulturalists distinguish the acid balance of the pippin from the delectable aroma of the sheepnose. As a renter, however, I've had to admire these tantalizing fruits from afar. With the exception of a pot- ted lemon and a scattering of ill-conceived saplings left behind in various yards, this is the first chance I've had to indulge the fantasy of a backyard orchard.

Not surprisingly, I go a bit crazy. There are over seven thousand known varieties of apple, and peach varieties can be numbered in the thousands, too.2 I'm tempted to grow all of them, and the multitude of mirabelles and gages, plumcots and pomegranates, too. Here in South Carolina, where the temperate meets the tropical, you can grow just about anything if you know what you're doing.

Barilla (credit Nicola Waldron) smaller.jpg

Just to get started, I order a pineapple pear, a seckel pear, a "20th century" Asian pear, a "Blanc d'Hiver" apple, a "William's Pride," and a "Whitney" crab. That's from one catalog. Then I get a "Jiro" persimmon, a "Won- derful" pomegranate, and figs by the name of "Violette de Bordeaux," "Italian Black," and "Peter's Honey." Still not enough. Seven different blueberries of the "rabbit- eye" and "Southern highbush" types, some raspberries, some strawberries. Oh, and some muscadines and scup- pernongs. And why not a pair of kiwis? And pawpaws, too. It's madness! And it's not over. When it comes to the peaches and nectarines, I don't want an unbranched whip, some stripling that will take years to produce. I want the unpruned eight footers I've seen on display at the DIY superstore. I drive home with three kinds of peach and nectarine jutting out the passenger window like spears, all of them already stippled with pink buds.

In these parts, what I'm doing is unorthodox, probably even eccentric. If I look up and down my street, I'm the only one growing so much as a tomato for as far as I can see. In fact, I've never seen anyone growing food anywhere in the entire neighborhood. What we grow here, for the most part, is centipede grass. And we also grow ornamental vegetation; hybrid magnolias and dog- woods and azaleas burst like fireworks across otherwise nondescript lawns in early spring. Later, when the streets are simmering in the afternoons, the yards will be neon with crepe myrtle. We water heavily for this experience of color and beauty. In the evenings the sprinklers sway their plumes across the grass. Mowers drone through the afternoons, and the leaf blowers grumble every weekend--leaves and needles drop year-round here. We put a lot of work, in other words, into creating an aesthetic experience, but the edible potential of the yard is at best an afterthought.

I've been working my way into one of the great challenges of coexistence: how to keep the wild things from harvesting the food we want to eat ourselves.

I like to think of two moments in history, the first being the commissioning of the landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted to create what at first was termed a greensward in the heart of New York City. We can see his work in the wilder corners of Central Park, the idea that a long, narrow rectangle of turf in the heart of the city should nevertheless have a "Ramble," a counterpoint to the regular geometry of numbered streets and rectangular buildings surrounding it.4 Bringing wildlife into the city has its roots in this aesthetic idea, that the urban park should be a contrast to urban life rather than an ex- tension of it. The wild belongs in the city but does not partake of it.

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James Barilla is assistant professor in the MFA program of the University of South Carolina, where he teaches creative nonfiction and environmental writing. He has held a variety of posts in wildlife research and management, both in the United States and in England.

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