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.
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 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.
I also like to think of the campaign that Londoners undertook in the dark days of World War II, when backyards and urban deer parks were tilled up and planted with "Dig for Victory" gardens. The culture of the "allotment," the block or two of urban ground divvied up among the neighbors for growing sprouts and turnips and marrows, persists in England today.
As I'm excavating holes for all my purchases and backfilling them with humus and cow manure and crumbled pine bark and coffee grounds and just about any other organic matter I can get my shovel on to counteract the extreme sandiness of our loam, I start to realize I have company: squirrels. They're doing pretty much what I'm doing--scrabbling furiously at holes in the yard. I'm just about eye level with them, especially when I'm on my knees scooping the last loose sand out of the holes with my hands.
It's a timely reminder. The sign out front says this is wildlife habitat, too. What does that mean for the urban farmer? Without realizing it, 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 do want to create a little patch of untamed habitat for the wild things, but I also want to till and sow and reap. Most of all, reap. Maybe it goes back to my grandfather and the vegetable garden he planted every summer in the backyard, the pride he'd take in the tomatoes he'd harvest, each wrapped in paper to keep through the early frosts. Maybe it's the feeling that putting down roots means literally embedding seeds in the soil you've amended, watching as the plants absorb nutrients and finally swell into something you can harvest without harming anything, a fruit that was intended to entice you, that was intended to be eaten. Somehow, even if we tend to deny the certainty of our own eventual return to the black crumbly matter of leaf mold and sediment, there remains a sense of ritual about eating the food we've grown, a sense that our bodies are being nourished by our own soil. At the level of nutrients, home and the body merge.
This earthy transubstantiation can only take place, however, if you can actually get something into your mouth before somebody else gets it first. Whether you're leading your sheep to an allotment on the edge of a Montana wilderness or trying to coax a crop out of your backyard trees, you're going to be dealing with all the other denizens of that habitat. I said the fruits of your labor are meant to be enticing, but that doesn't mean they were intended to entice you. In fact, despite all the years of breeding and selection that have transformed apples and blueberries into bigger and sweeter versions of their wild ancestors, they still seem to be designed to be eaten by creatures other than humans.
Berries, for example, are designed to travel through the gut of an animal and come out in a nice pile of fertilizer, ready to sprout somewhere far away from their parent. Birds are great for berries. Berries are great for birds. Keeping the two apart in your backyard wildlife habitat seems almost unfair, like telling children they can look inside the toy store, but they can't touch anything. The backyard, I'm already beginning to suspect, is the canvas for incompatible fantasies, like having the regimented quadrangles of Versailles and the tousled romantic heath of Central Park in the same quarter acre of turf.
What are the "right" creatures for the backyard habitat? Ideally, they'd be partners in the landscape. We'd enjoy a symbiotic relationship; they'd scratch my back and I'd scratch theirs, that is, if they had a back and would let me get near enough to scratch it. The warblers and the tufted titmice and the flycatchers coming through on the leading edge of spring are great friends; they eat bugs. I like things that eat bugs. But maybe something more prosaic and permanent should be the backyard gardener's mascot, something like the earthworm. The lowly worm may not be pretty or even visible under normal circumstances, but it's a pretty good partner for the backyard farm. All my hard work has been basically replicating what worms do all the time: mixing rotting plant material from the surface down into the deeper layers of the soil. They live underground in space I don't need, help out around the place by enriching the soil, and ask for nothing in return but dead leaves and maybe a bit of rotting produce from the kitchen. Perfect.
Or maybe not so perfect. It should be noted that the ubiquitous and useful earthworm is often a nonnative species, and the welcome role it plays in the garden is not so welcome in the wilderness. Worms fertilize the soil, which is great if you're trying to coax food out of sand. But in the wilderness, that nutrient mixing gradually changes the plant community, as plants designed to live in poor soil give way to plants that like more fertility. In- visibly, and perhaps insidiously, the lowly worm changes the wilderness.
As a farmer, I don't care. I want as much nitrogen and micronutrients as possible, and I can use all the help I can get. But what about the backyard wilderness? If it's a mini-wilderness I'm after, then the worm is not a model citizen.
If I could divvy up the yard into distinct areas with clear boundaries, then the worm could be the friend of the garden, and some other creature, something like the box turtle, could be the icon of the wilderness area. But then, where is the wilderness boundary, exactly? Is it the hedge and the lawn but not the vegetable patch? Is it the whole yard, excluding all plants that bear fruit for human consumption? Historically, hedges have always been the habitat for wildlife on the farm. In England, when I worked for a native plant nursery, most of our work involved restoring hedges to the edges of farm fields, making habitat for hedgehogs and dormice, badgers and foxes and hares. But there was a lot more room between the house and the hedge and the pastures on those sheep farms than there is in my backyard. If the National Park Service can't keep bison from wandering out of Yellowstone's million-plus acres every winter to browse neighboring cattle pasture, what hope do I have of restricting cardinals to the azalea hedge?
It's the first really warm day, 75 degrees and sunny, the kind of day the stone fruits and their pollinators have been longing to see. All the tight buds on the nectarine tree seem to burst open on cue, transforming this stick- figure mannequin into something hot pink and dazzling. Giant bumblebees and many smaller bumblebees, and even the occasional honeybee, are all paying court. They're joined by an insect that's as golden and fuzzy as a pipe cleaner, which hovers at the entrance of the blossom, probing with a needle-like snout. A hoverfly? The giant bumblebees spar with each other in midair, and the flowers break their fall.
I have no idea what to call these creatures. I've never bothered to look at bees this closely. Aldo Leopold once predicted that our love of wildlife will eventually move us toward looking rather than harvesting. For his own part, Leopold focused on reading animals tracks in the mud and extolling the beauty of the tiny flowers we tend to overlook. Paying attention to the small and quotidian, to what can't be harvested for the dinner table--that's what Leopold wanted us to do.
For a long time, I found his interest in these particulars quaint but not terribly interesting.
Working at the urban wildlife garden in England, I used to secretly sneer at the idea of creating "mini-beast" habitat. I'd just come from Montana, where I'd been surveying birds in forests that stretched for hundreds of miles in almost every direction. Having grown accustomed to worrying about bumping into bear and moose, the scale of things in the wildlife garden left me feeling incredulous. Was I really being asked to stack up some logs and label them on a map as a snail and centipede hotel? It took a long time to get used to the idea that looking closely was not a diminishment of experience, that a scene without epic grandeur could still be worthy of attention.
Now that I have a "farm" of my own, however, I need mini-beasts. They're my vessels of procreation. In fact, over the winter I put my limited carpentry skills to work on bee blocks, homes for the kind of small, innocuous creatures I've never really noticed before. They're known as orchard bees, and they're supposedly metallic blue, like the hood of a muscle car. They normally nest in holes that some other creature has punched into tree trunks and stumps, but I've mimicked their dwellings with a drill; all you need, supposedly, is to drill lots of holes deep into the surface of a six-inch-thick block of wood and smooth out the splinters. Put this bee block up high in a sunny spot, and the bees that pollinate your fruit trees will flock to your place . . . supposedly.
Once the blocks are up on the south side of the house near the eaves, I have a reason to pay attention to the details of invertebrate life, and what I discover out there is diversity and richness, as if the focus of the lens I use to view the world has been sharpened. I've had a similar experience hunting for mushrooms in the duff of the forest floor--nothing, nothing at all, until all at once the perception expands, and the invisible details of the world are everywhere in sight. Suddenly, the morels are right there, underfoot and all around.
The good news about the various little black bees I've never noticed before: many of them don't sting, or if they do, they sting reluctantly. There are leafcutter bees that stuff their nests with swatches of foliage. There are miner bees that excavate galleries in the soil. There are iridescent green bees and yellow frowzy-headed bees, thin and graceful types and chunky, bombastic types, though you probably need some degree of magnification to see the difference. The orchard bee is also known as a "mason" bee, because it walls off the entrance to its nest with little bricks of mud and saliva. There are more than four hundred species of orchard bees, but I can't tell from the various range maps whether any are common in the Midlands. They certainly don't come rushing to fill the new homes I've built for them.
There's bad news, too. Buzzing the World Wide Web for ways to promote my wild bee colony, I soon come across a number of references to carpenter bees. Carpenter bees? the novice homeowner and backyard enthusiast asks. What are carpenter bees? It sounds intriguing at first; maybe these guys are special because they hammer together their own nests, giving new meaning to the term stick construction. Soon enough, however, I find out the truth: these members of this Xylocopa clan don't build things out of wood. They tunnel into it instead, creating galleries for their young to grow during the winter. And the wood they like best is already in use--it's holding up your house.
On the ride home from my office through the warm, pollen-scented air that seems to be almost vibrating with the ecstasy of flowers and their ardent visitors, it occurs to me that many of the "bumblebees" I've watched with pride at the trio of peaches might very well be carpenter bees. The males are big and shiny black--to the untrained eye, they look like bumblebees. They're known to be extremely territorial; they will often hover in front of people right at eye level, trying to get the human to flinch first.
Sure enough, when I get home I'm confronted at the back porch steps by a black, hovering, jumbo-sized bee. It gets right up in my grill and stays there, buzzing menacingly. Eye contact: in the annals of interspecies communication, looking into the eyes of an animal is usually not the way to create good vibes. There are lots of ways to express a desire to get along--roll over on your belly, wag your tail, stick your butt in the air, bow and scrape--but looking a grizzly in the eye or raising your eyebrows and staring at a macaque is likely to evoke a savage response.
Having a bee try to stare me down does not make me feel warm and fuzzy or help me to acknowledge its subjectivity. It makes the hackles rise on the back of my neck, even if I've just finished reading about Xylocopa impotence: male carpenter bees are big, but they do not have stingers. It's all just a macho pose.
Now that my eyes are opened to the truth that not all bumblebees are bumblebees, I see more of them jousting around the eaves, especially the seams where the asphalt shingles lift to expose what's behind the painted fascia trim. Under those seams isn't plywood, which these bees might not find so easy to chew their way through. This old house has actual inch-thick pine boards as underlayment. Just right for drilling.
What am I supposed to do? I don't want these guys turning my house into their own little love nests.
The advice of the pest control people is to locate the invaders' entry holes and blow insecticidal dust into them. But wait! Before I pull the trigger, I have to consider their role in the garden. Unlike termites, carpenter bees don't eat the wood they turn to sawdust with their jaws. Instead, they stuff their tunnels with the pollen they gather from spring-blooming plants. Take them out of the yard, and the number of bees flying around the peaches would be pitifully few. It's a predicament growers are facing all across the country--as honeybee colonies have collapsed due to a mysterious combination of disease and parasites and insecticidal assault, farmers have been forced to scramble for replacements like these.
So, do I find their half-inch holes tucked under the eaves and puff poison into them with a makeshift blowgun? Do I allow that toxic dust to filter down through the multitude of gaps and crevices in the old walls and into my kids' breakfast cereal? Am I really planning to provide a block of wood full of holes for one set of pollinators to nest while poisoning their pollinating cousins at the same time?
What, exactly, am I doing here?
I wind up on a ladder, looking to discourage the bees with a fresh coat of white paint, which doesn't feel like tending Eden at all.
One afternoon, after the pollinators have done their job and the peaches have blushed scarlet and butterscotch under their creamy blanket of fuzz, I notice that some of the smaller branches are broken, the leaves tattered and wilted in the heat. They're also devoid of fruit. The culprit is sitting on the arm of our teak lounge chair, spit- ting fragments of green peach into a pile so he can get at the pit--a squirrel, who springs into the trees with what looks like guilty speed to me, as if expecting retribution.
The gray squirrel is one of those native species, like brown-headed cowbirds and red-winged blackbirds, whose populations have boomed along with our own. As we built neighborhoods for ourselves and shaded them with rows of graceful trees, we gave squirrels a chance at the good life. They're doing quite well abroad, too. After being introduced to England in the early 1800s, more than half a century before European starlings first fluttered out of their cages into New York, the gray squirrel population has reached two million. Meanwhile, England's native red squirrel, once a common sight, has almost disappeared from most of the country.
They're easy to anthropomorphize. Like us, they're omnivores, and a backyard like ours is a veritable buffet of nuts, rosehips, and songbird eggs. Of course, there are certain seasons like the fall, when cars grind sack loads of acorn flour into the tarmac, when the feast is more ample than others. Chestnut oaks in particular are almost hazardous in the sheer quantity of autumn nuts they shed onto the streets, and indeed, many a squirrel seems to meet its fate trying to retrieve them.
Around here, however, between the late spring, when the squirrels shred green pinecones and drop the remains on top of our car, and the early fall, when the acorns ripen, there's a lull in the food supply. This shortage seems to coincide with the time when the first litters of pups leave the nest and start scrounging for food. Just when the green pinecone supply has been gnawed down to the cob, the peaches and nectarines begin to blush. Very tempting, indeed.
I'm actually okay with the male squirrel's pilfering at first--I couldn't bring myself to thin my first-ever crop, so the squirrel is actually doing the young tree a favor by relieving its sagging branches. By the next evening, however, things get serious. This large male (you can sex a squirrel when they stand up on their hind legs and squint at you) has stripped every peach from all but the tips of the branches. He's not like the others. The other squirrels--and there are plenty of them, probably at least half a dozen living in our little patch alone--are busy digging in the lawn for last year's acorns. Maybe they know that the pit's bitter almond fragrance comes from cyanide.
If you invest enough of yourself into this microcosmos, it seems, the conflicts and satisfactions of actual farming reveal themselves in full. But there's one key difference between my backyard orchard and the real thing: my livelihood doesn't depend on the harvest. Although I've invested a lot of time and water in this fantasy of self-sufficiency, it's not as if this critter's appetite is putting my mortgage at risk. My kids won't go hungry if they can't eat a backyard peach. They may have to eat fruit that isn't as healthy or as tasty or as carbon-friendly, but they won't starve. As long as this guy leaves us a few, we'll still get to taste the fruits of our efforts, and that's what really matters. We have the luxury, here in the backyard, of sharing the bounty.
Sharing, however, is apparently an alien concept in squirrel society. These are territorial animals, and they're hoarders, too. The whole point of their fall madness is to keep as much of the bounty for themselves alone. They'd rather let an acorn rot in the dirt than see somebody else pop it into their mouth. And for some reason, something that has to do with expecting just a hint, just a tiny shred of interspecies appreciation and respect, I can't let the squirrel have his way.
I come home, and the deed is done. The peach tree, once loaded with too many fruit, is now barren. Half-gnawed fruit litter the ground at the base of the tree, fruit he could've left for us, wasted.
And now the scoundrel has started on the nectarines.
I can see where he lives, in a clot of dead leaves between the branches of an oak on the other side of my neighbor's garage. That's where he goes to hide when I appear in the yard. He's sneaky. He skulks. He perches in our crepe myrtle and watches as we load kids into car seats, and once he sees the car roll backwards into the street, he hops purposefully across the grass and bounds into the fruit trees.
I know this because I've spied on him, too. There's a small window near the hot water heater in an alcove of our house, and there, if you happened by our backyard, you might see a face pinched with consternation, the look of a backyard farmer whose harvest is being ransacked right before his eyes. Somehow I don't think this is what Aldo Leopold had in mind when he extolled the virtues of watching rather than shooting wildlife as a pastime.
I buy black mesh and wind it in a shroud around the nectarine. When I'm done, the tree that once was so frilly and elegant looks like it might detonate if touched. There's no way he's getting in there now, I think, having spent half an hour just trying to untangle one of my shirt buttons from the strands.
The strawberries are ripening, and the cardinals are taking more than their share, slashing Zorro-like marks across the fruit. They watch the fruit's progress even more jealously than I do: as soon as a blueberry shows a tinge of pigment, they snatch it. There's a single plumcot turning a deep sapphire on the bough, a handful of raspberries are coming along, and the smattering of early figs are beginning to swell. If I want to taste any of this, it seems, I'm going to have to drape half the yard in mesh.
Either I'm providing food for wildlife, as I said I was going to do, or I'm trying to feed myself.
Which is it? Being the first certified property in the neighborhood isn't making things easier. As it stands, the trees in my yard are the only fruit-bearers around, and the scale of my yard is too small to provide some trees for humans and others for wildlife. Maybe if we began to think in terms of planting fruit trees for wildlife on a citywide basis, if "summer-ripening food source" was added to the list of criteria that makes for a good urban tree, then maybe our yard wouldn't be the only pick-your-own place in town. It's not hard to imagine, actually, a street in which the towering oaks with their plenitude of acorns alternate with stretches of plum and peach, cherry and apple. It's not hard to imagine an understory planted with fruit-bearing bushes, like the rabbiteye blueberries, native to the South, that the birds are plundering in my backyard. With more options, maybe we frugivores could all get along.
And then there was one. One last nectarine tucked under a canopy of drooping leaves. Not the biggest or prettiest of the bunch, but still hanging in there. I inspect this fruit before we head to a birthday party, feeling its weight through the multiple layers of nylon strands. Not ripe enough to pick yet. I drape a few more layers over it, until it looks like a grenade. I feel as if I'm being watched.
As we back out of the driveway I deliver an ultimatum: if I come back and that fruit is gone, I swear there will be consequences. Under my breath, of course, so I don't look too much like the characters we won't let the kids watch on television.
When we get back in the evening, the tree is stripped bare. Some of the branches are snapped, and there are tufts of wilting leaves festooning the mesh, as though it had been a real struggle to finagle that final fruit.
I'm feeling murderous. Not one? Not one left for us, for the people who planted and watered this tree? I've already had slingshot fantasies, even imagined myself smashing the guilty party with a broom and then clubbing him to a pulp.
In the woods, squirrels are fair game for hunters, who still harvest quite a few for the stew pot, especially in the South. In the city, however, nobody I know eats squirrel. Or rabbit. Or possum. Or pigeon. In England, gray squirrels have been poisoned and trapped to clear space for the reintroduction of red squirrels. Some of my home- owner friends have confessed their anti-squirrel strategies to me, like filling a garbage pail a third of the way with water, with a board as a ramp and a sprinkling of floating bird seed as an incentive to take the fatal plunge. Or just a good dog--one friend tells me that from time to time she'll find her otherwise benign golden retriever sitting out in the yard with a long bushy tail hanging out of its grinning lips like the end of a furry hookah.
Is this what the dream of coexistence is going to wind up looking like, bloodlust and vengeance swaddled in the backyard version of concertina wire? There has to be another way, but I don't know what it is, or at least, I don't know of a technique that sounds feasible. When I speak with Cindy Machado, director of animal services with the Marin Humane Society in California, she suggests ringing each tree in a cylinder of steel flashing. The steel would need to be at least four feet high, so that the squirrels couldn't take a flying leap over the top. But my trees split into branches at two feet--if I wanted to enclose them in steel, they'd look like missile silos.
I'm actually standing in the produce aisle of the supermarket when it hits me with a jolt of applied anthropomorphism: this is what it's really like to be part of nature. Not the fantasy of symbiosis and mutual aid, not the backyard Eden where lions lie down with lambs, but something far closer to actual participation in the local ecology, far closer to the food chain. To participate in the natural world is to find yourself jostled and threatened, your belongings usurped, your blood turned into food. You get a taste of this reality and it's astringent, not soporifically sweet. You begin to recognize that this participation ends with your body being devoured--there's a reason for the urgency of spring. To be part of it means looking over your shoulder for competitors, not tending and musing like some detached, beneficent god. There are friends and enemies, victims and victors, various hierarchies of dominance and strategies of subversion, all in addition to the symbiotic and sympatric, the nurturing, the gift exchange. It's a lot more dramatic and complex and interesting, as well as infuriating and spiritually unsatisfying. I crave harmony, a vision of an ideal world. I get irony and drama instead.
I'm actually glad the battle's over, at least for this season. Yes, I'm going to have to eat those balls of West Coast sawdust, and they're going to taste even less like nectar because of the ones I never tasted. But there's always next year.
Photo of James Barilla by Nicola Waldron