My Backyard Jungle

The adventures of an urban wildlife lover who turned his yard into habitat and learned to live with it.

All photos by James Barilla.

This story starts with a move. Actually, yet another move, from the woodsy shores of Lake Michigan to the capital city of South Carolina. This after a sizable sojourn in the redwood country of Northern California and, before that, a stint of several winters in Vermont. My wife, Nicola, is English, and we began our connubial life as renters in a damp Yorkshire city. We’ve always been renters. Our new place, a brick house in a leafy neighborhood of Columbia, South Carolina, is the first place with our names on the deed, a fact that has a certain heft to it, as if this document comes not with strings attached but with roots, the delicate white tendrils that sprout from a cutting in a windowsill jar, waiting to take hold.

Rentals always have a temporary air about them, a sense that there’s no point in planting anything out back because you won’t be around to see it bloom. This house feels different. We could create something here. And I have a long list of things I want to create. I want to taste the fruit of a garden I had tended — that’s one fantasy, creating a little patch of pastoral bliss back there. I dream of creating habitat for wildlife out there, too, a miniature wilderness in our own backyard. I want our yard to be the kind of place where my kids can catch grasshoppers by day and fireflies at night, where they can dig up potatoes and pick strawberries. The yard I imagine will be interesting and alive.

What I really want, I suppose, is to feel as if I have some small way of pushing back the tide of bad news that seems to arrive every day: the menace of a changing climate, bats dropping dead in their caves, frogs dying, coral reefs disappearing. I’ve got two little kids — I’m not interested in apocalypse. I want a different story. I want to learn how to coexist with other species, to be able to look out the window and see at least the glimmer of an alternative to extinction. In the parlance of those who study this kind of thing, I have become a stakeholder. 1

After the moving truck departs from the curb, leaving us with two children under the age of three and boxes stacked to the ceiling in every room, the extent of our dislocation begins to sink in. You can imagine the scene: two brand-new homeowners standing in the front lawn with the kids clamped tight, looking around as if for the first time. They take in the sidewalk that looks like pita bread baking in the noonday sun. They see a palm tree slouching in the distance, hear the cicada trill rising to a fiendish crescendo overhead. You can see them thinking, Where on earth are we? What on earth have we done?

Maybe that’s what inspires me to certify our backyard as wildlife habitat: the idea that creating habitat can help us feel at home, as if we belong in this ecological community about which we know so little. Creating habitat in the backyard means learning where wildlife likes to live and forage, which in turn means understanding the climate, the soil, the interplay of sun and shade. I’m thinking there will be books to read and stones to turn over and holes to dig, plants to nurture and uproot, a mix of field research, grunt work, and serendipity. It sounds like the kind of project I’ve been hankering after for years.

There’s more to the appeal of certifying the yard than learning alone, however. You can create all the habitat you want in your yard, but only certification comes with a laminated aluminum sign. It’s about a foot tall — big enough to be seen and read from the sidewalk. And it looks official, like the kind you’d find at the gates of a nature preserve. As the National Wildlife Federation’s website describes it, “This easy-to-read sign will help neighbors (and wildlife!) easily recognize your yard as wildlife-friendly.” That’s exactly what we want: recognition. We want to be recognized as friendly folk. And we certainly don’t want people to mistakenly identify us as the new people from out of town who never mow the lawn. It’s wildlife habitat, not laziness! The sign will let everyone know we want to be good neighbors — not just with the people next door but with the local fauna, too.

Okay, so as a new homeowner maybe I’m a tad naive. It comes with the territory.

To get the sign, you have to have some knowledge about what’s going on outside your house, but unlike some of the other environmental certification processes you might undertake for your dwelling, like trying to achieve a gold or platinum rating according to the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design ratings system, the bar isn’t that high. To certify your house according to LEED requirements, you need a professional to inspect it and take you through multiple multilayered checklists. Backyard certification, on the other hand, is designed to encourage do-it-yourself newbies like me. You answer questions online, checking a minimum number of items off a list. It’s a bit like filling out a census form, only easier. Do you have at least two kinds of food sources out back? Check. Do you have at least one water source, like a birdbath? Check. Places to find cover? Check. Places to raise young? Check. Over a hundred and fifty thousand people have passed the test since the National Wildlife Federation began offering it in the mid-1970s, and their numbers have accelerated since the checklist went online in 2005, according to David Mizejewski, who ran the program for seven years and hosted a backyard habitat show on Animal Planet from 2005 to 2008.

Then comes a series of questions about sustainable gardening practices, which I find more challenging to answer. The first asks which techniques I use to help conserve resources — do I have a “riparian buffer” near a waterway, for example, or a rain garden? No, and no. I have a wide swath of dried-up dead grass, which probably doesn’t make the grade as “xeriscaping.” Fortunately, “Limit water use” and “Use mulch” are two of the possible responses here, so I scrape by.

One of my other options here isn’t so much technically challenging as it is unsettling. If I don’t have enough soil and water conservation going on, and I’m not doing enough in the composting department, I can still opt to certify my wildlife habitat by “Controlling Invasive Species.” I might use native plants or reduce the size of my lawn. Or I can pass the test by removing non-native plants and animals — killing things off, essentially.

I leave that part blank.

Unlike the LEED certification process or the certification process for an organic farm, nobody is coming to inspect the quality of your habitat. Pay up and you’re done — it could take less than ten minutes to complete the process. But for a backyard greenhorn like me, living in an unfamiliar landscape, the questions about my yard are at first unanswerable and then profound. Do we actually make habitat or just put away the tools and leave the yard alone? Should we restrict the guest list to native species or try to optimize diversity by bringing in as many species as we can? What if the new residents don’t behave like model citizens? What if they sting or bite?

It could take months or even years to answer these questions. The backyard, it turns out, is a microcosm of all our fantasies and fears, all the rewards and tribulations of life with other species.

Let me begin with an inventory. That’s where I begin as summer turns to fall, by thinking about what the before photo is going to look like in the before-and-after comparison of our yard. When it comes to faces, the before photo is supposed to look lumpy and haggard, pockmarked, worse-for-wear. That’s a pretty good approximation of the appearance of our yard. After all, the previous owners appear to have used it as a parking lot for extra cars, boats, and rolling garbage bins. Rather than mow the encroaching weeds, they blasted the edges of the lawn with herbicide, leaving a broad swath of shriveled ivy tendrils around the perimeter of the property. Our tenure here begins with last year’s exfoliated leaves, big blotches of bare dirt, and the wispy stubble of unwatered grass, an ugly portrait indeed.

But wildlife, as it turns out, doesn’t give a hoot about our aesthetics. They’re not going to turn up their noses because the lawn isn’t manicured or the bushes haven’t been clipped or the leaves haven’t been blown into a tidy pile. In fact, they like it when things are unkempt and neglected — that’s habitat as far as they’re concerned. 2 Once I start looking closely at the ugliness, what I see is all kinds of life.

We have lots of what are known as urban adapters, creatures that can live with us but can also live in the woods outside of town. We have barred owls ululating in pairs outside the bedroom window at night; they like to perch in the boughs of a hackberry snag in our front yard and startle us with their eerie cries. We have Cooper’s hawks discarding their mockingbird drumsticks on the driveway under a trio of tall pines. We have skinks, both the adults whose orange heads look like smashed pumpkins and the youngsters with glowing blue ribbons of tail, and skinny-as-a-twig anoles and nocturnal toads and even legless lizards, which I discovered when I inadvertently dug one up by the side of the house while making space for a vegetable garden. We have shrews and cottontails, and I’ve seen a single small bat fluttering through the canopy at dusk.

We have wrens, hummingbirds, cardinals, mockingbirds, juncos, titmice, chickadees, brown thrashers, and the occasional sudden seething mob of waxwings. Warblers and flycatchers glean the boughs on their southern migration. Mourning doves tiptoe across the brick patio. We have several kinds of woodpecker and the occasional nuthatch and creeper. We have blue jays. Turkey vultures vector overhead, and a clan of Mississippi kites likes to perch on the highest treetops after a thunderstorm and stretch out their platinum wings to dry — they look like the hood ornaments of expensive sedans. We’ve seen a red-tailed hawk pluck a squirrel from a branch in the park.

We have monarchs and sulfurs and swallowtails and gulf fritillaries and sphinx moths and azalea caterpillar moths, which are really just a few pretty faces in the invertebrate crowd. We have multitudes of “palmetto bugs,” also known as cockroaches, which are gigantic but fortunately seem to prefer the outdoors. At night, if you shine a headlamp across the yard, a galaxy of tiny stars glitters back — the eyes of wolf spiders on the prowl.

And we have squirrels. Lots and lots of squirrels

We do not have deer or coyotes as far as I know, and I have not had visual confirmation of a rat or a raccoon or a skunk or a possum. We’ve seen no venomous snakes, although the big-box home improvement store does stock an impressive array of snake repellents. Strangely enough, I have yet to see a mouse or a vole, never found their dot matrix signature on the stovetop in the morning. We do have termites that will perforate the soil under a log. No chiggers, no ticks, but swarms of tiny mosquitoes that breed in “keyholes,” fetid pools of rainwater high up in the trees. We do not have gray foxes, although I saw one trotting into a yard on the other side of a busy road one evening. There’s a seven-acre arboretum over there, which is where the fox was headed. I’m told she died, along with her litter of kits, of distemper. I haven’t seen any more foxes.

I know there are more critters out there, especially when it comes to invertebrates. There’s more coming and going and sprouting and buzzing around our plot than I’d ever be able to name. To be honest, as this list accumulates over the first few months of our occupancy it becomes a little intimidating, and surprising, too, given that I’d been expecting something about as rich in biodiversity as the inside of a volcano. Reading journal articles about urbanization is like watching a bulldozer belch smoke: most warn that cities are basically wastelands where the life of the planet has been sawed down, plowed up, and hauled away in a dumpster, leaving only a handful of unsavory survivors behind. “Urbanization is one of the leading causes of species extinction,” declares the first line of an oft-cited article by Michael McKinney, professor of evolutionary biology and environmental science at the University of Tennessee, which may be true of new development but seems to run contrary to the richness I discover everywhere I look. 3 I find myself wondering how cities can be engines of death and despair, and yet be such rich and diverse habitat at the same time. Are we talking about the same cities? Are we talking about urbanization as it currently exists or as it could be? Might we find a different version of this story in the untapped potential of our own backyards?

In our neck of the woods, the damage was done at least a generation ago. Our neighborhood has had 80 years to develop into an urban forest, and the habitat has come back vertically, rising up in colonnades and then sprawling out over our dwellings in a dense canopy of evergreen hardwoods and lofty pines. Our yard is bounded by a trio of massive oaks that qualify as “grand trees” under the city landscape ordinance, which protects all trees whose girth is greater than twenty-four inches at breast height. I’m no expert on southern oaks, but two of the surrounding giants appear to have the jagged leaves of red oak, and there’s also what I’d guess is a sizable laurel oak. A live oak sprawls its almost horizontal limbs across the street, and what appears to be a water oak is pushing for daylight in the shadow of these giants. There’s an understory, too, cherry laurel and privet and what is called cedar even though it looks like juniper to me, and even a variety of palm trees, a tropical flourish. Arboreal life moves through this system with electric speed, like a signal through the dendritic matter of the mind.

Editors' Note

“My Backyard Jungle” is excerpted from the book of the same title, published this week by Yale University Press. It appears here with the permission of the author and publisher.

  1. Nancy Gift, A Weed by Any Other Name: The Virtues of a Messy Lawn, or Learning to Love the Plants We Didn’t Plant (Boston: Beacon, 2009), 81–82.
  2. McKinney, “Urbanization as a Major Cause of Biotic Homogenization,” Biological Conservation 127 (2006), 247.
James Barilla, “My Backyard Jungle,” Places Journal, March 2013. Accessed 03 Oct 2023.

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Past Discussions View
  • 04.03.2013 at 15:27

    Great Essay!! the picture with the mail box is brilliant!

  • 01.24.2014 at 03:06

    After reading this essay I'm encouraged to start a backyard jungle of mine.

    A fellow treehugger.