Sunday, November 9, 2014

Bird Yard #7

Our yard was bird yard #7 in Pennsylvania for October, 2014.

Not impressed?

Let me explain.

We live on a half-acre lot in a suburban neighborhood, minutes from several major highways and a regional mall.

When we moved here, almost twenty years ago, it was the first single-family home my husband Whitney and I had owned, the first I’d lived in since I was 13.

We’d been living in townhouses for over two decades, first in the city, then a planned community, so we had lots of ideas about what to do with a yard.

One of mine was to attract birds.

I put out a bird feeder, and no birds came.


I’d watch squirrels race around on the mismatched fences that edged the backyard, but rarely saw them set foot on the grass. We lived in a dead zone: no birds, no squirrels, no butterflies or lightening bugs.

The previous owners had tried to grow lawn all the way to the back fence, despite a grove of locust trees, a big white pine, a basswood, a maple. And they’d apparently used plenty of chemicals to help the cause along.

We turned the back third of the yard into a shade garden, stopped using chemicals, watched for the birds.

A few robins appeared. Some blue jays.

A few years ago I read Bringing Nature Home, a treatise on using native plants by entomologist Doug Tallamy, and started trying to understand how natural environments work. Leaf litter feeds bugs and soil, fallen trees provide winter cover for insects, berrying shrubs offer winter food, well-constructed twig piles offer nesting sites places for butterflies to hide cocoons. A great blog by some local gardeners, Backyards for Nature, confirmed and expanded what I was learning. 

Since then, I’ve let bird and squirrel-planted seedlings grow, collected baby plants from the woodlots of friends, frequented native plant sales at places like Jenkins Arboretum, consulted with the owner of Redbud Nursery, a small local business crammed with plants essential to birds and bugs of the mid-Atlantic region. 

And I’ve worked to learn more about birds: what they eat, where they like to hide.

Bluebirds, for instance. They like bluebird boxes that face east, preferably facing open space. But in the winter, they’d rather have a deep hole in a tree, somewhere high and not facing the wind. They don’t like birdfeeders, but a pile of crumbled suet on an old stump will make them happy on a wintry day.

Carolina wrens like piles of sticks, the looser the better, and suet with seeds.

House wrens like houses. The more the better.

Nuthatches like dead trees, and safflower seed.

So: bird yard #7. There’s a website called ebird, run by the Cornell University Department of Ornithology. The idea is to crowd-source study of bird behavior. Bird watchers record what they see, the data is collected, then information shared about migration patterns, population trends, local sightings of unexpected birds. The site lists top birders by county, state, country, but also has a feature listing top yards according to number of species seen.

In 2009 I started keeping track of birds seen in my yard. That year, there were 36 species.

The number jumped to 60 in 2012. Part of the shift was my improved ability to identify birds. But part was better bird habitat as new plantings grew and began to bear fruit.

This year, so far, the number is 83, with two months yet to go. And in October alone, my best month ever, I saw 50 species of birds in the yard, 7th best bird yard in Pennsylvania. (You’ll have to take my word for it – on the first of each month, the count starts over, and the stats for the last month disappear).

My yard will never be first – for that I’d need a yard with a pond, or a wetland, maybe a field or two. 

For a suburban half-acre, 7th is an honor.

Writer and farmer Wendell Berry has written of the task of making the abstract particular: it’s not enough to say we care for the earth if we don’t have a specific corner we tend; it doesn’t work to advocate for children if there are no particular children we’re helping to thrive.  In essays like “Think Little,” published in the Whole Earth Catalog in 1969, or The Agrarian Standard, published in Orion in 2002, or his speech in Washington, DC in 2012Berry has insisted that many problems our nation faces are a result of “thinking big”: looking for grand solutions, trusting in large-scale corrections. For half a century, Berry has been lamenting our industrialized, machine-driven, one-size-fits-all world that flattens landscapes, levels communities, drives people into cities, a world dominated by "The Way of Industrialization":“Big Ideas, Big Money, and Big Technology.”

In opposition to that, he celebrates small, particular, intricately connected. He describes the kind of stewardship deeply rooted in 
the commonplaces of the Bible . . . the admonitions that the world was made and approved by God, that it belongs to Him, and that its good things come to us from Him as gifts. Beyond those ideas is the idea that the whole Creation exists only by participating in the life of God, sharing in His being, breathing His breath. “The world,” Gerard Manley Hopkins said, “is charged with the grandeur of God.” Some such thoughts would have been familiar to most people during most of human history. They seem strange to us, and what has estranged us from them is our economy. The industrial economy could not have been derived from such thoughts any more than it could have been derived from the golden rule. 
There are things I can't change. Not alone. Not soon.

I can vote (and did).

I can boycott (and do). 

I confess, I want big solutions: fair wages for workers here and elsewhere, happy homes for children near and far, just laws, honest legislators, clean air and water, safe food.

I’ve been reading Andy Crouch’s Playing God: Redeeming theGift of Power, and it occurs to me that Wendell Berry’s deep concern about big ideas and industrialized solutions has a great deal to do with the misuse of power.

Power can be used to make things happen in a way that benefits the one in power.

Or power can be used to make people and communies thrive.

In a response to the Nietzschean will to power that sees life as a zero-sum battle for more, Crouch offers this vision: 
All true being strives to create room for more being and to expend its power in the creation of flourishing environments for variety and life, and to thrust back the chaos that limits true being. In doing so it creates other bodies and invites them into mutual creation and tending of the world, building relationships where there had been none: thus they then cooperate together in creating more power for more creation. And the process goes on. 
I’ve been playing God in my yard: tending my garden, pushing back chaos, trying to create a flourishing environment full of variety and life..

So here’s what I puzzle over, while I'm tending my seedlings, or weeding my moss path:

How do I use my small sphere of power to create room for more?

More birds, more bees, more butterflies.

But also – More contentment. More integrity. More patience. More beauty.

And how do I take what I learn in my yard, and apply it in other ways?

How do I dream big, while thinking little?

This isn't the first post about life in my yard. Here are a few others:
Generative Grace, October 13, 2013  Imagining Wholeness, September 29, 2013  Consider the Sparrows, April 6, 2014
As always, your thoughts and comments are welcome. Just click on   __comments below to see the comment option.