A few years ago we redesigned our backyard to be more wildlife-friendly. An important component of this was the use of plants that are native to our area in southern New Jersey. We also use only compost or organic fertilizers in the garden and, despite having fruit trees, use no pesticides. Letting things come into balance appears to work just fine. The addition of nest boxes, bird feeders and a year-round supply of water has allowed us to become a certified backyard habitat.
The native plants, inter-mixed with some non-natives such as butterfly bush, provide shelter and food sources for wildlife. Seed pods of a number of plants (such as the Crape Myrtle illustrated) provide Fall and Winter food for birds. Berries on hollies and other trees and shrubs provide additional food sources.
Our backyard has become a much more interesting place to view wildlife. In fact, many of my wildlife images are captured in this suburban New Jersey backyard. There is usually a lot going on. Some of my most interesting finds result when I look more closely at what is happening in odd corners of the garden. For example, the robber fly I discovered clinging to a bird feeder pole which, on closer inspection, was clutching an ant. Or the serendipitous find of a recently molted cicada.
Pursuing photography has, I believe, sharpened my attention to detail. Much of this is the result of training oneself to see what is often in plain sight but missed by the untrained eye. Yet while there is a great deal that is visible to the human eye many of the important processes in nature go on at the very small and microscopic scale. Much of my recent reading has been focused on understanding more about these important processes.
A fascinating book about the vast array of critically important biological activity going on in soil is the aptly named Life in the Soil, A Guide for Naturalists and Gardeners by James B. Nardi. One description of the book states:
"In one square meter of earth, there lives trillions of bacteria, millions of nematodes, hundreds of thousands of mites, thousands of insects and worms, and hundreds of snails and slugs. But because of their location and size, many of these creatures are as unfamiliar and bizarre to us as anything found at the bottom of the ocean."
What is visible in a healthy environment is only a fraction of what is there. More importantly, it is the viability of that diverse soil ecology that determines the health of the garden or ecosystem above.
The Trees In My Forest, by Bernd Heinrich is his memoir of owning a 300-acre forest in Vermont and his attempt to manage it in a way that recreates a healthy forest ecosystem. Along the way he shares a wealth of information about the life of trees, symbiotic relationships, and the effects of weather and time on the life of the forest. Heinrich has also written a number of other informative books about birds and nature that are worthy of attention.
The Forest Unseen, by David George Haskell, examines a small, one meter wide, patch of forest floor throughout the course of an entire year. This is a book I would strongly recommend for those wanting an introduction to ecology, presented in a readable and entertaining manner. And, through the mindful examination of the author, we also learn to see and learn about what is so often overlooked. This is certainly one of the best books on nature that I have read.
'Knowledge is power,' so the saying goes. Just as important is the ability to observe. An informed mind is better prepared to see more of what is there. I hope these books and this blog post will inspire you to go out and take another look.
Life In The Soil, A Guide For Naturalists and Gardeners, James B. Nardi, University of Chicago Press, 2007
The Trees In My Forest, Bernd Heinrich, Ecco, 1998
The Forest Unseen, A Year's Watch in Nature, David George Haskell, Penguin Books, 2013.