A Conversation with James Barilla on His Backyard Jungle
Ever consider getting a more exotic pet or plant than a dog or a rubber tree? James Barilla did. Author of My Backyard Jungle: The Adventures of an Urban Wildlife Lover Who Turned His Yard into Habitat and Learned to Live with It, Barilla turned his backyard in Columbia, South Carolina, into a National Wildlife Federation-certified wildlife habitat. The experience of learning to cohabit with wild species inspired him to find out how other cultures and societies manage to live alongside their animal neighbors. Barilla spoke to us about his experiment in zoological living.
Yale University Press: What have been the most enjoyable and least enjoyable aspects of watching your yard “go wild”?
James Barilla: The most enjoyable aspect has been seeing new plants and creatures find their way into our yard—that feels like validation. Probably the least enjoyable aspect has been having creatures show up that we struggle to live with—right now, there are two yellow-jacket nests flourishing in our front yard by the sidewalk, and I have to figure out what to do about them.
YUP: In your expeditions and trips, you investigated tensions between humans and animals in many different contexts. What was the greatest surprise to you?
JB: What surprised me most was the degree to which people in Delhi were willing to put up with the bad behavior of the monkeys living in the city. These are animals that have learned to invade homes and are potentially violent toward people. Yet the people there tolerate a degree of menace and inconvenience that I find hard to imagine at home.
YUP: Stepping back from your yard and its specifics, what are the larger “lessons” you hope readers will take away from reading My Backyard Jungle?
JB: We can think of habitat far more broadly. A surprising number of creatures can inhabit what we tend to think of as inhospitable landscapes, the city being a prime example. The question is whether we can figure out ways to live with them. That ongoing process of learning to live with other species is hopeful, I think.
James Barilla is an 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. He lives in Columbia, SC.