Rabbits, Rhubarb, Raccoons, Oh My! My Very Own Backyard Jungle

My Backyard JungleThanks to the insight of James Barilla’s new book, My Backyard Jungle: The Adventures of an Urban Wildlife Lover Who Turned His Yard into Habitat and Learned with It, we at Yale University Press are sharing stories of our own backyards and the specially hidden, and often overlooked, secrets contained in each. To come along and share your own stories with us, follow My Backyard Jungle on Facebook or visit the My Backyard Jungle website .

Cara Borelli—

One of the best aspects of my childhood home in Western Massachusetts is the lush, well-sized backyard, stretching back towards a thick forest; though it wasn’t large, it shielded us from any other neighbors or houses. Every morning while brushing my teeth, I eventually find myself at the bathroom window, gazing out over the backyard, whether it’s full of life and fluffy green leaves, or blanketed in snow patterns with the crossing tracks of various animals. I start by looking past the deck to the small brook bubbling all the way into the woods beyond, over the shed nestled amongst the trees lined by blueberry bushes and rhubarb leaves. Around the central island of trees standing tall, back to the patio, fire pit and eventually the deck, where the process begins again, most likely causing me to brush my teeth far longer than is normally recommended. Throughout the day, I can often find another member of my family simply admiring our small slice of paradise as well, soaking up its splendor.

From James Barilla’s Backyard Jungle: Bees in My Bonnet: Beekeeper’s clothing is typically white because bees are known to respond negatively to dark clothing, which may remind them of a furry predator.

While the backyard is definitely a place of beauty and solitude, it was also once a place of great adventure. As a child, my brother and I, and any number of neighborhood kids would venture out into the woods beyond, discovering all sorts of hidden treasures; like a huge fallen tree or an entire deer skeleton lying by the brook. Or on a particularly exciting day, another group of children from the other side of the woods waving a Canadian flag and defending their territory with pellets of mud. Forts were built and “landmarks” were established. Dinosaur bones were dug for in the old garden. It was a great place to be a kid, imagining all sorts of adventures.

In addition to beauty and adventure, the backyard also provides some interesting wildlife, which seems to have gotten a bit wilder in recent years. We have the usual rabbits, foxes, raccoons, squirrels, groundhogs, hawks and birds common to our region.  Many deer with spotted fawns and the occasional antlered stag have traveled through the yard, feasting on any attempts at a garden and chomping off the heads of tulips, leaving only a line a slender stems. Often a brood of fifteen or so wild turkeys will meander through the yard, nibbling at this and that. Many a time I was prevented from recoiling the garden hose because a family of snakes, mom and babies both, would slither out from the rocks, causing me to promptly drop the hose and run in the other direction. Recently we have been host to a few more “wild” encounters, such as a mountain lion sauntering through the yard, and a reported bear sighting from the neighbors.

Fall Crops at Red Hook Community Farm: Urban honeybees thrive under the care of Tim O’Neal at the Added Value Red Hook Community Farm in Brooklyn. Because this urban farm was once a parking lot and baseball field, most of the crops have been planted in a layer of soil on top of asphalt.

One memory in particular though will always stick with me, marking the beginning of the backyard’s approach to more “wild” times. It brings to mind some of James Barilla’s own encounters from My Backyard Jungle with the wildlife in his yard. In particular, the initial fear brought on by “the night visitor,” a pesky rodent heard rummaging between the walls of his house. A coyote spotting one day, a deer leg found in the front yard another, and things were getting a bit out of the ordinary. After dinner one night a strange yelling noise started coming from the woods, getting louder and louder. We gathered at the screen door leading to the deck trying to figure out what was causing it. A few moments later a few feet from the deck a young deer emerged from the woods, falling to the grass, bleating that awful noise. My first thoughts were grim. Coyote plus deer leg plus small struggling panicked deer could not equal anything good. The deer continued to stumble, and when it finally found its footing, decided to oddly start heading towards my father who was out on the deck. My father quickly ran inside replacing the screen door with the glass one, while the deer continued to come closer, beseeching us through the glass panes. From this close we could clearly see that the young deer was in no physical harm, but simply terrified, and staring at us like it expected us to help. After continuing to advance even closer still, the deer suddenly stopped, turned around and bounded through the yard and into the woods, lost from sight. After several minutes of bewilderment, we concluded that the young deer must have gotten separated from its mother and the rest of its herd, bringing about the panicked bleats and behavior. While this event turned out to be not very serious, it still remains one of my odder encounters with the other inhabitants of our backyard.

Barilla Wildlife Habitat Sign

In the end, my backyard provides a nice balance of features. We get our own private sanctuary without being miles from civilization. We get a taste of wild animals without anything really threatening being the norm. We have to upkeep the yard but can let the woods beyond be naturally wild. We can go on great adventures and still be home in time for dinner. While my backyard jungle has been more “backyard” than “jungle,” it has still been host to some exciting events and has always provided a taste of all that Mother Nature has to offer.

Cara Borelli is a Yale University Press intern who recently graduated from the University of Connecticut with a degree in Communication Design. She now really misses her backyard.

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