by Daniel E. Walsh Author of Our Sunday "History & Reflections" Series
Creatures clash in a dark world of terror and a planet’s fate hangs in the balance. Beasts of prey feast on each other in an ascending order of dominance. They swoop in under the cover of darkness and swiftly smite sleeping targets, slake blood thirst and gorge on quivering flesh. Uncomfortable alliances are formed and the battle rages on. The caterwauling sturm und drang rises in a fierce crescendo as various species strive to survive in a world shifting and undefined. Can’t you hear the Wagner? Pass the popcorn. Is this the latest Hollywood blockbuster? No, dude – it’s your backyard.
With dramatic flourish, intriguing story telling, and an edgy wit, Hannah Holmes describes the world under our feet in her 2005 book, Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn. Holmes hails from South Portland, Maine. The title seems to echo The Beach Boys tune, Surfin’ Safari. That song celebrates adventurers who ride the crest of waves produced by powerful natural forces. Holmes’s shows hapless humans whose very footsteps on their green oceans crush lower denizens and cause great upheaval in silent worlds.
The author befriends a series of backyard creatures. One in particular, Cheeky, a chipmunk to whom the book is dedicated, becomes entwined in her life and is a major character in the book. She observes closely what had formerly appeared to her as harmless play and learns in detail the life and death struggle that many of the animals endure. The sweet warbling of birds to ears now aware become cries of desperation and battle. She is very sensitive and respectful of the creatures, but is also frank in her portrayals; they are not all presented as innocent furry friends. She saves a special disregard for the English sparrow, a major nuisance in the small world of the backyard. Her fairly intimate relationship with Cheeky is artfully woven throughout.
She writes about her Freedom Lawn, which is basically an assortment of wildflowers that she keeps trimmed. Tangentially, she explores the various medicinal properties of the plants and their history and origins. The indigenous Iroquois people seemed to have a use for each variety including some brought over from the Old World onto which they quickly glommed. The disparaging term ‘grass farmers’ is used to describe fellow urbanites who carefully tend to their lawns -- an example of Holmes’ wit.
Dogs, cats, and trees common to the suburban landscape are traced to their origins. Intriguing facts are illustrated. We learn that some of the tallest forest is in town because they are not routinely harvested for wood. The height of the trees attracts the crows that move the seeds through their larcenous activity.
The scope of this book is breathtaking, and Ms. Holmes’ absolute command of the various scientific disciplines is equally impressive. The research for this book must have been exhaustive. Archaeology, anthropology, entomology, and horticulture are handled in a facile readable manner. She easily glides numerous scientific experts in and out of the story.
That a small tract of New England backyard could engender such a tale is stunning. This world, turgid with its interspecies struggles, provides upon a closer view a dramatic tale to rival the best of moviedom. This book is perfect for the novice who wants to learn a little about the environment, the expert who appreciates and comprehends its more complex aspects, the wag who gets the wry asides, or anybody who enjoys a flat out well-written tale.
A few years back, I had a grudgingly fond acquaintance with a chipmunk. Well, I thought he was a chipmunk; he may have been a gopher. I named my buddy Chippy. I had a basement apartment that opened to a heavily wooded backyard. Chippy must have nested near the patio, because he always seemed to flick by when I used the door. I never fed him or invited him in but grew to look forward to his brief appearances. I learned that he really enjoyed the scent of peppercorns. Unfortunately, this knowledge came with abrupt demise of the poor creature.
One night, I carted out my overfilled box of recycling and an empty peppercorn plastic container fell to the ground unbeknownst to me. I guess Chippy gnawed through the plastic to get to the peppercorn and the plastic killed him. I was crushed when I found the little guy’s stiffened body on the patio. I pledged to be more careful in the future. Other types of plastic such as six-pack rings wreak havoc in the natural world – often in an oblivious fashion like my own.