Welcome to Day 3 of 31 Days of A Sense of Place. This project is a bit like Wallace Stevens’ poem Thirteen Ways of Looking At A Blackbird, in that I’m writing about a sense of place from vantage points that may not obviously connect with each other. I’m not going to attempt to tie them together. In the end, these 31 days of looking at a sense of place may overlap, contradict, form a whole, or collapse like a flan in a cupboard, as Eddie Izzard would say. That remains to be seen.
I took an adult ed class this past spring on exploring natural landscapes and natural communities, for which an optional assignment was listing all the species seen in our yards. All the flora, all the fauna, all the fungi, the mollusks (slugs and snails), everything. It’s a bit of a Herculean task that I am still undertaking.
What I am learning while doing this:
- Taking photos of what’s in your yard — every day, every plant, every insect, every bird you can catch holding still at all — is a very good aid to the memory. I was thrilled one day this summer (26 July to be exact) to spot a female scarlet tanager, a juvenile rose-breasted grosbeak, and a yellow warbler in the yard in the space of an hour; but I could not have identified the first two nor remembered any of them tonight if I didn’t have photos to post on bird ID forums (or compare with guide book images) and to remind me later of their names. All the more true for me with insects.
- Speaking of which, there are more types of insects in the yard than I ever imagined. And every month, I see bugs I’ve never noticed before in my six years here. Just when I think I know what’s here, something new visits. Or maybe it was here all the time.
- Winter is the best time to spot birds, when leaves are off trees and unusual birds come to the winter bird feeder. Even here in northern New England, we have quite a variety in winter.
- Though birds are commonly active in the early morning, it’s been surprising to me how active they can be at what I would call random times, like in the mid-afternoon of a summer day, especially before a storm (OK, maybe not so random). I’ll be sitting on the patio reading, listening with one ear to grasshoppers or crickets, maybe a catbird, but not much birdsong, when all of a sudden one species appears at the birdbath, then another along the back fence, more flitting among the apple and dogwood trees, another rat-a-tatting in the tall trees, until in the space of 20 minutes I’m watching and hearing robins, blue jays, chickadees, phoebes, warblers, and woodpeckers … and then just as suddenly, they all fly off. Last week, there was a commotion of squealing and squeaking in the back strip, beyond the back yard, and then silence, and when I finally looked up, I saw a small raptor on the apple tree limb.
- A motion camera is invaluable for capturing images of nocturnal mammals like fox, skunk, raccoon, bat. And black bear! We have a red fox visiting most nights, in fact two or three separate times many nights; we’d never know we had foxes in the yard at all without the motion camera, other than possibly by seeing scat or noticing tracks in snow.
- Folks who belong to online plant ID forums can identify your shrubbery and trees from a photo of a stick, basically. Leaves, catkins, fruits are helpful but not required for most IDs.
- Finally, I’ve learned to recognise and feel a friendly familiarity and companionship with some of the regular inhabitants of this plot of land. Not only do they belong here, but they help me to belong here, on Earth, in this particular place.
Rebecca Solnit, in A Field Guide to Getting Lost, reminds us that Thoreau once said that animals are “made to carry some portion of our thoughts.” She adds: “Animals are the old language of the imagination.” I love that idea, that other animals carry some part of our thoughts, that perhaps our imagination exists in theirs and theirs in ours. And why not in plants, too? Rooted in soil filled with insects, worms, and fungi, they are connected to all of life; in fact, fungal filament called mycelium networks plants together, chemically communicating news of insects attacks, e.g., from one plant to another (BBC article, Nov. 2014; much more about mycelium than most people will want to know; largest mycelium network, of one Armillaria ostoyae, is 2,384 acres, per Scientific American).
I won’t tire you with the complete (so far) list of species on my 3/4 acres, but I’ll end with some photos of a few of the fauna. (Click on gallery pics for larger versions and identifying captions.)
Think about doing this for your property, whether you live on many rural acres, in the suburbs, or in a high-density area with very little yard. If you have no outdoor space to observe at all where you live, and you want to do this exercise, you might try a local park, a community garden, a friend’s yard.
Thanks for checking in. Be sure to see what the other 31 Dayers are writing about.