We tend to think of nature as something “out there,” an exotic place far away from the suburban backyards and parks of Arlington County. In truth, however, nature is all around us, at our doorstep, in every corner of our community. We need only observe with the eye of a scientist to see the natural world in our own neighborhoods.
There can be no greater guide to developing this new sense of nature then to read Dr. Kurt Johnson’s detail study of his own backyard just down Bishop Lane in Alexandria.
Entitled In My Backyard: Natural History in the Suburbs, Dr. Johnson describes his work as “the story of biology on an ordinary suburban backyard, similar to your own.” At a little over an acre, Dr. Johnson’s small parcel shouldn’t merit 230 pages of text and hundreds of photographs --- but this patch of property proves more than worthy of such scrutiny.
Dr. Johnson divides his work into the four seasons of the year and meticulously catalogues every creature that visits his tiny part of the planet. Some are permanent residents, such as the 77 types of beetles and 47 spring flowers that he found and photographed. Others are transients, such as the American woodcock and the beautiful scarlet tanager that is “part of a complex web of life that includes Maine, Virginia, and Central America.”
The most vivid sections of the book, however, describe the various defense and survival strategies of species struggling for survival right under our noses.
For example, a single spicebush appears likely to be doomed by spicebush swallowtails but predation keeps the butterflies in check so that the spicebush can produce a more robust crop of new leaves. The butterflies survive because the spicebush caterpillar mimics the rough green snake that crawls up the spicebush. The snake in turn eats the spicebush swallowtails. And so it goes.
The famous naturalist E.O. Wilson began his studies by observing the lowly ant. Perhaps we can learn more about nature by just discovering the life in our own backyards.