Mia Geiger

The Denver Post

A world of wildlife in her own backyard
By Mia Geiger
Special to The Denver Post

A key character in Hannah Holmes’ newest book is cute, cuddly and cunning. He’s also a chipmunk.

Cheeky, as Holmes names the creature, stumbles into Holmes’ backyard – and into her heart – as she embarks on a yearlong journey to discover exactly what goes on in her little patch of grass when no one is looking.

In “Suburban Safari,” Holmes reveals the intriguing, unnoticed dramas that unfold daily on suburban lawns. The book features birds, small animals and plant life immersed in a real-life plot that ranges from suspenseful to surprising, from sad to joyful.

As owner of two-tenths of an acre in South Portland, Maine, the author takes her responsibility as a homeowner – with a yard – seriously: “In a world where humanity has climbed into the position of biological boss, I aim to become a benevolent dictator. But I can only rule fairly if I’m familiar with the needs and aversions of all my subjects.”

So Holmes, a science writer who earlier wrote “The Secret Life of Dust,” and whose essays appear on the Discovery Online website, sets up a lawn chair and watches. She watches the crows, developing a fondness for them as she catches them cawing to each other, sharing pears, stealing food from a seagull, and stacking five saltines in their beaks before carrying their loot away.

The catbirds capture her attention as well, and she grieves when one regular visitor is killed by a neighborhood cat. As in other instances in the book, she uses the event as an opportunity to offer nuggets of information, this time explaining that outdoor and stray cats kill millions of endangered birds a year.

She never tires of the daily escapades of the creatures in her yard. The day her beloved catbird dies, she spots another one at her home: “He flies to an apple tree and snatches a large insect. It’s big enough that he has to toss it around to get it aimed down his throat. It squirms. Then he swallows. His voice is young and tentative but with an eye on me he uses it: Mew!

“A better woman than I would mourn the murdered insect, now being crushed in the grit and muscle of the catbird’s gizzard. But we choose what we love. I love my catbirds.”

She is most endeared, though, to the chipmunk she calls Cheeky. Holmes leaves her back door open, and Cheeky visits often, finding a second home on her desk as she works.

She looks forward to seeing her pseudo-pet and studies him closely, such as counting how many sunflower seeds he can stuff in his face.

Lawns prove a worthy topic, as the author, a country girl who moved to Brooklyn, N.Y., then settled in Maine, explains that people in the United States spend more than $45 billion a year caring for their lawns, not including lawn mowers, weed killers and insecticides.

“We have been trained to believe we need this thing that looks like a short shag carpet out the back door, a thing that looks like a golf course,” says Holmes during an interview from her 1917 bungalow with a yard that she mows infrequently and never infuses with chemicals.

“We’re replacing a natural ecosystem with this new thing called the lawn.”
Holmes was surprised by how much activity was taking place in her yard, such as when she witnessed a hawk killing, ripping apart and eating a starling. “That stuff happens all the time if you’re looking,” she says.

Not that all of us want to watch such an act, but for those interested in the intricacies of local wildlife, they can take a fascinating journey — either in their own backyard or through “Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn.”

Mia Geiger is a freelance writer in the Philadelphia area.


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