by Minnie Apolis
Hannah Holmes proves that the whole world can be found in one's own back yard as she journals about her investigations into the wildlife (both large and very small) in her two-tenths acre in Maine. The level of prose lifts it above the mundane while the amateur science sleuthing engages the brain.
Along the way she learns to identify the calls of her neighborhood crows and makes friends with a chipmunk. She also makes a few 'field trips' to other states to interview specialists in such things as the virtues or non-virtues of so-called dry landscaping.
The charming photo of a squirrel on the cover also helps lure readers into peeking at the secret or not so secret lives of creatures in in every back yard. Ms. Holmes also cannot resist doing what most of us do when we become attached to familiar fuzzy faces in our patch of grass, and that is naming our little visitors. She not only names the squirrels and chipmunk, but even the spider! (But of course she names the spider, she was a fascinating character in patch's cast.
But it isn't all cutsiness. She gets down to the nitty gritty of taking a bug census by digging little pitfalls around the yard, where bugs get trapped during their nocturnal roamings. She discusses with experts whether bird species have actually been observed eating apple buds or not.
There's a fascinating discussion of how trees try to outwith the pests who feed on their leaves or acorns. The fact that oaks will have several years of low acorn production and then suddenly try to overwhelm their predators with an enormous crop of acorns, far beyond what they could possibly eat or store away for winter, can be an intentional strategy for increasing their reproductive success rate. Plants have a number of chemical and other defenses, including tannins and terpenes.
Holmes writes short but fascinating treatments of pressing issues that homeowners deal with, usually issues that have national ecological impact. Such topics as how the asphalt and cement covering our cities deprives the land of a change to refresh groundwater supplies; the chemical soup we spread on our lawns and which washes off into lakes and rivers; whether 'freedom lawns' of mixed species really support native species any better than purebred bluegrass; the relative merits of so-called xeriscaping in a state like Arizona.
Holmes is also gifted with words in a way that makes it a pleasure to read, and often sprinkles it with a welcome measure of dry wit.
The onset of autumn is greeted with these lines: “On the morning after the oat relinquishes its garnet leaves, I find the crows lined up on their begging branch. How many mornings have they sat there, hidden by leaves, wondering, where's the dimwit with the dog food? Happy to see them so sharp and glossy against the sky, I rustle up their grub. When I step out the door, cold air makes me cough. The sky is so clear it looks as though a crow could shatter it with a peck....”
Hard to resist the appeal of a writer like Hannah Holmes, especially when her views are pretty close to my own on a number of ecological issues. Please check it out, see if the library has a copy, read the sample chapter on Amazon, please.
Suburban Safari: A Year On The Lawn, Hannah Holmes, Bloomsbury Publishing, New York and London, 2005, 264 pages if you include everything. ISBN 1582344795