Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Hannah Holmes "Suburban Safari"

“A fungus scholar once told me that rain causes fungus spore-pouches to burst and release kazillions of spores into the air, and that the smell of baby fungi is mistaken for the smell of clean air.”

This was my favorite fact of Hannah Holmes “Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn” although it is filled with interesting stuff. How interesting is a suburban backyard? Well, not only is it chock-full of living stuff if anyone would care to notice, it also provides a series of initial points of reflection on the environment, which Holmes, a science writer and journalist, eagerly gets a hold of.

There are crows who enthusiastically line up for snacks, a cheeky chipmunk, mice, insects, squirrels and a woodchuck, which is a pretty cute animal. They all take advantage of what trees and shrubs there are around, and it turns out that, as along as you don’t drown it in pesticides, all these critters will not hate you for keeping a lawn.

In fact, that lawns are not necessarily evil, might be the most chocking revelation of “Suburban Safari”. Apparently, they are not nearly as damaging to soil health as agriculture…who would know?

However, I have to come clean. I detest lawns. Knowing that they that don’t have to be sterile, artificial, green moonscapes and that with a few adjustments they can actually provide a healthy ecosystem doesn’t change the fact they are boring, water-guzzling useless things.

However, even hard-core environmentalists Holmes comes across, have one. Why? The kids love to play ball. See? It’s useless, barely alive carpet for sports that might be natural in its motherland of Great-Britain, but can only be mimicked in most parts of the world through sheer, white-knuckle determination. And a lot of pesticides.

One of my favorite David Quammen essays is “Rethinking the Lawn: Turf Warfare in the American Suburbs” where the author decides to axe the lawn and stick to native species. But, sticking to native species, as Holmes finds out, is getting increasingly difficult in the New World. Colonization has an environmental counterpart which, although slower, is nonetheless ruthless. Bees, earthworms, birds, not to mention thousands of plants were all imported to the new colonies and it turns out they have been making a killing. English sparrows and starlings occupy the niche of native birds, as do European honeybees, and many other species. Keeping a garden planted solely with native plants and trees requires something of a guerilla mentality, as the author finds out.

There is a lot of information, most of it very interesting (although frankly, I could have done without the chapter that reconstructs the author’s geographical area through geological epochs), and a lot of pertinent, “guest stars”, mostly investigative scientists that kindly come by the author’s yard to elucidate us all on soil, insect and bird and mammal population.

My favorite bits were, as usual, the ones were she is on her on enjoying the company of cheeky, the chipmunk, luring the crows with food scraps or investigating spider webs and mouse footprints. I was only sorry that this book is about such a different area. I would love to read something like this about the plants and animals of Portuguese backyards.


Jeane said...

The geology stuff kind of dragged for me, too, but I thought it was interesting as I've never seen a book address that kind of environmental history before. I was pretty amazed at all the different specialists she got to come and look at pieces of her yard!

bookworm (inês) said...

I know...I wish I had scientists lining up to sift through my ants and