I’m pretty sure I requested My Backyard Jungle by James Barilla after reading a short review of it in Library Journal. The review was positive and I was in the frame of mind to read about backyard wildlife since I was trying to deal with my own. And while the book was enjoyable, I did finish it after all, I was disappointed in it too. I was expecting more of the author’s backyard and close natural observation, but instead Barilla travels to several different cities including Rio and Delhi, and the book ends up feeling like an excuse to travel and look at urban animals in sometimes exotic locales. In fact, the section on monkeys in Delhi got so long and bogged down with details about traffic and living conditions that I came very close to abandoning the book. What saved it was its easy reading before bed status.

The book began well and I was really excited by questions Barilla asks as he registers the backyard of his newly bought house in South Carolina as habitat with the National Wildlife Federation (something anyone can do):

Do we actually make habitat or just put away the tools and leave the yard alone? Should we restrict the guest list to native species or try to optimize diversity by bringing in as many species as we can? What if the new residents don’t behave like model citizens? What if they sting or bite?

…The backyard, it turns out, is a microcosm of all our fantasies and fears, all the rewards and tribulations of life with other species.

Good questions, right? But they never get directly discussed and answers are nonexistent or only alluded to.

Barilla asks questions about what it means to share space with other species. After the squirrels devour every last fruit on his peach and nectarine trees he comes to a realization in the middle of the grocery store:

This is what it is really like to be part of nature. Not the fantasy of symbiosis and mutual aid, not the backyard Eden where lions lie down with lambs, but something far closer to actual participation in the local ecology, far closer to the food chain. To participate in the natural world is to find yourself jostled and threatened, your belongings usurped, your blood turned into food. You get a taste of this reality and it is astringent not soporifically sweet. …To be part of it means looking over your shoulder for competitors, not tending and musing like some detached, beneficent god. …It’s a lot more dramatic and complex and interesting, as well as infuriating and spiritually unsatisfying. I crave harmony, a vision of an ideal world. I get irony and drama instead.

Yes, a bit hyperbolic and lacking in real threat since he is buying peaches at the grocery store. The fight with other species is less a matter of survival and more an annoyance. Still, there is some insight here, a realization that romanticizing nature is a mistake, a fictional fantasy that can get you killed under the right circumstances.

In Barilla’s world wanderings he finds evidence in every city of human and wild animals interacting sometimes for better, sometimes for worse. As we expand our cities, we shrink animal habitat. What happens when black bears that used to roam unhindered through acres of forest suddenly find people have taken over and the forest is dramatically smaller? But people love bears and will feed them on purpose. Bears also discover that bird feeders have tasty food in them and trash cans often yield up something to eat too. Instead of the population shrinking, it adapts to the new conditions. Food is plentiful so the population grows and more bears mixing with more people can make trouble, mostly for the bears. Because animals will get bold, and when a bear decides to go in your house and raid your pantry, what then? Well, the bear usually ends up shot and killed. We blame the bear for stepping over the line, but really, all things considered, is it the bear’s fault? Shouldn’t we sometimes wonder if we have stepped over the line? Barilla doesn’t ask that question, but I do.

We have forced the natural world to adapt to us, to our needs and desires. When animals invade “our” space, do we ever stop to wonder if maybe we aren’t the ones who did the invading? When we create backyard habitat, what are we hoping to achieve? Do we just want to be able to look at pretty birds at the feeder? And what happens when the feeder draws animals besides birds? And what happens when you look out your window and see a hawk biding its time before swooping down and grabbing a bird or rabbit from your habitat? Do you try to keep the hawk from killing “your” animals? The hawk is part of nature too.

To be sure, it is interesting to learn about how animals have adapted to living in human cities around the world. Barilla is a good writer from a reportorial perspective. But I would have preferred less travel and more discussion about the meaning of our fears and fantasies about wild animals and our relationship with nature.

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