Published by Bloomsbury USA, March 2005
ISBN: 1-58234-479-5 (cloth)
Synopsis of Suburban Safari
Who knew that an investigation into that patch of grass in the backyard could be so fruitful – and so funny?
More than 550 square miles of new lawns unfold each year in the U.S. alone. Although new research shows that these lawns aren’t nearly as “unnatural” as ecologists once thought, no one has offered an accessible exploration of this novel habitat – until now.
Equipped with a lawn chair and her infectious curiosity, Hannah Holmes spends a year in her yard, hoping to discover exactly what’s going on out there.
Every lawn is a Serengeti. Every hedge is a jungle.
A birdbath is an ocean, and an oak tree is a skyscraper, bustling with little beings making a living. Despite our grumbling that the lawn is a silly imitation of a fantasy ecosystem, an awful lot of lives are humming along out there.
As a nature and science writer, I’ve wallowed in any number of ecosystems — Costa Rican rainforests, Mongolian deserts, even the bottom of the ocean, where no light shines so all the animals are white, and blind. None of these explorations has been more surprising, nor more downright addictive, than the world I discovered outside my back door. (And inside my back door, for that matter, since Nature creeps, drifts, and scampers through very small holes.) Where I once saw a generic squirrel hopping around with a generic acorn in its jaws, I now see Stumpy, his tail bitten off in a mating chase, sniffing each acorn for soundness before pretending to bury it in three different places lest a lurking spy should try to steal it. And the oak tree, formerly my stoic hero, I now recognize as a scheming giant whose patient goal is to starve Stumpy’s family, then dump down a bumper crop of nuts when there’s no one left alive to eat them. I didn’t say it’s a gentle and lovely ecosystem. It’s a natural ecosystem, with all the blood and glory, passion and death that you’d expect from the Serengeti or the rainforest.
This book recounts a year I spent immersed in the lives my out-back neighbors. From the get-go I made close friends: the crows who sat on their begging branch to bray for dog food; the chipmunk who skittered into my kitchen, then into my pockets. But more frequently, and especially as winter sank its claws into the earth, I was simply dumb-struck by my subjects. The ability of a small bird to survive a winter night leaves me breathless. The communication method practiced by the tree she perches in is just as astonishing. And the ability of a relocated mouse to find its way back to its territory and food stores is worthy, in my opinion, of Homeric verse.
The year I spent observing these everyday plants and animals was the most engrossing year of my life. If the resulting book amuses and enlightens you half as much, I’ll count it a cawing success.
Excerpt from Suburban Safari
...This is a high-stakes time for all the birds. The crows, like everyone else, have invested heavily in the contents of their nest.
They burned countless hours and calories collecting sticks and mud and grape-vine bark. Pa Crow led the family force to keep the territory free of invaders. Ma Crow channeled calories and nutrients into her eggs. Pa and the kids fed her as she sat for nearly three weeks, converting worms, roadkill squirrel, and pizza-crusts into heat, which passed through the skin of her featherless brood-patch and warmed the eggs. If the nest tumbles in a high wind, or if a raccoon or squirrel gets the eggs, all that effort is wasted. But turn-about is fair play, I suppose. Crows themselves are famous home-wreckers. In addition to eating other birds' eggs, they'll kill adult birds. They'll even take on larger mammals. Lawrence Kilham, author of The American Crow and the Common Raven, reports watching crows hammer on a sickly wild pig, and jabbing a newborn fawn. (The fawn was fine, but my admiration for crows felt the blow.)
One day at the end of May I follow a worm-bearing crow to the nest, and, Ah-hah! Two expensive little heads protrude above the nest rim. An adult is gliding in to feed them. Her feet barely touch the nest. The heads rise as she approaches. Soundlessly, she tucks food into the open mouths. Then she's away from the tree, and the heads withdraw into the nest.
All the adult crows, both the parents and the elder siblings, bring food to the kids. It's unusual behavior, this sibling helpfulness. And apparently it's not all that helpful. Researchers have set up studies where they monitor some breeding couples who have helpers, and some with no helpers. There's no glaring difference in nesting success. Unassisted parents lose no more eggs or babies to predators, so the helpers aren't keeping the nest safer. Nor do they lose more babies to starvation, so the food that helpers bring isn't crucial. The best guess is that the helpers are helping themselves: When they eventually have children, they'll be seasoned parents.
Then again, perhaps after these young helpers get well acquainted with their baby brother, they'll decide against reproducing. I name Yawp in early June, shortly after waking to a symphony of braying crows. I peek outside. The four adults are stationed around a neighbor's house, perched in trees and power lines. They're flinging gusts of complaint toward the neighbor's porch roof. On that roof is a crow, picking bits of gravel off the shingles, and toying with maple twirlies. From time to time, this crow looks around, opens his wide beak and says, "Yawp." There's a hint of complaint in that expression. In tone, it's akin to a kazoo. When an adult flies overhead, the youngster flutters and gapes. "Yawwwwwwwwp!" The adults rain another storm of cawing upon him. Yawp picks up a maple seed and drops it. He has tried flying. He didn't care for it.
When I study up on this stage of crow life, I find that youngsters leave the nest a bit prematurely. They typically spend a few days on the ground or in low trees, figuring out the flying business. The parents feed them, and worry loudly as the kids fumble around the neighborhood, dodging cats, dogs, cars, and crow-haters. I go out to check on Yawp an hour after his debut, and find him settled into the porch-roof gutter. The adults sulk nearby. Later, a neighbor tells me Yawp did finally make a move. He plopped down to the lawn, giving his family fits.
In the afternoon when I don't see him around, I walk to the nest. Both kids are back in it, but just barely. They're hopping from one side of the nest to the other, swapping places. Teetering on the edge, they lift their wings and flap. One crow flap-hops out onto a limb, and nibbles an overhead stick. They're busy, busy, busy.
The next day the other kid, the quiet kid, gets her flying lesson. The four adults fly through the neighborhood in a clump. Tagging behind, veering all over the skyway, is a fifth crow. When the grown-ups reach their territorial boundary, they turn left, but their protege does not. They race back and herd her to a tall tree with slim, vertical branches. The young crow flaps and grips a branch. The branch bends to a right angle. She flaps to stay upright. But the branch can't support her. She flaps free and tries another. Over and over. Even when she finds a sturdy branch, the tossing wind keeps her off balance.
It's baby season all over. In Neighbor Hugh's yard, English sparrow babies are fluttering and begging loudly in the grass. In my yard, they're investigating the litter under the lilac hedge, testing everything in their beaks. Petals are rejected. Twigs are rejected. Leaves are rejected. I don't know what they accept, but they're exploring at full tilt. On my walkway a youngster I can't identify has discovered an endless source of little protein packets: He waits beside an anthill. The crow kids are fully mobile within a few days, and they, too, work the yard. Well, the quiet one does. She has a droopy wing, perhaps from crash-landing in a tree. Like her elders, she walks quietly through the grass, hunting worms. Droopy, I call her. Droopy is a diligent crow.
Yawp, though, is a nightmare crow. I can hear him from one end of the neighborhood to the other: "Yawp! Yawwwwp!" He starts at dawn, and he goes until dusk. Today he rushes each family member in turn as they pull up worms. "Yawwwwwwwwwp!" He assails his first victim, but that bird turns away and swallows fast. Yawp runs toward his sister when she scores, but she shreds and eats her worm alone. Then a third crow flies into the yard, and when the squawling brat approaches, this crow opens wide. Yawp dives into the black throat to gulp a meal. There follows a gorgeous minute of quiet as he swallows. Then he resumes kazooing. He's a bottomless pit, and he has no intention of filling himself. One insight afforded by Yawp's ever-gaping maw is that young crows have pink mouth linings, in contrast to their parents' black ones.
Baby birds can be difficult to distinguish from adults. Some wear a duller suit of feathers than their parents, and many sport wedgier bills, but these can be subtle distinctions. My crow babies do have brown feathers, as opposed to black. But the brown is so dark I can only distinguish them in direct sunlight. Even that clue is being diluted as new, black feathers emerge. So if Droopy's wing isn't drooping and Yawp isn't yawping, I have to fall back on clues won through hours of study with the binoculars, like the pink mouths and the fat beaks. They also lack the pronounced ridge over the eyes that gives the grownups their noble expression. In profile, the kids have smaller heads. Their tails come to a square end, while adult tails are rounded. The kids' legs are set closer together, which produces a less swaggering gait. And they're a hair smaller than adults. But all these traits are so hard to spot that, as with pigeons, I expect most people believe they've never laid eyes on a baby crow.
In spite of Yawp, I'm growing fond of my crows. I head into the yard every day with good intentions — I'll watch the ants, I'll study the trees — and the crows distract me. Yawp becomes a great fan of hopping. One day he spends ten minutes hopping up onto the neighbor's birdbath, then hopping down again. Sometimes he hops straight up in the air and comes down facing a new direction. Whenever another crow pecks the ground, he bounds across the lawn in a series of gallopy-hops. He bounces at starlings and pigeons, sending them whirring away. He hops at squirrels, who hop right back at him, swinging a paw. He picks up a green pear the size of a walnut, and careens toward Droopy, holding it high. Droopy walks away from her brother. Yawp drops the pear and hops over her, landing in her path.
Droopy's talents lie in another direction. She's a stick girl. In her spare time she sits in an old apple tree and breaks off twigs. She toys with each for a few minutes, then drops it and chooses another. This can be a dangerous time to be friends with a crow. Someone has written to crow scholar Kevin McGowan's web site about crows repeatedly peeling the rubber off their windshield-wipers. Textbook juvenile behavior, McGowan replies.
While young crows are extra-pesky, crows of any age can be terrible teasers. Kilham, author of the crow book, once watched a crow flaunting a piece of "food" to lure a wild turkey into chasing him; after a good romp across the field, the crow revealed his prize: a chunk of cow pie. Tee-hee! Kilham writes that they're also tail-pullers, yanking the tails of vultures and otters to make them abandon food. This I saw once myself, when a seagull was hogging peanuts I had spread for my crows. Four crows circled the gull, and one in the back leaned forward to yank a tail feather. In a similar vein, I once watched two crows at my neighborhood beach mugging a seagull. The gull stood over a crab, with a crow posted four feet to either side. The gull seemed to fear that if he shook the crab apart, pieces might spin toward a crow. So he waited, clucking. The crab gathered its wits and walked away. The seagull snatched it back. The crows gazed out to sea, as though butter wouldn't melt in their beaks. The seagull clucked louder. The crab again excused itself, and was again dragged back. And then the seagull could stand it no longer, and charged the right-hand crow. The left-hand crow flew away with the crab by the time the gull reconsidered. The two crows did not share.
In mid-July, it is suddenly Droopy's turn to be annoying. One balmy morning I step outside to the soprano racket of a crow losing her mind. From the depths of an apple tree comes a string of contradictions and pronouncements that add up to gibberish. By now, I am fluent in crow. And it sounds to me as though Droopy has suddenly learned to speak, but has no inkling what words mean. First comes a long "Caaawwwwwww!" Then immediately, "Cot-Cot-Cot-Cot!" And then, "Caw, caw, caw." If I may tender a translation, this means roughly, "I'm Droopy and everything's fine. Horrors, a crow-eating devil! Hey, guys, I found food! I'm Droopy, and here comes a demon! There's food here." At the end of a verse Droopy flies to the neighbor's cherry tree and clambers around looking for fruit. She babbles on. "Cawwwwwww! Cot-Cot! Grrrrrrrack. Graaaaack. Cot-Cot-Cot! Tuck. Tuck."
For weeks she wakes the neighborhood at dawn with a string of witticisms she's thought up overnight. Her family learns to ignore her. They don't fly in to investigate her announcements of feasts or fiends. She chatters to herself as she hunts worms. When a family member down the block issues his routine sentry call she tosses off a perfect imitation of him. (Crows, like starlings, are fair mimics, even managing human speech.) She attempts a series of super-quick caws but ends with strangled cough. The girl even looks demented, with leftover baby down poking out through her feathers, and a lump on her droopy shoulder.
The whole family is molting and revolting. And it's not just them. All the neighborhood birds are facing a change of feathers, which are designed to last through one year of flying, fighting, and bumping into things. With summer food plentiful and the demands of nesting past, birds can now afford to invest in fresh plumage. I find something new on the ground every day: sapphire blue jay feathers; glossy crow feathers; salmon-pink cardinal down...
Reviews of Suburban Safari
Author Bill McKibben
“This is not just a very funny and very informative piece of writing, and not just a squirrel’s horde of interesting information about the place you live. It’s also a very important book–a graceful and forceful reminder that the natural world is everywhere all around us, to be savored and to be protected.”
—Bill McKibben, author of The End of Nature
Author Mary Roach
“Hannah Holmes is a freewheeling, goofball Rachel Carson. Her obvious concern over our environmental blunderings never weighs down her brisk, charismatic prose or dampens her considerable wit. She opens our eyes to insect heroics underfoot, to the complicated whimsy of crows, the secretive gore of spiders. Her curiosity and constantly questioning mind have led her to create one of the most unique, entertaining, effortlessly educational homages to nature since Euell Gibbons ate a pine tree.”
—Mary Roach, author of Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers
Author Sy Montgomery
Zippy as a squirrel racing across Main Street, and as jam-packed as a chipmunk’s cheeks with facts that wow. Suburban Safari is full of absorbing drama, alarming data, and adorable critters. My “Year on the Lawn” with Hannah Holmes passed all too quickly, but the message in these pages is powerful and lasting indeed. Even in the ‘burbs, we can make wildlife welcome, keep our air and water purer, junglify our homes and free our laws-and after reading this witty and wise book, everyone with any sense will do so!
&mash;Sy Montgomery, author of Journey of the Pink Dolphins
Author Robert Sullivan
“Look not to the faraway and exotic locale for the species-destroying and biologically undiversified mess we’ve gotten ourselves into. Look in your own backyard-or Hannah Holmes’s backyard, where, with reverent wonder, she looks hard at her own soils, slugs, and sowbugs to show us the grand implications of the tiniest lawn-mowing decisions. Suburban Safari proves once and for all that there is life in the suburbs and that it’s worth thinking hard about how to handle it. Prepare to never look at an old crow the same way again.”
—Robert Sullivan, author of Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants
February 25, 2005
EDITOR’S CHOICE / GRADE: A
What’s going on in the yard? Science writer Holmes decides to find out, parking herself on the minuscule scrap of land surrounding her 1917 bungalow in Portland, Me. And no surprise: It’s teeming, literally, with life, from a silky-eared chipmunk she dubs Cheeky to a hawk that slaughters birds crowding the forsythia bush to the slugs, beetles, and worms of a thriving microhabitat. Along the way she lectures, entertainingly, on the history of lawns and the domestication of dogs. She makes—and eats—a salad from edible weeds and hears, for the first time, the whish and whir of nighttime birds. Also, she becomes aware of how much water and energy she consumes. In a witty, imaginative, and powerful discourse, Holmes is a Rachel Carson for 21st-century suburbia.
March 24, 2005
Watch as Nature Takes its Course
Witty environmentalists are as rare as shy politicians. But in Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn>, Hannah Holmes laughs at herself while celebrating the wild kingdom she explores in her one-fifth-of-an-acre backyard.
She lives in South Portland, Maine, but notes, “I could have plonked myself down any old place. Nature, oblivious to the edict that cities are for people, is carrying on with her business almost as though we don’t exist.”
Tapping the research of those she calls “real scientists,” Holmes is a science writer who doesn’t lecture. She shares the joy of discovery about the secret lives of ants, spiders and crows.
She compares the sexual antics of crickets to the Trojan War and falls for a “cheeky bugger” of a chipmunk who feeds out of her hands: “I’m flattered that this small creature can overlook the strangeness of my species and hang out with me.”
She challenges the chemically dependent, $45-billion-a-year lawn-care industry and uses no pesticides in her backyard. Her weeds attract a diverse insect population, which attracts other animals she considers her neighbors.
Such “freedom lawns,” endorsed by Yale’s Shool of Forestry and Environmental Studies, have even spread to the White House, she writes.
Holmes calculates how her small house produces 5 tons of pollutants a year. But the good news is that “we who crave greenery can find our solace on a fairly small patch of ground. From the core of the city to the edge of the forest, Nature is busy eating, growing, fighting, reproducing, dying. Absorbing the drama is the easiest thing on earth to do. All it takes is a lawn chair and a closer look.”
April 1, 2005
The author of The Secret Life of Dust has expanded her horizons, said Alex Irvine in the Portland, Maine, Phoenix. Turning her full attention to the fifth of an acre that surrounds her Maine home, she’s created a refreshingly original book about the natural environment of the American suburbs. Her yearlong journey in self-education will teach you to admire scraggly lawns, hate sparrows, and appreciate that “a startling slice of nature” rests just outside most every kitchen window.
You might think that a book about naturalist Hannah Holmes’s scruffy backyard—a small patch of grass in South Portland, Maine—would focus on little crawlies like grubs and root weevils. Her last book, after all, was The Secret Life of Dust. But Suburban Safari is surprisingly cosmic. America’s lawns cover more acreage than any other crop, “rolling out over the U.S. at a rate of one million [new] acres a year,” writes Holmes; she lays the mowed turf bare, introducing us to their sometimes odd, always varied tenants and providing a larger context of history, ecology, and environmental woes. (Many birds like suburbs better than woods, she explains—although domestic cats kill millions, many of which are protected species, each year.) As engaging a guide as you’d find in a much more exotic locale, Holmes is “obsessed” with her crows, somewhat embarrassingly enamoured of a chipmunk, and steaming with geek love for an energy guru who measures her homestead’s contribution to global warming. “I didn’t foresee how seriously I’d take my stewardship of this rectangle on the planet’s surface,” she writes. “Knowing that my forsythia bushes take up space that could support a native shrub, whose blossoms could feed a native insect, which might sustain a struggling songbird, this gives me pause.”
Suburban Safari should come shrink-wrapped with every bag of Miracle-Gro.
The Portland Phoenix
March 4, 2005
On Safari: South Portland’s Backyard Naturalist
Hannah Holmes’s previous book, The Secret Life of Dust , bored deep into the invisible world of, well, dust, giving us nature red in tooth and microscopic claw. Her current offering, Suburban Safari: A Life on the Lawn, seems so wide-ranging in comparison that the reader needs to stop every so often and recall that the vast majority of the book takes place within two-tenths of an acre in South Portland. Although along the way Holmes makes information-gathering excursions to Baltimore, Washington DC, Phoenix and San Diego, her project in Suburban Safari is, as she puts it early on, to find out exactly what’s going on out there in her tiny expanse of grass, garden, and trees.
It turns out that there’s quite a bit there, and that the orthodox environmentalist’s response to the American lawn—that it is an ecological wasteland serving only to funnel pesticides into the groundwater—is true only for the most assiduously cared-for swaths of green. These “grass farms” are in fact a blight upon the natural world, particularly in those parts of the country where plants like grass must be nurtured by the wholesale waste of water resources. If you don’t poison your lawn, though, and if you don’t spend your life seeding and weeding and cutting down trees because you’re sick of raking the leaves, you can observe a startling slice of nature from your kitchen window. “From a bug’s-eye perspective, or a bird’s-eye view,” Holmes writes, “most yards present a rich array of opportunities: There’s a ‘prairie’ of lawn, a ‘savanna’ of shrubs, and a ‘forest’ of trees, all within a few flaps of the wing. Many animals thrive on this patchwork of habitat—many more than I would have guessed before I delved into this world.”
This is a good thing, since new lawn appears in the United States at the rate of something like a million acres a year, usually replacing much more diverse ecologies. Holmes decided to spend a year studying up on what happens in her yard, and the story she has to tell comes complete with murder, humor, disquisitions on glaciation and the history of the dog, a rueful tally of the American household’s energy consumption, and wry observations on the lengths to which even a dedicated backyard naturalist isn’t willing to go. Holmes is a marvelously engaging narrator, making light of her tendency to get “squealy” around her more creepy-crawly subjects and shamelessly indulging her impulse to anthropomorphize her yard’s more interesting denizens. We meet two nations of ants, those of Zippytown and Mellowburg; Cheeky the chipmunk; Stumpy the squirrel; Yawp the crow; and on and on. This is a useful storytelling strategy, since the average reader can follow the story of Cheeky more easily than a story about “a chipmunk,” but it also makes for a much more savory read. How can you not love a book which includes the following passage about a robber fly ensnared by Babbette the spider: “This inch-long fellow won my admiration after I read about the trials he endures when mating. The females are such knee-jerk assassins that a courting male either holds out food or waits until the lady already has a mouthful of something else. I suppose it’s a spider-eat-fly-eat-gnat world, but I was sorry to see Babbette straitjacket the big boy, suck him empty, and cast his remains onto the heap of exoskeletons that must be accruing on the cellar door below.”
Other writers on environmental and popular science topics would do well to take a cue from Holmes’s strategy in this book. She isn’t shy about enumerating the dangers associated with mercury, pesticides, sprawl, or any of the other human-caused ills that wreck large swathes of the natural world—but neither is she prone to the harangues that characterize much environmental writing. It’s awfully refreshing to read a naturalist who makes no bones about her genocidal impulses toward sparrows and Asiatic bittersweet. Everything about Suburban Safari is refreshing, in fact: its exploration of the nature just outside our back doors; Holmes’s deft excursions into climatology, geology, and other ‘ologies; and a whole pile of eyebrow-raising facts. Did you know that an oak tree releases different chemicals when it is under assault from different kinds of insects? And that other oak trees in the area will arrange their chemical defenses according to threats anticipated because of communications from the original assaultee? And that the trees also chemically alert local bird populations to the presence of yummy insectile snacks? I didn’t. And before writing this book, neither did Holmes, whose pithy summation of the situation is, “That’s pretty clever, for a big stick.”
Pretty clever is an apt description of Suburban Safari as well. You’ll finish the book knowing more about your immediate surroundings than you ever thought you wanted to—and it’ll be the most entertaining education you ever get.
Los Angeles Times
March 6, 2005
“Having spent a number of years writing about the natural wonders in such exotic locales as Madagascar and Mongolia,” writes Hannah Holmes, “I thought it only fair to approach my new backyard with the same sense of discovery.” She spends a year researching everything that lives on her two-tenths of an acre in Portland, Maine, examining the lives of the birds (crows and catbirds are favorites), the insects, the chipmunks, the ragweed, the sumac. She pokes around in holes and investigates the lives of the Armouchiquois, who first inhabited her yard. She discovers why squirrels eat white oak acorns and store red oak acorns and how they tell the difference; how crows communicate; why dragonflies lock together in loops when they mate. Holmes’ backyard assumes strange, oversize proportions in the course of this fascinating book: the Bamboo Wilderness, the Insect Nation, the Freedom Lawn—who needs Mongolia?
—Susan Salter Reynolds
January 1, 2005
For readers who believe lawns are simply something that has to mowed, science writer Holmes has news for them. Spending a year in her yard in South Portland, Maine, “was to learn how to administer this patch of ground in the best interest of all its citizens.”
Depending on the season, her two-tenths-acre empire is home to birds that lived in the ornamental shrubs, an oak tree, two pines, a chokecherry tree, and some sumacs. She records her yard is home to ladybugs (as dexterous as cats), crickets (they rarely hop, but plod along like the rest of us), and ants (they stop and tap antennae with each other). There are squirrels (one mated with five females and dropped dead), chipmunks (one lived in Holmes’ house and the book is dedicated to him), mice, skunks, woodchucks, and raccoons. All these creatures are her family, she says, “and mine to take care of, to the best of my ability.”
New York Newsday
March 6, 2005
From all the evidence Hannah Holmes offers in her winning and worrying “Suburban Safari,” humanity is turning animals into high-stakes gamblers. If creatures can’t adapt quickly enough to the pavement-and-pesticide-ridden “patchwork habitat we create,” then they are out of luck. And so are we.
As a science and nature journalist, Holmes has over the years ranged far from her native Maine, observing, for instance, archaeologists in the Gobi Desert and conservationists in Madagascar. But for her second book (in 2001, she published a singular exploration of dust), she decided to explore her own South Portland backyard.
Despite its size and location, Holmes’ fifth of an acre turns out to be suburban in name only—at least as far as its insect, avian and animal residents are concerned. This organic microwilderness is also surprisingly fragile. Each move the author makes can be murderous. Soon, the enterprising Holmes realizes that being her garden’s best possible steward isn’t about mowing the lawn (as it turns out, it’s about doing as little as possible) or keeping things pristine, but about observation and investigation.
And then, there’s adoration. This author simply can’t resist her feathered and furry tenants—from her crows (lovers of pears, pizza and peanuts) and scores of accident-prone squirrels to one singular chipmunk. Cheeky, it turns out, will put up with anything as long as food is on offer: “Kissing a chipmunk makes me laugh, and Cheeky gives a little bounce of alarm. But he works on, weaseling the last seeds from the creases of my hand. I bend again and sniff his fur. He smells of earth and yarrow, a spicy weed that grows in my lawn. I wonder if he lines his bedroom with it, as starlings do.”
But Holmes knows that cuteness isn’t all. Thanks to her research, to the number of experts she has on call and to several trips to indigenous gardens around the United States, she also comes to appreciate less charismatic creatures, such as slugs and sowbugs (superb composters). We also know which humans she admires: those who are determined to do right by their environment.
But even the relentlessly upbeat Holmes has her betes noirs, notably introduced plant and animal species. Starlings are bad enough, but her Public Enemy No. 1 is the English sparrow. This cold-blooded killer is immune to West Nile virus, carrying it in its blood stream and passing it along to mosquitoes who bite and kill her beloved crows, not to mention people.
After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Or, as one botanist admits: “Knowing what I know just takes some of the fun out of just enjoying the landscape.” Holmes can’t afford to fall into such melancholy: Her garden and its glorious animals need her too much. And vice versa.
December 15, 2004
“With infectious enthusiasm and faith in nature’s doggedness in the face of encroaching humanity, science writer Hannah Holmes (The Secret Life of Dust, 2001) follows the four seasons as they play out in her own micro-habitat.
Raised on a farm, the author left country life far behind when she moved to New York City for several years. Now she’s compromised between the two extremes, setting up house on two-tenths of an acre in suburban Portland, Maine. She’s determined to immerse herself in the workings of her patch of ground, and though it isn’t a lot of land, it turns out to be more than enough to nurture many varieties of insect, bird and mammal species. All are fodder for Holmes’s meditations on natural history, zoology, and the current American landscape. The writer encourages nature in her own backyard through benign neglect; she doesn’t use chemical fertilizers on the grass and grows only what can survive biweekly lawn mowing. (When her lawn mower breaks in late summer, she’s fascinated by the resultant growth.) Other than that, she’s a typical resident, blessed with an omnivorous curiosity and a good pair of binoculars. She gets to know intimately the crows in her yard, examines all the insects she can find under the microscope, and tames a chipmunk she dubs “Cheeky.” Even the barren branches of winter are greeted with delight: Finally, she can see what’s been going on behind all those leaves. Holmes doesn’t confine her interest to sentient creatures. A meditation on wolves rapidly turns into a discussion of the last ice age and how it must have manifested in her little corner of the world. The lawn itself, as a feature of the modern landscape, also comes in for a sociological and historical examination.
A cracking good reminder that an appreciation of the wonders of nature need not be reserved for special occasions.
The Boston Globe
April 10, 2005
There are no small ecologists, only small ecosystems. Hannah Holmes’s scientific domain may be humble in fact, it’s her suburban backyard in southern Maine but she finds as much teeming drama in “this two-tenths-acre empire” as in any Shakespearean kingdom.
To call Holmes’s approach to natural history quirky is an understatement. (Her previous book was titled “The Secret Life of Dust.”) Nose to the ground, she communes with the critters, animal and vegetable, that populate her personal realm, reports their behavior, and speculates on their motives and sentiments. She observes the losing battle of effete native species against the incursion of land-grabbing foreigners English sparrows, Norway maples. She admires the ingenuity of creatures most suburbanites consider unmitigated nuisances woodchucks, crows, even the wasps building their sinister metropolises under the eaves. Most daft and endearing of all is the interspecies love affair she carries on with a chipmunk who makes free with her house and her person in search of the seeds she stashes while waiting for him to call.
All this rampant anthropomorphism would be too terribly Disney if the bee-petting author herself weren’t so delightfully funny, though not so comical that we fail to appreciate how much we’re learning.
The Sunday Oregonian (Portland)
April 10, 2005
Critters Everywhere: Suburban Safari
Those craving nature this spring need look no farther than the back yard or local polluted river. “Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn,” by Hannah Holmes, serves as a guide to the wildlife teeming and surviving beneath human radar.
Holmes left her Brooklyn brownstone for a 1917 bungalow on two-tenths of an acre near the ocean in South Portland, Maine. Having written about wildlife in such exotic locales as Madagascar and Mongolia, in “Suburban Safari” Holmes stays close to home, observing and learning “the needs and aversions” of all the creatures teeming in her pesticide-free back yard.
“Suburban Safari” is broken into subsections by season, beginning with spring, and the writing is punchy and chock-full of strange and wonderful facts about animals we don’t often consider strange or wonderful. For example: A robin can find its way around with its left eye taped shut but not with its right eye taped shut. The Earth’s magnetic fields spark a chemical reaction inside the bird’s right eyeball, transferring directional data to the brain, and this data amounts to a map.
Holmes’ chapters are thick with facts about the animals that cross her path, where they came from, what they look like, how they act. An endearing goofball who takes her readers along for the ride, Holmes makes it seem utterly commonplace to invite a chipmunk into one’s home or spend the afternoon observing slugs. Although she’s writing about two-tenths of an acre, Holmes covers an incredible amount of factual ground, and her lively, punchy, personal tone is the spoonful of sugar helping the medicine of so much information go down.
The Denver Post
March 27, 2005
A World of Wildlife in Her Own Backyard
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.
The Arizona Republic
February 12, 2005
In her new book, Hannah Holmes, author of The Secret Life of Dust, discovers a vibrant world of plant and animal life in her lawn in the course of the seasons. Although the suburban lawn is often thought of as lacking in ecological diversity, it nonetheless typically offers a mix of savanna (grass), prairie (shrubs) and forest (at least a couple of trees) that attracts a surprising number of creatures. In her quest to learn more about lawns, she even makes a visit to Phoenix (see Page 125) to sample some of our xeriscaping.
March 18, 2005
Take a ‘Suburban Safari’ in Your Own Backyard
It’s hard to believe right now, but, beneath the snow, the dead thatch, and the detritus that has a way of making its way across your yard each winter, there is a lawn waiting to happen.
Did you pore through the seed catalogues yet, picking the plants you want for your garden this year? Are you itching to get going on lawn maintenance? You might think twice about taking your riding lawn mower out when you’re finished reading “Suburban Safari” by Hannah Holmes (c. 2005, Bloomsbury). You might not want to hack your grass off at all. In fact, you’re going to feel a little guilty doing much more than watering.
Starting with the season we’re all eagerly anticipating – spring – “Suburban Safari” takes a look at an average back yard, but not just a quick look-see over the condition of the grass and trees. This is an up-close and personal look at what lives in the yard, from below the ground to the tip-tops of trees.
Author Holmes says that, even though she was a country-girl-cum-city-girl, she yearned to get back to her roots. After years in The “big city,” she ended up in a bungalow on a plot of land close to the ocean in South Portland, Maine. It was there that she decided to see with what – or whom – she was sharing her yard.
Birds are the obvious harbingers of spring, and that’s where “Suburban Safari” starts. Holmes got to know her birds; in fact, she named some of them. She says that, once you get to know “your” birds, you can tell them apart from birds living in neighboring yards. She got to know bugs, too, but she only named one of them.
Through the summer months, Holmes watched weeds grow in her lawn. Some suburbanites might shudder at weeds in a yard, but Holmes calls it a “freedom lawn,” and she says that there’s a movement afoot to allow a lawn to be whatever it’s going to be without human interference.
Fall brings turning leaves and trees that are assaulted from all sorts of critters bent on surviving winter months. Late-season thunderstorms gallop in to dump much-needed water on the ground and in rivers. Winter follows with snow and cold, spring rallies once again, and for one solid year, Holmes followed the creatures and plants that live just outside her back door.
While you’d expect kids to get a kick out of watching ants and climbing trees, it’s quite different if an adult does it, but Holmes’ curiosity makes nature fun again. From taking a bite out of an oak leaf to see what it tastes like, to making friends with a chipmunk, this book is charming and filled with lots of gee-whiz things that are good to know; things you probably wouldn’t find out for yourself because you’re a time-starved adult and most adults don’t mess with slugs or dig a hole to see what’s there.
Read “Suburban Safari” and you’ll agree: it’s too bad that we don’t.
Reprinted in: THE RUSHVILLE REPUBLICAN (Indiana) and THE VALLEY BREEZE ( Rhode Island)