I used to think that knowing the names of flowers or birds or trees was a lost art, something left only to hobby gardeners and birders.
Then the pandemic shrunk my world down to my home and my yard most days. I looked out of the front window and watched plants bloom and grow leaves and shed them and go bare as the seasons changed.
I grew interested enough to download an app to help me identify the birds hopping around and the flowers as they blossomed. Then came a couple of bird feeders, a pair of binoculars with an arm that holds my phone so I can take photos, and some field guides from the library.
I hardly bat an eyelash now when I walk through the neighborhood, cataloguing the neighbors’ yards: forsythia, hyacinth, weeping cherry.
Appreciating backyard nature has become a way for me to mark the changing of the seasons and the passing of time. It’s also a practice that keeps me grounded in place when I’ve otherwise been disconnected from local community.
As Jenny Odell writes in her book How to Do Nothing, “Similar to many indigenous cultures’ relationships to land, bioregionalism is first and foremost based on observation and recognition of what grows where, as well as an appreciation for the complex web of relationships among those actors. More than observation, it also suggests a way of identifying with place, weaving oneself into a region through observation of and responsibility to the local ecosystem.”
I’ve seen this curiosity blossom among my peers, too, with friends in their 30s and 40s ordering seed catalogues and sharing bulbs and veggie starts. Ryan and I recently dropped in on some retired friends and our conversation turned to bird-friendly backyard habitats. My friend Mike taught me that English ivy is an invasive species in the Northwest, and now I can’t unsee it on hikes, steadily making its way up the trunks of every tree in local parks and green spaces.
Like all ordinary endeavors, the habit of paying attention to the plants and creatures that live where we do changes us, one day at a time.
“Redwoods, oaks, and blackberry shrubs will never be ‘a bunch of green,’ writes Odell. “A towhee will never simply be ‘a bird’ to me again, even if I wanted it to be. And it follows that this place can no longer be any place.”