COVID and the ensuing lockdown has seen me spending more time in nature, especially around our house, than in a long time. In the mornings, I like to sit out on the deck before it gets too hot, and have enjoyed the serenity that comes with watching the birds and whatever other animals make their way through the yard. The extra time at home and in the yard has made me appreciate the connection to nature we have and want to take several steps to protect and encourage more of it.
I think teaching children about nature and how we fit into it is one of the most important things parents can do. Some of the formative experiences of my childhood were hikes out in nature, exploring different trails, discovering animals like frogs, turtles, snakes, and salamanders. On frequent visits to my grandparents’ house, I’d get a firsthand account of their love for birds from the variety of feeders they always had filled, and would experience one of nature’s best shows every night there when the fireflies lit up the sky. I want my children to share the same passion and awe for nature because it’s going to be incredibly necessary for them to nourish and protect it in their lives.
As I’ve been running in the State Forrest near my house more often, I’ve also reconnected with nature on the trails. One of the cool things they have been doing in the park is a large project to restore native plants and build meadows. For as long as we’ve lived here, they have had a section marked off for turtle breeding and butterflies, but now the focus has grown to native plant species and protecting pollinators. NJ has a large number of indigenous butterflies, moths, and bees, but may are currently threatened because of the huge amount of development across the state. The signage on the projects in the forest must be effective, because it actually got me to read more about native species and restoration.
I believe every home owner should be connected to, and a steward of their land. I haven’t been a great one since the kids were born, letting weeds grow and leaving behind the little projects that should be done. But I have at least gotten to know the land and its inhabitants, from the morning dove that perches on our roof every morning, to the hawks and vultures that circle the air above from the thermals off the Ramapo Mountains, to the chipmunks that live under the deck. There is a family of turkeys up the street, a family of deer that make the rounds, and even period sightings of fox, coyotes, and black bears. For the most densely populated state, there is no shortage of natural wonder around.
A few years ago we redid our backyard. Part of the appeal of buying the house was the spacious wooded area behind the house. But as time passed, the weeds grew and it became brambly. Deer were often nesting there and we had no clue what else might be lurking in our yard. With little kids, we decided to clear it and keep a manicured grass lawn. As part of the work, we did our best to leave in the original trees. During COVID, thanks to the iNaturalist app, I came to find we have a majestic elm in the center of the yard, though in rough shape thanks to a (recently learned) threatened crested woodpecker who seems to enjoy it as much as us, and numerous cottonwood trees.
Now though, I’m trying to learn more about the native plants we can add to the yard to use less water, pesticides and herbicides, and support the local wildlife. In particular, I’m looking to plant some of the local flowers I saw in the meadow in our forest to encourage the bees to return. After years of never seeing a honey bee in our yard, we have plenty of bumble bees and yellow jackets, some have actually started collecting pollen from some flowers we have on the deck. Rather than the bred and imported flowers, I want to try to grow some native plants for them to enjoy.
Another area I’m getting particular joy from is watching birds in the yard. I always knew we had birds like mourning doves, robins, and the occasional hawk, but I’ve come to rely on morning visits from the cardinal family, the blue jay, and the mid-afternoon onslaught of the grackles. We’ve gone through numerous iterations of bird feeders at our house in the last decade. I’ve always wanted to emulate my grandparents and the virtual aviary they had in their yard. Squirrels became my largest adversary. They break pretty much every feeder and even chewed through an entire plastic one to get to the food. I even used metal wire to hold one together and cage off the openings so they couldn’t get in, but they eventually chewed through the top. Now though, I think I might have mastered them. I got a strong metal one that has a slick hanging support and hung it from a tree. Now they can’t reach it from the top, and the one time I saw one try to jump to it, he quickly slid off. Now, my bird seed lasts a week instead of a day, and I’m seeing far more birds.
The best part of having the feeder though, is the excitement it has brought out in my kids to participate in nature. They love helping me refill it and have made a ritual of lowering it from the tree. They even yell at the squirrels and chipmunks when they see them too close to the feeder. We even ended up building a few milk carton bird houses and hanging them around the yard, though the squirrels even ate those, just like they did to the pinecone peanut butter covered feeders we also made as a project. But even still, the boys loved making them and spent the next two weeks watching them to see what birds might come by, and naming each one.
After hearing them yell “thank you for visiting us, Cardinal Richelieu”, I am both questioning and very happy with my decision to help them with the names. Also visiting us regularly are Jack Sparrow, Atticus Finch, Robin Gibbs, and Blackbird Singinginthedeadofnight. The grackles don’t get names. Now that we have found a feeder strategy that works, I think we’ll be expanding the selection to encourage some other birds. Just maybe not encouraging the woodpecker to kill our elm tree any more.
COVID has made me attempt several new hobbies at home I had always thought about but never done. My baking hobby resulted in some amazing sourdoughs, though now we’re a bit overloaded on carbs so it’s taking a break. I’ve brewed some of my best homebrew and made plans to start an Octoberfest for the fall already. Next, I wanted to try bee keeping.
I always saw that local honey was good for allergies, thanks to the use of the same pollen that causes the allergies. Since I end up taking three to four allergy pills a day in the spring, I thought nothing could be better than something local. However, I did some research and found that beekeeping is an expensive and pretty time consuming endeavor. Rather than jumping straight in to bee boxes and collecting honey, I decided to test the waters with Mason Bees.
Mason bees are solitary bees that don’t live in a colony, but still provide great pollination for flowers and plants. They like to live in little tubes that they fill with mud and lay eggs which eventually turn into cocoons which hatch in the spring. Amazon has tons of bee houses for them, and one is on its way to me now. I can’t wait to see how they build and provide them a safe home while they enjoy our plants.
Time at home during COVID has reminded me of the importance of being connected to the land and local environment. Early on I knew how important the nearby forest was to me for running, and how much I enjoyed seeing wildlife in our area, but the extra time I’m spending in and around the yard had really opened my eyes toward the importance of local action to protect nature. Since I’ll be spending even more time shared with nature, I am doing what I can to support and protect it as well as teach my kids through a positive example so that they get the same pleasure in experiencing nature as me.