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My Backyard Jungle

My Backyard Jungle: The Adventures of an Urban Wildlife Lover Who Turned His Yard into Habitat and Learned to Live with It

James Barilla
Copyright Date: 2013
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 320
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  • Book Info
    My Backyard Jungle
    Book Description:

    For James Barilla and his family, the dream of transforming their Columbia, South Carolina, backyard into a haven for wildlife evoked images of kids catching grasshoppers by day and fireflies at night, of digging up potatoes and picking strawberries. When they signed up with the National Wildlife Federation to certify their yard as a wildlife habitat, it felt like pushing back, in however small a way, against the tide of bad news about vanishing species, changing climate, dying coral reefs. Then the animals started to arrive, and Barilla soon discovered the complexities (and possible mayhem) of merging human with animal habitats. What are the limits of coexistence, he wondered?

    To find out, Barilla set out across continents to explore cities where populations of bears, monkeys, marmosets, and honeybees live alongside human residents.My Backyard Junglebrings these unique stories together, making Barilla's yard the centerpiece of a meditation on possibilities for coexistence with animals in an increasingly urban world. Not since Gerald Durrell pennedMy Family and Other Animalshave readers encountered a naturalist with such a gift for storytelling and such an open heart toward all things wild.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-18599-7
    Subjects: Zoology, Environmental Science, Political Science, History

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. 1 Certified
    (pp. 1-17)

    This story starts with a move. Actually, yet another move, from the woodsy shores of Lake Michigan to the capital city of South Carolina. This after a sizable sojourn in the redwood country of Northern California and, before that, a stint of several winters in Vermont. My wife, Nicola, is English, and we began our connubial life as renters in a damp Yorkshire city. We’ve always been renters. Our new place, a brick house in a leafy neighborhood of Columbia, South Carolina, is the first place with our names on the deed, a fact that has a certain heft to...

  5. 2 Zoos Without Bars
    (pp. 18-51)

    Since the sign went in the ground, I’ve been spending a lot of time in the backyard, mostly with a shovel in hand as I try to turn a patch of turf into a vegetable patch. As a break from turning the soil, I’ve also been prying and pickaxing away the asphalt, trimming the parking for two cars down to one, gaining ground for habitat. But habitat for what kind of wildlife? Getting rid of tar is actually the easy part. The hard part is thinking about what comes next. Depending on the species I hope to attract, I could...

  6. 3 Little Eden
    (pp. 52-73)

    In my estimation, the Chilean peach has made great strides in recent years. Most of the time, it no longer tastes like a ball of sawdust soaked in corn syrup; it actually tastes a bit like a peach. Actual juice may in fact emerge from a bite; actual tree-ripened hues may be detected on the surface. It’s not terrible, not for early February, when most of us are looking at a foot of snow on the ground and praying Punxsutawny Phil or whatever they’re calling this year’s groundhog isn’t going to see his shadow.

    But no matter what the little...

  7. 4 The “Monkey Menace”
    (pp. 74-143)


    That’s what I feel as I report to the airport for my seventeen-hour flight. I’m bound for one of the world’s great twenty-first-century megacities, and I really don’t want to leave my own backyard.

    If you’re exploring the limits of coexistence, Delhi is the logical place to go. It’s a sprawling megalopolis of twenty-two million human inhabitants and growing, a place where the traditional meets the transnational, where the car shares the road with the cow. It’s also the habitat for tens of thousands of rhesus monkeys that are both revered and maligned by the people who live with...

  8. 5 The Night Visitor
    (pp. 144-160)

    It begins at 4 a.m. I’m drawn to consciousness by a rattling, scraping, thunking sound in the bathroom. It sounds almost like someone has shut themselves in there and can’t figure out how to get the doorknob to turn, which sometimes happens when you have two kids under the age of five. But not at 4 a.m. I tune my parental antennae to the sounds of breathing across the hall—two regular sets of rises and falls, a soft snuffle. All is well there. But someone, or something, is stuck in the bathroom.

    This has the feeling of a nightmare...

  9. 6 Backyard Bruins
    (pp. 161-199)

    Thanks to my hours on the couch with the kids, I have a picture of ursine family life that looks like a woodsy version of our own. Sure, they live in a hollowed-out tree, but it’s in a nice neighborhood, and they have curtains and comfy chairs and baseball gloves. If you’re a parent, you undoubtedly know the cartoon I’m talking about, and I apologize if I’ve brought back a tune fromThe Berenstain Bearsyou couldn’t shake for years. If you’re anything like me, you’ll be standing in a supermarket line and suddenly you’ll find yourself humming along to...

  10. 7 Notes from a Twenty-First-Century Rat Catcher
    (pp. 200-238)

    It’s a dank and dreary morning. The forecast is warning of flurries, and the sky looks like a bowl of congealed oatmeal. Not the nicest conditions for poking around the crawlspaces of Columbia.

    But the traps still have to be checked.

    I’m in an SUV with Dan Phillips and his assistant Dave, and we’re hauling a tool trailer to the first job of the day, in a downtown neighborhood not far from my house.

    When you hear noises in the attic, Dan is the guy you call. He has a wildlife biology degree from Clemson, and he runs All Things...

  11. 8 The Bees of Brooklyn
    (pp. 239-272)

    My son likes things that buzz. Most of his toys are animated in some way, and often his wooden toy box will begin buzzing or babbling as some action figure at the bottom of the pile suddenly decides to come to life.

    Earlier this spring, he liked bees. Nicola took him to see the filmQueen of the Sun, which makes the case that honeybees are a critical part of our food system, and yet instead of treating them well, we’ve been exploiting them as industrial livestock, shipping them cross-country on semis, replacing their honey stores with corn syrup, leaving...

  12. 9 Zoopolis
    (pp. 273-325)

    I’ve been struggling with the meaning of biodiversity as I putter around our autumnal garden, planting perennials I bought at an end-of-season sale, bee balm, asters, and purple coneflowers, all native to this continent perhaps but not this city. Providing food, water, cover, and places to raise young, it seems to me, is a way to directly address the diversity of habitat, with the hope that species richness will increase in response. Given the host of creatures that have shown up by now, I’d say this hope has been realized.

    What’s still troubling me about my yard, however, is the...

  13. Epilogue On the Doorstep
    (pp. 326-330)

    It’s spring again. Surveying my own backyard, I see the stirrings of coexistence. The peaches are blushing, the Carolina wrens are nesting in our mailbox, and the squirrels are scraping holes in the lawn in search of buried acorns. The crawlspace, happily, is comfortingly quiet.

    Our yard is continuing to evolve: the trees we planted have gained some girth, and the shrubs have spread out beneath them. You’d never know much of it was recently asphalt. As the plantings leaf out and bloom, I hope the sign looks less like an excuse and more like inspiration.

    The National Wildlife Federation’s...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 331-348)
  15. Select Bibliography
    (pp. 349-354)
  16. Index
    (pp. 355-363)