Small Gestures

2,486 total words    

10 minutes of reading

Photo Credit: Photo credit: domo k. (CC BY 2.0)

In September on the West Coast, the onset of the rainy season brings back the daytime frogs. There’s just enough rain to keep the plants watered but not enough to make me miserable, and I’m glad to hear the frog’s chirrup-croak-creak. I often find them in the garden—they’re small, the size of my thumb, and brilliant green with black markings. I catch them gently so I can look at them closely, these creatures who have returned to re-inhabit our restored property.

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In conservation circles, restoration has largely meant returning an ecosystem to a specific baseline—perhaps pre-European contact or pre-Industrial Revolution. Many conservationists envision dramatic, large-scale restorations, where backhoes and other heavy equipment are used to reshape a river to its “natural” state, for example, and wire gabions are installed on the outside of river meanders to prevent erosion. Or still grander: restoration may involve creating a national park, such as Quasuittuq National Park, which the Canadian government recently created on Bathurst Island in Canada’s Arctic Archipelago. 

As Emma Marris notes in Rambunctious Garden, North Americans generally prefer such grand gestures. She quotes Ilkka Hanski, who says that we can learn from United Kingdom residents, who “find it exciting to see nature that is small [and] enjoy nature in their own neighbourhood.”

In our yard, we aren’t restoring to a specific point in time—this area was developed fifteen years ago, and it’s unrealistic to return it to coastal rainforest or even Garry oak meadow. We’re dealing with Hanski’s “small nature,” rebuilding ecosystem function, process, and diversity. We’re creating a “novel” ecosystem, with some native plants but also vegetables, fruits, and ornamentals suited to our climate. Our aim is to attract pollinators of all kinds; birds, amphibians and reptiles, along with whatever else can thrive in our garden ecosystem; and to enjoy observing and being part of this everyday nature. We rely on the sounds and sights of local wildlife and plants to tell us whether or not we’re on the right track. 

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I sometimes forget how much we’ve done to this two-and-a-half acres of earth in the four short years we’ve lived here. 

When we bought the place, we saw it as a blank slate upon which we could build a vegetable garden and a perennial garden. It wasn’t until we started digging that we realized the magnitude of the challenges we faced. The previous owners cut down most of the trees on the property to make lumber and firewood, pushed dirt around with their backhoe over the entire property, burned piles of logging slash in several locations, and compromised the slope we share with our next-door neighbour. We have no soil profile to speak of and, since we live in a place (accurately) called Cobble Hill, the dirt is full of rocks, cobbles, and boulders.

We’ve persevered despite these limitations, creating an oasis, not just for us but for local wildlife as well. I can hear the change as much as I can see it.

The spring frogs are nothing like the fall frogs, for example. The fall frogs are solitary croakers who hide up near the house, whereas the spring frogs are a group of what could be thousands of slimy bodies, their throats bulging and pulsing with the call of many pitches, straining to be heard above their neighbours. They ring the marsh at the bottom of our property, yelling their existence from April until June. Then one evening you suddenly realize it’s silent, except for the occasional call of a barred owl. It’s as though all the frogs have disappeared mysteriously overnight, slipped back into the marsh and paddled away.

The frog chorus is a signal that it’s time to plant the vegetable garden. This was the first thing we created when we moved in, inside a deer-fenced pen and with an attached garden shed. We put down cardboard to suppress weeds and grass, then built raised beds over the top, as the ground was too hard and cobbly to dig. We brought in good soil to fill the beds, hoping that the goodness will eventually leach into the ground under each bed and allow us to dig deeper. We planted three apple trees and an assortment of raspberries, blueberries, and strawberries.

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Not long after the spring frog chorus comes the robust energy of the local marsh waterfowl. They wake me in the early morning, flapping their wings and feet against the water, ducks quacking and geese honking. They call incessantly, as though they’re arguing over who owns which part of the marsh. Their calls echo around the bowl of the marsh itself, where drifts of water lilies push up against alder and willow shrubs.

Eventually the various birds settle down, having finished mating, and they turn to the familial responsibilities of incubating eggs. The last two years we’ve had a Canada goose family at the bottom of our property. The female generally stays close to where we suspect the nest is, though the male will range farther away. Then one morning there are little downy chicks—three of them this year.

We watch from the living room window with binoculars, counting chicks and noticing how close they stay to their parents. Like the spring frogs, one day they’re gone—likely back into the world of the marsh or off to the water-filled quarry nearby.

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This spring we were visited by a raucous Stellar’s jay and inundated with Northern flickers, who drum on anything they can (including the house) to send their mating call. And of course there are the hummingbirds. They start to buzz around in April, so I put out the feeder and we hang baskets of fuchsias around the front porch. They love both the feeder and the flowers, zipping around, loading up on sugary goodness to keep their wings in constant motion. I catch them sometimes in the perennial garden, sucking nectar out of the forsythia or other plants, but they definitely prefer the fuchsias. 

In June the dragonflies arrive—prehistoric creatures that remind me of my favourite topic when I was a child: helicopters. They come up from the marsh and zoom around our garden, resting here and there on different plants. They are numerous and beautiful, in shades of iridescent blue, green, and red, and come in a range of sizes. Sometimes one of the dogs catches sight of a dragonfly out of the corner of his or her eye and tries to chase it, but they are too fast and agile to be downed by a lumbering canine.

With the dragonflies come the mourning doves, who call constantly all summer. At first I mistook them for owls, but then remembered I’d heard the same sound in South Africa, where a colleague had identified them. They’re relatively new to our area. We’ve only heard them for the past year or two. 

Amidst this explosion of life, we’ve also experienced a few losses. I miss the quail, of which there were many when we first moved in. One flock in particular travelled regularly through our front yard, ducking in and out of the cedar hedge along the fence line. They have such a funny, bobbing gait, until they run—then it looks as though they’re gliding over the ground. I suspect that the neighbourhood cats (the same ones that poop in my vegetable garden) are to blame for their demise, and it saddens me not to see them anymore. 

However, other wonders have revealed themselves to us. We’ve seen a blue grouse and her chicks cross the septic field, which used to be a thicket of invasive Scotch broom, thistles, and Himalayan blackberry vines. I tackled these weeds after we finished building the vegetable garden, first pulling out the broom and then zealously chopping off the thistles and blackberries with a bladed weed whacker. I had to make several passes to cut them all down. When the thistles returned, I carefully anointed each one with a high concentration vinegar/soap mix and waited for it to die. It worked well: I only had to do one more pass with the weed whacker, and now I can stay on top of stray blackberry vines by pulling them up by hand. 

Restoration is as much about creating habitat as it is leaving ecosystems to do their own thing. 

Other than removing several trailer loads of invasive Scotch broom, we’ve left the acre below the back fence largely untouched, with long grasses, tree stumps and snags, and a small pond lined with cattails. The deer hide in the tall grasses, though we can see their trails and where they’ve bedded down to rest. This year a painted turtle made her way up from the marsh and through that back acre to lay her eggs on the cleared septic field. 

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One of the most obvious things we’ve done is plant trees. Not only did we need privacy from our neighbours, but trees give the property more vertical shape—and provide more habitat for wildlife. Tree-planting also solidified our connection to this land: you don’t plant trees unless you expect to stay and watch them grow.

We planted over twenty trees, their names like the seeds of a rosary running through my fingers: Austrian pine, Douglas fir, catalpa, laburnum, oak, grand fir, maple, chestnut, red-tipped spruce, deodar cedar, flowering cherry, Korean dogwood, hemlock, and cedar. Many were gifts, others came from the discount bin at our local nursery, but we also had some—a chestnut, for example—that my mother-in-law had raised from a seedling. That tree is now seven feet tall.

As our property gained more shape and cover from the trees, we decided to soften the landscape and create more habitat by putting in a perennial garden opposite the vegetable garden, at the east side of the house, and a woodland garden under the hemlock and fir that grow on the north side of the house. Given the cobbly, denuded soil, we had someone excavate the lower part of the garden with a backhoe and move rocks into place to create a wall along the back of the garden. I cleaned up the rest of the existing garden by hand: raking out needles and cones from under the fir trees, and weeding out the top of the rock wall. 

When I add it all up, I’m surprised to discover that we brought in at least ten yards of good topsoil to fill these gardens. You know what they say: always start with good soil (especially when your existing soil is a silty clay that supports hardly anything but Scotch broom).

The first summer after planting we had a fairly full perennial garden with a lovely variety of blooms and foliage shapes that made it a perfect habitat for local wildlife: irises, daylilies, Russian sage, barberry, cinquefoil, daisies and more. The rock wall turned out particularly well, supporting a cascade of heathers and creeping thyme. 

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I weed the perennial garden early each summer. The mulch tends to keep the weeds fairly manageable. Crouched among the plants, I see small garter snakes everywhere. They’ve only been around for the past couple of years, some with a red stripe and others with a yellow stripe. Sometimes they sun themselves on a small rock in our inner yard, then slip away when one of the dogs appears. The dogs are fascinated by this slithering creature that pushes the grass down in its wake. They’ve never harmed one, but do watch them intently. 

As the summer deepens, the bees come out in full force to taste the goodies in our gardens: rudbeckia, coneflower, monarda, hydrangea, heather, lavender, yarrow. A who’s who of my favourite plants. They may not all be native plants, they may in fact be the “ornamentals” that some purists disdain, but they attract pollinators to our novel ecosystem, which is exactly the function we hoped they’d fulfill. 

We have several kinds of bees—one of which we discovered is a solitary ground-nesting bee that builds a nest close to other ground-nesting bees. We found a whole grid of ant-like holes in the ground that belong to bees. An exciting discovery! 

We also have beautiful butterflies—the swallowtail, the cabbage whites, and the dun skipper, and others I haven’t been able to identify.

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By August, we descend into drought and everything is parched. The lawn is a mass of dry hummocks interspersed with pebbly depressions, and the grasshoppers, crickets, and beetles emerge. Everywhere you walk, grasshoppers jump up from the dry grass—excellent food for the snakes. The daytime hum of the grasshoppers is loud and insistent, the sound continuing into the evening as the crickets take over. The hummingbirds rest more often in the tree canopy between flights, likely exhausted by the heat.

Swallows dip and dive in the air in the early evening, catching insects for dinner. The blue heron finally returns to the marsh, its grawcking call echoing across the water. Two years ago we even had a black bear trundle through the yard, passing through on his way to somewhere important.

In the deepening drought we irrigate carefully to make sure our plants survive but to avoid drawing down our well. We have networks of soaker hoses throughout the gardens to keep watering targeted and efficient, and these are covered in mulch to retain moisture. We’ve also chosen most of our plants on the basis of their relative drought-resistance.

In September, we’re back at the season where we started, when the light, fall rains are enough to once again summon the call of tiny frogs from the gardens. There’s not much audible wildlife around during the winter season. But we know there are bears and cougars on the hiking trails, even if we don’t always see them. And the yard is full of rabbits, which the dogs love, given the “chocolates” they leave behind.

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Being an active participant in this restoration has been rewarding—it feels as though our yard is finally coming to life again, resuscitated by our extensive gardening. 

Our yard may not be a strictly native ecosystem, but it’s an ecosystem all the same, and it never fails to provide something new to hear or watch. We have deepened our connection to place by getting to know our property intimately, like a lover knows the lines on their partner’s face. We mark the calendar of the seasons by the flowers and insects we see and the birds that visit our property. We’ve created an oasis of nature in the midst of a neighbourhood and, given that other people on our street also have gardens, perhaps there’s some connectivity between them for different organisms. 

It feels good to enhance an ecosystem and see all the life that returns, as though it was out there all the time, just waiting for the right conditions. Now when the frog chorus swells, it feels like more than eager mating calls. It feels like an affirmation.

  • Sarah Boon

    Sarah Boon is freelance writer who covers the environment (wildfire, drought, flood), women in science, and mental health. Her work has appeared in LongreadsLiterary HubHakai MagazineTerrain.orgScienceNature, and other publications. She is a co-founder and serves on the Board of Science Borealis, where she was formerly the editorial manager.

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