Urban residents bring the wild home.
I walked into this story knowing I would meet some charismatic people working to turn their backyards into wildlife habitat. After all, there are more than 3,000 properties in the Portland metro area enrolled in the Backyard Habitat Certification Program. I didn’t expect that I would walk away personally affected by the people I met.
I began with a trip through the hectic, suburban streets near Gresham to meet Eric Oswald, a deep-voiced, middle-aged man working toward his first backyard certification. We walked through his freshly tilled quarter-acre lot to observe his work, each step punctuated by an earthy aroma. Months prior, he had removed large swaths of invasive bamboo and peeled up almost 7,000 square feet of sod, creating a clean slate for rain gardens, bat boxes, and frog ponds.
He was eager to show me his red-osier dogwood and western redbuds, planted that week. New pots of trillium, ninebark, and mockorange had been set in patterns across his plot, waiting for their turn to meet the ground.
“I never understood what it meant to come out here and get my hands dirty.” He paused for a moment and gazed down at the soil.
“Now I do.” Oswald spent thirteen years in recovery from addiction and is now a drug and alcohol counselor, finding personal therapy in the dirt. It was evident upon meeting him that he wasn’t a typical gardener. “I think I’ll call the habitat my university.” He chuckled. “I’ll create a sign out front that says ‘Caution: Animals at Life.’” I left Oswald’s home feeling stirred by his accomplishments. It’s no easy feat to turn a regular lawn into a refuge for wildlife in a bustling city where very few others are doing the same.
I continued my backyard journey, 11 miles west to Janet Gifford’s Northeast Portland house. She welcomed me into her pale yellow home and put a teakettle on the stove. Gifford exuded the warmth of a longtime friend.
She pulled a pencil-marked paper from a stack on her dining room table and passed it over to me. In January, she recorded 83 birds of 12 different species visiting her platinum-certified backyard in under 45 minutes.
Then she asked me if I knew about mason bees, with which I had little familiarity. Her eyes grew large and a grin stretched across her face. “One mason bee does the pollination job of sixty honey bees,” she said, pointing her finger at me.
We walked out to her shed, where a wooden heart hung from a rope above her workspace. Her daughter had made it 15 years back as a field instructor in Outdoor School. Gifford pulled down a shoebox from a high shelf and set it on the counter. Inside the box were half a dozen reused tin containers. The top of each tin had several drilled holes. She took a few tins out of the shoebox and began slowly opening them. Hundreds of mason bee cocoons nestled in between soft squares of tissue. At that instant, I felt a mysterious warmth spread upward from my feet, ending in a gentle squeeze around my chest.
It wasn’t until I was driving home that I identified the feeling: nostalgia in its truest form. Tears welled up at this realization; Gifford’s mason bee cocoons had dug up something that had lain buried.
I spent my youth in the forests. My grandmother would often find me with dirt on my knees and under my fingernails. I collected moths, praying mantises, and caterpillars and watched them grow and change inside hole-poked mason jars and a large Coleman cooler I had converted into a terrarium. I had connected to nature by bringing it home, like Gifford does. As an adult, I look less closely at nature. Somehow and somewhere, those curiosities had fallen by the wayside.
Each spring, Gifford gives cocoons to neighbors and friends, spreading her little pollinators across Portland, and her backyard has become a model habitat, an archetype for others.
Gifford joined the Land Trust board last summer and is a volunteer technician for the program, and Oswald continues his work toward certification. These are just two of the many people rewilding their urban lives through the Backyard Habitat Certification Program. As surging development threatens the Portland metro area’s remaining green spaces, the program fosters opportunities to reawaken and stir the wild inside ourselves, and to let it influence, one by one, the individuals waiting to be stirred.
The Backyard Habitat Certification Program is a joint partnership between Columbia Land Trust and the Audubon Society of Portland.
Illustrations by Melissa Delzio