[Guest Story] Watching the Backyard - Columbia Land Trust
A backyard habitat member shares his joy of restoring habitat as a retired ecologist struggling with a recent illness, and the power gardens can have on young minds.


Over the past several months I have been struggling with a degenerative nerve disease that began six years ago and forced me to retire from teaching at the college level shortly thereafter. Part of the reason for revealing this is that our relatively advanced backyard habitat gives me a great deal of pleasure, even though I can no longer actively garden. Just being quiescent within it or watching from the house is of much value to me. Our two-thirds of an acre was nearly all grass when we bought the suburban place some 16 years ago, with its 1958 ranch house. This place became not only my personal little restoration project but also a wonderful outlet for my creative side—a bit of left brain, right brain. And now, a place for peacefulness and mindfulness. Right before becoming ill I completed a little wood-fired sauna that doubles as a tiny respite cabin tucked into the copse of conifers and deciduous trees.

As an ecologist, I know both qualitatively and quantitatively that our restoration work in our backyard has been successful and beneficial to wildlife. When I was teaching I always took pride in the fact that I could collect all the voucher specimens I needed from my own garden for the exams I gave my botany students. Over the years we kept casual records of the bird species nesting (24 from Anna’s hummingbirds to towhees laying three clutches) and visiting our place year-round (>90, including sharpies and brown creepers, but don’t get me started).

We have recorded a number of flying insects, including important native bees and syrphid flies. We have some 94% of the yard filled with diverse native plant species, including ground layers and even snags, which are dying or downed trees beneficial to insects and birds. We have three rain gardens, plus an old cedar gutter through which water flows and birds drink and bathe.

A year ago I finally let my ego get the best of me and asked that our place be evaluated by the Backyard Habitat Certification Program, managed jointly by Columbia Land Trust and the Audubon Society of Portland. We became the first platinum-level certification within the Phase I expansion in Clackamas County.

Recently, however, I learned how much more we had accomplished. When I went out to the mailbox at the street a young couple was passing by; as it turned out, they are high school seniors who were walking to the small neighborhood park adjacent to our place. I didn’t know them, but they stopped and said that they enjoyed our birds. When I looked puzzled they explained that when they are in the park they hear the many calls and songs of the birds making use of our habitat, and watch them flit about, and how much they enjoy that. They noted that they have seen our Backyard Habitat sign adjacent to our mailbox (along with our Pesticide-Free Zone ladybird beetle and the Audubon Lights Out signs). The two said they do not hear or see as many birds around anywhere else in our neighborhood.

This is all so wonderfully affirming. Sure, we can assess ourselves affirmatively, but when strangers stop us on the street to make note of our progress—especially young people—that is the goal I think we are all striving toward.

About this time a year ago the fringe-cups (Tellima grandiflora) were blooming throughout our place. Given their proclivity to grow along the edges of our pathways, they often bend into the knees—or belly-buttons—of those meandering about. This included my eldest grandson, Liam, who was just five years old then. He asked, “Papa, do you want some help getting rid of these weeds?”

Michael, PhD
Backyard Habitat Certification Program member