Citizen Scientists Musings: Let the Yard Go

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Many years ago I ran across an article by naturalist and author Joseph Kastner in one of those promotional magazines that come in the mail. The magazine was published by whoever was providing our family's auto insurance at the time, so the dissonance between the theme of the magazine and the article caught my attention.

It was a short but intriguing piece on an experiment he did in which he deliberately neglected the care of his yard, just to see what would happen. I was fascinated by the article and ended up reading it several times. Admittedly, part of my fascination was due to my dislike of mowing the lawn, but it was also remarkable to me that this guy was ready to sacrifice his yard in the cause of science. His front yard had a front hedge that made it easier to mask his radical new landscaping from neighbors, but they eventually caught on and yes, he did get some complaints.

At the same time, he got a live demonstration of plant succession and a wealth of interesting plants and animals as regular visitors or residents of his yard. Through that summer, Kastner enjoyed hearing more birds than he had before, wildflowers, wild fruits and berries--almost as if nature were trying to compensate him for the grief he was getting from his neighbors.

A not-uncommon condition of the car-cum-pantry during a cold Rhode Island winter.

So, it was many years later when we were living in Coventry, Rhode Island one very cold winter when I remembered Kastner's article. We had a one-car garage and two cars. The crankier of the two autos stayed in the garage and my '89 Infiniti sat outside at the mercy of the weather. One day as I tramped out through a frosty fall morning to get in the car, I noticed several acorns on the floor of the front passenger side. I didn't really think anything of it until a day or two later, when there were distinctly more of them. Clearly, someone was using my car as a silo for their winter food supply. I thought of cleaning the acorns out, but I thought of Kastner's article and realized that this might be interesting to watch. I continued using the car as normal, and Denise good-naturedly didn't mind the acorns when she rode with me.

I suspected the little hoarders were mice; I couldn't see how squirrels or chipmunks could find their way into a locked car with acorns in tow. The store grew until the front passenger floor was completely covered about four or five nuts deep when the first snows fell. During all this time I never saw them coming or going. But the snow also helped me confirm that they were mice or mouse-sized given the delicate footprints and tail marks in the snow leading to and from the car.

At about this time the pile stopped growing. Gradually, over the next few weeks, the store of acorns slowly diminished. I had no idea where they were going until one morning I tried to start the car and found the battery dead; a fact of life when you keep your car outside in a New England winter. I popped the hood to pull it out--the local auto parts store would let you exchange old batteries for a discount. As I lifted the hood, I found a pile of broken acorn shells coating the flat surface cover over the engine block. It all fell into place. I don't know if the mice actually lived in the car (I suspect they probably did), and had their daily meal of acorns after I got home, dining inside a toasty engine compartment.  I laughed myself silly at this discovery and showed Denise what was under the hood. She found it just as entertaining as I did.

Yes, I imagine that the mice could have chewed through something vital, or built a nest that could have caught fire, etc., etc. But I thoroughly enjoyed watching that slice of life in a Rhode Island winter play out. I think I would not have begrudged the little critters even if something had happened. They were probably taking more risks that I was.

So I modestly suggest that even in this day of overzealous neighborhood associations, take a part of your yard, even if it's just a corner, and let it go. Let nature do what nature will do. Watch it from day to day and make notes and take photographs. If someone objects, put up an officious sign that reads "Science Experiment in Progress. Do Not Disturb." Or, perhaps you can dream up a better gambit.  If you don't do a deliberate experiment, be willing to enjoy what Serendipity throws your way, like when the melting snow revealed our back lawn ravaged by a colony of meadow voles that created a tiny village, unseen, unheard, and unsuspected beneath the snow.

But that's another story.

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One Response to Citizen Scientists Musings: Let the Yard Go

  1. I like the sign idea. That might work in some areas. But home owner’s associations I’ve read about can be much worse than city zoning inspectors.

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