“Nature in the City.” Hmm. Is that actually a useful way to think about it?

This blog is about my yard in the Jamaica Plain/Roslindale/West Roxbury section of Boston. It’s not a big yard, probably about a tenth of an acre. But it’s where I have spent countless hours for more than 10 years building the soil and creating a friendly place for all the creatures that that live here: bugs, eastern woodland salamanders, brown snakes, birds, and whatever other critters happen past. It’s also where I’ve developed an intimate relationship with many native and invasive plants and bugs, as well as my vegetable garden. And it’s where I’ve spent a whole lot of time teaching my two sons, ages 3 and 12, and myself, about nature.

The word “nature” is interesting. You might have thought I was about to wax poetic about things like the call of the chickadee and the dewdrops on spiderwebs at dawn. And I still might do that sometimes. But — this blog is also about “nature,” in quotation marks, and why it’s really extremely odd that we persist in assuming that human beings somehow live outside it.

This is also a blog about climate change. Though I’ve only been here for 10 years, I notice that spring seems to happen earlier, and summer seems to last longer. Already I plant things later in the season than I might have before, thinking “well, I know it’s late June, but it will be warm enough through September at least — I’ll get at least one pumpkin out of this.” And I find myself ready to plant things like kale and potatoes in late February or early March. (This year it didn’t happen, though, because of all the snow that was still on the ground…)

Of course, thinking like this is also a way to not think about the bigger picture of what’s now happening. I spent most of last year reading books and articles about climate change, both academic and for a broader audience, as well as interviewing people, going to talks, etc., in order to write something about it for Seattle’s alternative weekly, The Stranger, where I once worked a long time ago. (Later I developed an academic background, not only in creative writing (Hollins College) but the history of science (I’m a Harvard PhD dropout). My undergrad degree was in English at the great University of Wisconsin-Madison).

But I found myself unable to turn what I was reading into a pithy little alt-journalism essay with a tidy beginning, middle and end; most of what I was experiencing as a result of this research just didn’t want to express itself that way. The very format seemed part of the problem, and after throwing out about 10 drafts the only thing I ended up writing was a piece of short fiction. If it ever gets published I’ll let you know.

I find myself in a place where I want to record the way (what people usually call) the “natural world”  is now, so that I can remember it in the future. So that my kids can remember it. Invasive species and all. (I put “natural” in quotes, because even though I no longer believe in the nostalgic/romantic/scientific/religious separation between humans and nature, the vernacular doesn’t yet allow for the expression of “nature” in any other way. Again, this problem of using ordinary language to express concepts that don’t have much reality outside of academia.) Is this blog a eulogy for what may soon be gone?

I am capturing a moment here, a moment there. The climate has already changed, after all.

I watch birds too. The photo at the top of this page is of a young male rufous hummingbird being photographed in my yard by a bander who drove out to my house from Cape Cod. The bird showed up at my hummingbird feeder early in November 2014 — a migrant, as the only native hummingbirds here are ruby-throated — and hung around for a week. For birders this was an important event, as this was the first rufous hummingbird ever recorded in Suffolk County. As far as we know, they normally live in the western U.S. and migrate to Mexico. Now, though, they are changing their range. Whether this is a result of climate change or, as some suggest, just due to the widespread popularity of hummingbird feeders, no one seems willing to say, yet — but I do think it’s one example of the unusual visitors we can expect to be seeing in coming years.

By the way, rufous hummingbirds might look delicate but they are actually pretty kick-ass little birds, able to withstand low temperatures and to fly for thousands of miles. I wonder if he will come back.