In the early morning of April 28, I tiptoed into my dew-coated backyard in Merrick to watch as an orange sun slowly migrated upward, sending its rays streaming through the hundreds of flower-covered branches on the three cherry and two apple trees that my wife and I planted nearly 20 years ago when we first moved in.
It is a glorious moment that I await each year, when I can stand and breathe in the sheer beauty of those life-sustaining flowers, all white and pink. Each is such a tiny, seemingly insignificant thing. Collectively, however, these flowers constitute a powerful force.
This is the natural world reborn in what was once a virtually lifeless suburban backyard. When my wife and I moved in, our yard was all lawn except for a handful of hydrangea, holly and Japanese yew bushes, two scrawny dogwood trees and one ornamental cherry around the edges.
In the early years in our home, we ripped out about half of the lawn to make way for many more trees, bushes and flowers, a number of them native species. We wanted to recreate, in a sense, the backyards that we knew as children. I grew up in rural Yaphank, in Suffolk County, surrounded by a dense forest of white pine and oak trees. My wife was raised in Sofia, Bulgaria’s capital, but spent many days in her family’s village of Rajdavitsa, amid cherry orchards full of wildflowers.
We wanted trees through which squirrels and birds could scurry and construct their nests. We wanted a natural habitat.
Two decades later, I’m proud to say that we have one. The cherries that we planted are more than 20 feet tall, and the apples, over 30 feet. All were purchased as one-foot bare-root saplings for a couple dollars each from the Arbor Day Foundation. We also planted four arborvitae, three maples, two white pines, two dwarf Alberta spruces, a Japanese maple, many more hydrangeas and hollies, boxwoods, barberries, red osier dogwoods, butterfly, raspberry and blackberry bushes, forsythias, fountain and maiden grasses, euonymuses, lilies, lilacs, hostas, black-eyed Susans, peonies and purple cone flowers, among others.
Where once there was no wildlife, now we have bees and butterflies and birds — red cardinals, blue jays, European starlings, grackles, house sparrows, Baltimore orioles and my wife’s favorite, mockingbirds. We’ve even had birds build nests in our trees, including a robin and a mourning dove. I love that. There are also squirrels, which eat our apples and, occasionally, our tomatoes, as well as raccoons and opossums here and there.
This year we certified our yard as a Wildlife Habitat with the National Wildlife Federation. We started the simple process by answering a few quick questions: Does your yard provide shelter and food for wildlife? Is there a water source from which wildlife can drink? Are you committed to natural yard maintenance, without the use of synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers? Then you pay a fee — certification is a fundraiser for this nonprofit environmental organization. Finally, NWF sends you a beautiful green metal sign, which we staked in our front yard’s center bed for all our neighbors to see as they’re out walking their dogs or jogging by.
The sign sends a message that our yard is a safe place for wildlife.
Between 1982 and 2001, 34 million acres of open space, an area the size of Illinois, were lost to development — roughly four acres per minute, or 6,000 acres a day. More than 10 million of those acres were covered over to make way for houses, buildings, lawns and pavement between 1982 and 1997, according to the U.S. Forest Service, which projects that America will lose another 26 million acres to development by 2030.
Each of us has a choice: We can leave our yards as lawn and pavement, or start planting to restore at least some of what has been lost. Collectively, we could reshape suburbia from a traditionally wildlife-averse landscape to a habitat that welcomes wild creatures of all shapes and sizes.
The family from which we purchased our home were the original owners of the house, which was constructed shortly after World War II. It was among the first homes built in the area. The couple, in their early 80s when we bought it from them, spoke of a time when farmland stretched from the block just north of us to Merrick Road. That plot is now a shopping center. South of our home was covered by wetlands — what people in the mid-20th century thought of as swamp. It’s now all homes, the wetlands filled in to construct row upon row of split-level ranches, many double or triple their original size.
We cannot undo the past. We can, however, commit to a more sustainable future. To learn more about how you can certify your yard with the National Wildlife Federation, go to www.nwf.org.
Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.