A little over four and a half years ago my family moved from Payson City in Utah County to a new home at the desert’s edge in San Juan County, Utah. Living on the Colorado Plateau has been something of a dream come true. Besides reintroducing me to a more natural (for me) environment, living here helps me cope with the pressures of caring for a high maintenance, special needs child. Even on days when I can’t leave the yard I can walk out on the rickety second-story porch and see the trunk of a rainbow standing only a few hundred feet away or take in the silky ripple of cloud shadow and sunshine across the pinyon-juniper forest stretching miles to the south. Thunderstorms in Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado, and southeast Utah ring and electrify our kiva-roof sky. At night, a very good view of the Milky Way’s spiraling embrace and the ceaseless anthesis and waning of moonlight keep imagination astir nearly until the moment I fall asleep.
Just as satisfying as the re-immersion into moving depths of beauty have been chances to learn how to live with other species with whom we share this place. It’s been decades since I lived in an area as €”can I say €œwild €? €”as this, where encounters with insects, animals, and undomesticated plants happen most days, even in winter. It’s become clear to me that I’ve lived most of my life with a raging case of what Erich Fromm called biophilia €”an attraction to living things and zoetic systems. I deeply enjoy finding a stance in relation with creatures of all kinds.
I’ve written many times (here, here for instance) about the Woodhouse’s toads (Bufo woodhousii) that live in the yard. The second spring after our arrival we hired a man with a small tractor to plow our garden area, which resulted in the gruesome deaths of two toads still hibernating in the softened and better-watered garden soil. It hasn’t been lost on me that this common toad, one of the most efficient biological pest control blessings that can come to your garden, is disappearing from areas that used to support healthy populations. Cars, lawnmowers, and loss of breeding habitat have hastened its loss. I hoped to make my garden into a toad-safe zone, not only for the advantage their presence provides the garden but also to enjoy their charming company. Thinking about the tilling/toad mortality problem, I decided to try building raised-beds, which we’re still in process of putting in. The beds are three feet wide €”the width of a roll of weed barrier €”and about ten feet long. In the spring, I can easily turn the self-contained dirt over with a shovel, which so far has not resulted in injury or death to a single toad.
The big surprise has been how much the toads like the beds, especially the ones sporting weed barrier covers. The first year I put beds in I noticed that the weed barrier would start rustling loudly at sunset. Toads emerged from beneath the plastic through the holes I’d cut when I set tomato, pepper, or squash seedlings through through it. It turns out these animals prefer to aestivate in the softer, deeper dirt beneath the weed barrier, which keeps the beds warmer, more moist, and makes them more inviting overall than surrounding bare ground, which bakes hard in the high desert summer. The beds also seem to make up somewhat for the loss of gopher and prairie dog burrows, disease having shrunk down the populations of both animals to almost nobody. Toads, tiger salamanders, and various insects are among those who make heavy use of active and inactive burrows.
This spring, I put in five new raised beds. Old hands at recognizing them, the toads laid claim as soon as I finished building, filling, and covering them. Last spring, I also put in a €œtoad spa € at the end of the flowerbed, a black plastic seed tray I keep filled with water. Because we ended up with three or four very small toads last year, I added flat stones to the spa so that the little guys, able to plop in easily, would not find themselves trapped by the tray’s straight walls. They learned immediately to use the pool stairs. On evenings capping off hot, dry days, it’s not unusual to find at least one fat bufo lounging in the spa, re-hydrating as it sops up water through seemingly impenetrable warty skin.
Over the past couple of years, the Woodhouse’s toads that frequent our garden have become more vocal, emitting chirps and other short noises. I’m not sure what to make of these mostly silent toads suddenly speaking up.
It isn’t that toads never talk. During the mating season, the males gather around irrigation catch ponds and belt out their wh-u-u-a-a-aah love bray. The garden toads’ words or single-sound sentences remind me of the language of small birds €”high-pitched pips. In the past, we’ve heard them occasionally make sounds like these when the cats harassed them or some other insult befell. But now some of the toads chirp frequently when we’re out among them. I suspect they might be developing this system as a kind of warning to help us avoid stepping on them or otherwise colliding. If that’s the case, I appreciate their help in avoiding accidents.
The hummingbirds that begin arriving mid- to late April have also made an impression on my family, one that carries into my children’s dreams. We set up feeders the first spring after we moved in and the kids began establishing a pretty intimate relationship with these intelligent, tough little birds. Back then, the black-chinned hummers (Archilochus alexandri) felt confident enough to sit on my kids’ fingers to dip into the nectar cups. Acquiring cats broke that trust, with some of the birds falling to the cats’ predation. Since we invite the birds into our yard, we have tried teaching the cats to leave them alone, with some success. Still, we keep watch and have not encouraged the birds to return to that previous trusting relationship.
Even though the hummingbirds do not behave as familiarly as they did, they’ll still flock to the feeders if you stand in front of cups and keep still. Some birds that return every year understand how the system works. Like the toads, they put it to good use. When the feeders run dry, one or more of the bolder hummers find me and urge me to refill them. This happened just a few days ago when a black-chinned bird, an immature male or a mature female, accosted me almost as soon as I stepped onto the back porch to wheel my special needs daughter up and down in preparation for feeding her. The bird followed flying off my right shoulder, then passed me, did a U-turn, flew back, then hung in the air about two feet out until it felt assured of eye contact. It whirred back to the empty feeders then repeated this phrase of flight.
Also on that same day, for the first time, a male rufous hummingbird (Selasphorus rufus) made a gesture of interest. I’m not sure why he did this, since these birds are generally very skittish, nowhere near as sociable as the black-chinned hummers. At the feeders, they are the most aggressive competitors, warning the black-chins off with angry buzzing chirps and unceasing midair body-slams. Habitual barroom brawlers, the rufi.
A mature male rufous is a spectacularly done-up bird, adorned in shiny coppery or orange feathers and, at his throat, a neon reddish-orange gorget. As I approached the feeders while pushing my daughter in her chair, this bird left the feeders €”totally expected. But as I turned the wheelchair I noticed he didn’t simply zoom away but flew parallel to the porch and then hung in the air, hovering just the other side of the nearest post. Something was up. I watched the bird closely as I turned the wheelchair and started back down the porch. When I had taken just a couple steps, I saw the bird hovering. At my look, it made a wide arc onto the porch and headed toward me. This bird was making an approach; after four years of hummingbird watching, I recognized the particular phrase of flight. The rufous flew directly at my face at a cautious, non-aggressive speed then stopped inches from my eyes and hung midair, looking me over. Birds absolutely make eye contact. Along with other animals, they accomplish a great deal of communication this way. It’s a bit hard to feel hummingbird eye contact because their eyes are so small and dark, but you can learn. Hummingbirds were my first teachers in the art of avian eye contact. That was absolutely the closest I’ve ever seen a rufous hummingbird and I stood still and held my breath as the strikingly handsome bird satisfied whatever questions it had then buzzed away.
European paper wasps (Polistes dominula) have built nests under the back porch roof, along the cobblestone retaining wall, and in upper corners of garage doors. As the name suggests, these wasps are not native to this country but live abundantly from the Mediterranean Sea to China. They arrived in the U.S. in the early 80s and have spread across the country in less than thirty years. Their black and yellow striping sometimes causes them to be mistaken for yellow jackets €”my daughter made that error €”but they’re longer in the body, have longer legs, and behave nowhere near as aggressively as do yellow jackets.
I lived with European paper wasps in Payson. They hung their paper nests beneath the front porch roof and flew down to drink whenever I watered the herb garden. As closely as we sometimes shared space, I found these wasps respectable neighbors. For an invasive, non-native species, they provide appreciable biological pest control, feeding upon cabbage butterfly larvae, tomato hornworm larvae, and tent caterpillars. The other day, we witnessed one catch a fly. Some fly bites not only hurt but can also result in (among other illnesses) cellulitis, a painful, even dangerous disease.
European paper wasps frequent the hummingbird feeders to sip sugar water, resting boldly on the nectar’s surface tension, legs spread wide like water striders’. Look-alike yellow jackets have neither the right body shape nor the necessary confidence to set down directly on the water. They land on the cups’ edges, balance there, and dip in or, if the cups are low, scrabble carefully down to nectar’s edge. When yellow jacket traffic increases toward the middle of summer and into autumn, they’re inclined to fall in the nectar and we have to rescue them. This never happens to the European paper wasps, who also drink water from the toad spa, the ends of their legs visibly dimpling the water’s surface shine.
European paper wasps can and will sting any creature they think poses a threat to their nests, but I have yet to have one sting me or even make a warning pass. I’ve been stung lots of times by yellow jackets, including one very close call where my children, their uncles and I stirred up a nest as we hiked through a forested canyon. Paper wasps appear to study the situation before acting. They not only seem able to recognize a frequently appearing human but also able to recognize non-threatening activities around their nests, such as running a garden hose up over the retaining wall very near their paper combs. Also, it’s not unusual for a wasp to fly up to me while I’m wheeling my daughter up and down and even to follow us, as if out of curiosity. I’ve witnessed similar behavior from other wasps when I’m hiking. A pepsis or tarantula wasp might suddenly alter its course to circle me closely two or three times as I walk along then fly off to go about its business. Because my daughter doesn’t react well to insect bites or stings, I tend to shoo off paper wasps to reduce the risk of accidents. They don’t seem to take my dismissal personally, even when I clip them.
European paper wasps might pose a threat to some birds, not because they dislike birds but because they like to nest in birdhouses. While these insects are experiencing what’s called €œecological release € €”that is, they have no native predators or parasites to control their numbers €”many experts assert confidently that, sooner or later, some opportunistic species or another will begin culling their numbers. Right now, they’re living in their golden age.
So, questions: In living so closely with these animals and insects, have I stripped them of their wildness? Are they being domesticated, cultivated, or tamed? Am I doing the toads disservice in providing them comfy beds and a garden that attracts insects they like to eat, a spa where they can satisfy their thirsts, and safe passage?
In supplying the black-chinned, broad-tailed, and rufous hummingbirds nectar to fuel their daily bug-hunts, am I somehow disadvantaging them? Does responding to the birds’ social gestures somehow ruin them?
In taking the risk of allowing paper wasps to live in peace on my back porch and retaining wall rather than blasting them at night, when they’re blind, with a can of insecticide fitted with a nozzle that shoots a 20-ft. stream of poison, am I failing to do my part to further mankind’s dominion over the earth?
The reason I wonder is because in reading Terry Tempest Williams’ Finding Beauty in a Broken World I came across this sentiment:
The prairie dogs in the far north area are unmarked, unstudied €”wild. They are so beautiful in this mountain setting of ponderosa pines and sage meadows (p. 141).
By €œunmarked, unstudied € she means in comparison to the prairie dog population she’s helping conduct research on. Her words suggest that the prairie dogs that are being studied, each wearing paint tagging to help researchers identify individual dogs, are no longer wild and suffer diminished beauty because of the human touch upon their lives. This, even though the dogs live free in their home colony in Bryce Canyon National Park.
Which led me to wonder: Just how do folks define the word €œwild € when it comes to Nature? Why might an animal be thought so much more beautiful for having little or no contact with humans than an animal of the same species that interfaces even slightly with people?
If human contact de-wilds a creature, does that mean that people cannot be considered cogently wild in any remote sense?
Do you know what’s really wild?