Marla, in our extended backyard.
On a cool, bright autumn walk with Marla the dog, I got to thinking about NIMBY. Not In My Backyard. It implies a perceived threat to a space that represents ‘my backyard.’ But what defines a backyard? Fences? Where I live we have none.
We range freely through miles of forest, open meadow and wetland, far beyond the extent of the title deed that defines the 60 rural acres my partner and I own. This other land is semi-wild, with no roads, no power lines, the occasional ATV track, and an abundance of animal tracks. I assume that someone owns this other land; that’s how things have gone since the Europeans invaded. But for now, this is our extended backyard.
So then, what constitutes a backyard? If you’re an imperial power it means anything you want, up to and including the whole earth and as far out into space as you can grab. But what does it mean for the rest of us?
On my travels for the book I visited with conservation biologist Curt Meine in the midwestern state of Wisconsin. Near Madison, the capital, we explored a devastated landscape, the former site of a vast military munitions complex, which citizens are working hard to restore to a healthy Sauk Prairie landscape. They hope to take care of it, as part of their extended backyard. But where are the boundaries?
As Curt sees it, “In nature the boundaries of larger reality are never set. In my little local place I can walk around, grow a garden, watch the birds, keep an eye on the sand cranes and the wild turkeys. I can only see about a mile, but I know the river out there is connected all the way to the Mississippi River, 80 miles that way (he points southwest, more or less), that feeds eventually into the Atlantic Ocean, which is part of the global ocean system. It’s the same with landscapes, they can be as small as a few square feet where you’re standing, and as large as the planet. Among all the levels are feedback loops, so they all affect each other.
“This means you can’t have a healthy farm or forest, park or city, in a landscape that’s unsustainable, or on a planet where the climate is going haywire, temperatures are rising, oceans are acidifying, and the poles are melting, largely due to our actions. So there’s always this tension between wanting to save the world at large and wanting to focus all your energies close to home. At least if you can work well on your part, and others are working well on their part, eventually you can build a community of engaged people to collaborate on the larger pieces of the whole.”
Imagine if in our backyard, our extended backyard, there were no tar sands. No oil and gas pipelines. No nuclear plants. No tops blown off mountains for coal. No fracking. But we need energy, we need gas, we need…. Yes, yes, but just for a moment, imagine.
Meantime, join biologist Curt Meine in the long community struggle to restore one small sliver of this precious earth, the only backyard we’ve got. In Bold Scientists.