Alaskans can bring ‘Suburban Safari’ to their own backyards

Why do we put New Year’s resolutions smack in the middle of winter?

In Alaska, snowmelt refreshes the ecosystem, preparing it for spring’s rebirth. As the snow shrinks back, the season inches forward into spring. I’m noticing more activity – not because the chickadees, the ravens and the squirrels were not around in winter, but because I’m not rushing from place to place.

There’s a little patch of woods next to my cabin, but I don’t know anything about it. Last summer, when I moved in, I managed only to make a beeline to the edge of my property. I discerned that yes, there’s a few rose bushes back there and no, there aren’t any bent-over trees strong enough to hang from, and went back inside. There are miniature squirrel middens near every stump. I never found out where our squirrel lives, or when our new winter neighbor, a raven, comes to visit.

What is it about my soil that puffball mushrooms love? How old are the white spruce that dwarf our cabin? Was it a dog, a fox or a falcon that dropped a feathered wing from its kill a dozen yards from our front door? What dramas unfold each day in our own backyards?

Hannah Holmes wrote a book about that last question: “Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn.” For a year, she went outside to observe her tiny patch of land, bringing in experts to explain everything from groundwater to insect populations.

It’s easier to notice your surroundings if you know a little about what you’re seeing. Illustration by Kelsey Gobroski.

Now, back to New Year’s resolutions. Many of us resolve to lose weight. That creates a disconnect; I’d rather stay warm and comfortable in the winter, not prepare for the summer sun.

Right now, however, I can watch the snow melt away, and in my restless anticipation, I want to resolve to observe my surroundings this spring. Less out of obligation and more out of compulsion – I mean, there are fascinating happenings afoot!

Whether you are in Fairbanks, Nome, Seattle or Amman, resolve to watch the year unfold from the perspective of the microcosm surrounding your home.

A new kind of book club

You don’t have to read “Suburban Safari” to hone in your power of observation. Just go outside and listen.

Let’s patch together these observations – in the comments section here, or on Twitter. Feel free to read and discuss the book if you want some good ideas for where to start. Right now, I can’t figure out what to call this project – Outdoor observatory? Lawnchair lessons? Any suggestions?

As the last snow fades away this year, I’ll graduate from college. It will be a perfect time to settle down, take a deep breath, and observe. Then ask a question. Maybe draw you a picture about what I learn. Then sit back, put my own human worries on the back burner, and observe some more.


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