Photos by Margaret Sison
I FREEZE AS A STREAK OF SHADOW CATCHES MY EYE -- a few feet away, a male Cooper's hawk lands on a branch above the stream's second waterfall, its yellow eyes blazing with razor raptor awareness. Sound ceases as all potential prey fall silent in an adrenaline response, they for their lives and I to observe. A drink, a rush of wings, the danger is over. Bushtits return to their noisy foraging in the Santa Cruz Island mallow, yellow-rumped warblers chip their way through the ceanothus, and the ruby-crowned kinglet chatters in the bay laurel. I'm in my back yard in mid-Wilshire.
Eight years ago, my partner Joseph and I spent a month in the rain forests of Malaysia and Borneo, where our ears and eyes trained to be alert for the movement of a hornbill or an orangutan, the song of a pitta or the gurgle of a drongo. Our first morning back in L.A., we were assaulted by the sounds of mowers and leaf blowers -- the noisy arms in our urban war on nature. Unwilling to surrender our newly reclaimed innocence, we decided to create our own forest of life here in L.A. using California native plants, which would in turn attract California wildlife, programmed with sensors developed over millions of years to find, recognize and use native plants.
We turned the lawn to let the sun burn the roots, then cleared the remains. Mounds of sandy soil helped soften the La Brea Tar Pit bean-field clay and gave a boost to the roots of the more sensitive species like manzanita and ceanothus. We staked fast-growing Santa Cruz Island mallow and were reminded of tree supports we had seen in Japan. We built a three-tier waterfall with a small pond on a hill of sand edged with rocks we had collected on trips to foothill areas, and planted coral bells to bloom over the falls. A forklift brought in boulders that had been removed for housing developments in Arizona and Utah, the diagonal windswept grooves adding a nonlinear perspective. Pyracantha (non-native) and mahonia would supply berries for wintering and resident birds; flowering plants like Zauschneria californica, buckwheat, sages and ribes would produce flowers for hummingbirds and other pollinators like bees and butterflies. Mallows would provide gold and purple, fremontia (flannelbush) yellow, and Santa Cruz Island snapdragon red for our eyes. Sages and laurel sumacs would give us smells all year and dried leaves for incense. Night-blooming epiphytic cactus and bromeliads went into the Phoenix Canadian palm trunk, and South American bromeliads in pots half-circled the jacaranda that provided canopy and filtered light.
Our neighbors went into shock as they watched their property values sink. What appeared to be a chaotic bunch of weeds pushing beyond the borders of property and propriety didn't fit their fantasy of gentrification and comfort, not in a society where nature tends to be worshipped from afar -- or worse, exploited. Fallen magnolia leaves were left as mulch, and gardeners on either side glared at us in protest. A friend christened it Boo Radley's yard as the laurel sumacs and ceanothus grew so tall you couldn't see the front of the house. Eager tree trimmers saw opportunity and left cards on our porch. But we grew it. And they came.
First were the aggressive hummingbirds staking out territory. Then migrant songbirds on the Pacific flyway migration (Canada to Central America and back again) started stopping by for a bath, a drink and a bite. Wintering flocks of cedar waxwings entertained us with their high-pitched whistles and fingernail-polish-red tail tips, while a hermit thrush spent an entire winter in the yard playing hide-and-seek behind the rocks. Monarch butterflies floated down the driveway. So far, 70 species of birds, six species of butterflies, five species of bees, numerous unusual beetles, katydids, crickets, Western alligator lizards (decimated in Southern California by domestic and feral cats, which we remove with a licensed trap), plus the expected raccoons, possums and squirrels, have brought plenty of life to our urban oasis, making the windows more interesting for viewing than the television. A new aesthetic emerged: garden as constant performance art of the senses. We watch, hear, smell -- and are amazed by -- a continual parade of colors and movement. Water sprinklers, fertilizers, pesticides, leaf blowers, lawn mowers and edgers need not apply.
Along with more than 35,000 yards in the U.S. and Canada, we've been certified as a Backyard Wildlife Habitat by the National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat Program, which since 1973 has been helping people restore ecological balance by planning landscapes that take in the needs of wildlife. A sign hangs in our front yard that lets the curious know that we did the yard this way on purpose. Those aren't weeds. Embrace nature: Kill your lawn!
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Avian Aquatics, 312 Walnut St., Milton, DE 19968, (800) 788-6478,, offers waterworks for birds.
National Wildlife Federation Backyard Habitat Program, 11100 Wildlife Center Drive, Reston, VA 20190, (703) 438-6000 .
Los Angeles Audubon Society, 7377 Santa Monica Blvd. in Plummer Park, West Hollywood, CA 90046, (323) 876-0202;.