USC professor studies the collision of nature and man, starting in his own backyard

books@thestate.comMay 16, 2013 

  • If You Go

    James Barilla will be a panelist during the session “Nature Speaks,” at the S.C. Book Festival at noon Sunday The session also will include John Cely (“Cowasee Basin: The Green Heart of South Carolina”) and Helen Scott Correll (“Middlewood Journal: Drawing Inspiration from Nature”). Naturalist Rudy Mancke will moderate, in Carolina Meeting Room B.

    The festival will run from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday and noon to 4 p.m. Sunday at the Columbia Metropolitan Convention Center, 1101 Lincoln St. Admission is free.

    At a Glance

    “My Backyard Jungle: the Adventures of an Urban Wildlife Lover Who Turned His Yard Into Habitat and Learned to Live With It” by James Barilla. Yale University Press, 363 pages, $28.

A wind chime tinkles as a morning breeze stirs the cool, springlike air.

Below the eaves – and the chime – hangs a mailbox that a family of wrens has filled with its nest, despite the fact that nesting boxes hang, unused, throughout the surrounding yard. Clipped to the mailbox with a wooden clothespin is a note directing letter and package carriers to the back door. Best not to disturb the nesters.

And herein lies the unintended lesson for James Barilla, an assistant professor in the Master of Fine Arts program at USC whose family turned their Heathwood yard into a habitat where people and wildlife can live together:

You can have your hopes for harmony, but nature will do what nature wills.

“It’s really kind of a stress buster . . . a form of meditation,” Barilla says of creating the habitat, certified by the National Wildlife Federation. “The only time I get impatient is when I’m in conflict with other critters.”

Such as wrens nesting in your mailbox.

Squirrels ruining the peaches on your fledgling fruit trees. (“Sharing,” Barilla says wryly on page 68, “is apparently an alien concept in squirrel society.”)

And some critter forever unidentified setting off a terrifying nighttime racket in your under-house plumbing. (“He’s not in the tub. He’s under the tub . . . Our eyes meet, registering the fact that he’s real and he’s big. No mouse. No palmetto bug. . . . This has the feeling of a nightmare about it.”)

Still, Barilla has found the process rewarding enough to share, in hopes of encouraging others to experiment as he has: thoughtfully.

“I’d always been interested in wildlife, but I’d never had the patience to do the scientific method (of a 21st-century biologist),” says Barilla, 45. “I’m more interested in field work than I am in lab work.”

Field work as in sipping a cup of black tea on the backyard patio as he watches out for the robin’s egg abandoned during a recent storm, or keeps an eye peeled for the marauding squirrel that commutes to Barilla’s yard via utility wires.

“I’ve tried to have that kind of (scientific) experience” in researching and writing “My Backyard Jungle,” says Barilla, who moved to Columbia from Chicago a few years ago and bought the family’s first house.

“Buying a house here, for the first time I’ve had habitat outside my door.”

That opportunity made Barilla think: “What could work here?”

What works are blueberry bushes and box gardens and beans in rows.

Pomegranates and figs and kumquats.

Hummingbirds and mockingbirds and titmice.

If Barilla always has loved nature – as a kid, he remembers in his book, he spent much time in the Massachusetts woods – he also is intrigued by what happens when Man intervenes in the natural world. Can Nature win against Man, or does man subvert natural outcomes with technology? And if he does, is that always bad?

Barilla’s first book, “West With the Rise: Fly-Fishing Across America,” concerned itself with whether his wife and he should pursue the non-natural process of in vitro fertilization.

Just as Barilla used fly-fishing as a metaphor for a larger life issue, so, too, does he use his backyard habitat: The yard is but a microcosm of what goes on in the world at large, in the coexistence between Man and Beast.

As in Barilla’s backyard – think marauding squirrel – those interactions are not always happy ones.

“I’m living in a subtropical environment, so that sort of leads me to (the idea of) where are humans exploding” – in so-called megacities in subtropical zones, Barilla says. “Could we have the species here that are kind of living out of habitat (elsewhere)?”

It’s unlikely that Heathwood ever will harbor the religiously significant rhesus macaques that Barilla found thriving in special sanctuaries in urban India, surrounded by human deprivation.

“I can’t imagine people tolerating what I saw happening – when you see the truckloads of food show up to feed the monkeys” as all around them, people struggle.

“It’s odd to us to show more reverence to animals than people.”

Nor will vervets shelter in the trees, as the so-called green monkeys do in Dania Beach, Fla. The monkeys, of African origin, years ago escaped from a wildlife attraction, taking refuge in greenswards behind local housing developments. The green areas have become a protected refuge, in large part because neighbors want it that way.

Barilla’s book also tells of Australians and Americans who long ago shipped in non-native species, intending to lure settlers with the wildlife of home.

The Australians brought in rabbits. Within years, vexed settlers were erecting fences to protect themselves from rampaging hordes of bunnies.

Another such experiment brought starlings – the birds of Shakespeare – to Central Park in New York.

“The weirdest part (of gathering tales for the book) was being in Central Park . . . in the middle of this giant flock – hundreds and hundreds of starlings,” Barilla recalls. Standing there, he thought back to the beginning of it all in 1890, when a New York entrepreneur named Eugene Schieffelin released a mere 60 caged European birds into the air over the park.

Written with the aid of a grant from USC and an advance from Yale University Press, Barilla traveled throughout the United States and the world to gather his tales and make his observations.

Yale released the book on Earth Day and since has arranged essays by Barilla in National Geographic online and The Atlantic.

“To me, it was the best of all possible worlds to have an academic press” publish the book, Barilla says. The press provided both the resources for travel and the credibility Barilla needs as a journalist and academic researcher.

Also, “I was comfortable with the notion that I don’t have to dumb it down” – that the book could reference science and be understood.

“I wanted it to be, ‘Yeah, you could do this in your own backyard, but it’s a complicated, complex and thoughtful thing.’”

Reach Schweickert at

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