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Natural History of a House & Yard on Marine Street



Text & Photos by John McClellan

"Slight not what is near through aiming at what is far."

Euripides (c.480-405 BC)


We have a very nice, very small house and bit of land, 60 feet by 100' (1/7th acre), which lies at the foot of Flagstaff Mountain in Boulder Colorado at 483 Marine Street. A part of the old Highland Lawn neighborhood, it is surrounded by similar yards and houses. A bit to the front sits the small, square one-story white brick house with a pointy roof, 850 sq ft, including the porch. Built as a development at the beginning of this century, along with two identical houses to the west, it has high ceilings and quaint woodwork and plumbing. An ungainly but useful basement lies below, functioning now as a darkroom and biology lab.

It is a 'suburban bungalow', of which it has been said "while of slight historical interest, they do exhibit a modest and unaffected charm, as well as considerable ingenuity in combining many and varied rooms in small, convenient layouts. Despite the constraints of budget, their makers managed to bestow on these little homes all the requisite attributes of domesticity--inviting trellised porches, intimate bay windows, dining alcoves, and cozy fireplaces." (Witold Rybczynski, famous architect. I had to add the fireplace myself, in the form of a woodstove, shortly after we arrived in 1983.) Two huge blue spruce trees stand in front of our bungalow, and a big apple tree shades the pocket-size back yard, which is enclosed by a white picket fence. There's a little white shed, 10' by 16', fitted out as a study and retreat in which we seek refuge from civilization.

This is a quiet neighborhood, a bit of a backwater frequented mainly by those who reside here, unremarkable families like our own. I live here myself of course, with my wife, Roz, one boy, Robin, sometimes another, Jethro, a dog (now deceased), cat, a few trees and a lawn. We feed wild birds in the backyard, and keep some scraggly flower beds, but I had always thought of this as a relatively uninteresting habitat. It is charming to be sure, but it lacks, or so I thought, great diversity of flora and fauna. I was therefore quite surprised to discover, on counting up, that there are at least 300 different species on the property, readily distinguished without my touching a single book, or going looking for any new specimens. If I got to know the bugs better, or the protozoa or the weeds, the number of species would soar--and think of the bacteria and viruses waiting to be known and counted!

I thought this over, and concluded that this little yard couldn't be so interesting all by itself. It must draw its richness from complex and non-obvious relationships with the whole ecosystem it is embedded in, neighborhood, city, plains and mountains. I have long been interested in the pretty parts of nature, the birds and clouds, mountains and flowers, as many are, but was surprised to realize how little I knew about the real ecosystem. What does a working neighborhood ecodeme actually look like today--what's really in it? Where did it come from? What holds it together and keeps it going? Such questions are not answered to my satisfaction by the natural history books on this area, so I decided to look into these matters myself. I followed these hidden lines of force out from our yard--I wanted to discover the skeleton and sinews of our bioregion, to get to know its many faces, public and private, its hilly brows, arboreal hair and windy voice, its fertile farming belly, its riverine loins, its residential fat and industrial guts.

First I made a close inspection of our yard itself. Then I explored the trails leading directly out of it into the greater environment, following them until they grew too vague to see clearly, i.e. until I felt lost. The basic guideline in thinking about these things, as it is when I wander about the landscape, was that I should have some sense of where the house lies from here, and should be able to get home by dark. I soon discovered that I was working in the tradition of Gilbert White, the great 18th century English naturalist, whose book, A Natural History of Selborne, is the original bioregional portrait. Excellent reading too.

So this is a brief natural history of this house and yard, of those who live here and those who visit, and of the four elements which flow through it, where they come from and where they go.

Note: This is a work in progress and additional materials will be put online as they are made ready.

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Last Page Update - Tuesday December 27, 2005