A view of the Green Harbor River from the author’s backyard.

It’s astonishing what we take for granted. When we spend a lot of time in a particular place it can become so familiar that we neglect to see the beauty and diversity in it.

Think of it this way. If you were to go on a nature walk at one of the many conservation areas, beaches, or wildlife sanctuaries on the South Shore, you would likely pay extra attention to your surroundings. You would notice the landscape: the trees, shrubs, and grasses, the presence of a pond, stream, or other body of water, perhaps even the shape of the land — whether or not there were hills, valleys, or rock formations. You would observe the creatures that inhabit the place, perhaps watching a bird or reptile go about its daily activities. You would take the time to hear the sounds of the woods, fields, or waters, and smell the scent of the vegetation and soil.

But what about your own backyard? How often in your own yard — while shoveling snow, raking leaves, or taking out the trash, for example — do you notice these things? How often do you make a point to observe the flora and fauna right outside your window? You might have explored the land quite thoroughly when it was new to you, but perhaps you have stopped watching now that it all seems familiar.

I write all this because, after twenty five years, my family and I are beginning to see our back yard as more than just The Space Behind The House.

Our property directly abuts the irrigation pond for a series of cranberry bogs in Marshfield. The pond is quite large, and like most of the ponds in the area it is man-made, created in this case for the bogs.

As a child I was always aware of the pond and its accompanying swamps “out back,” but to me it was nothing more than a place to go ice skating in the winter. In the summer the pond was covered with a thick green blanket of algae, and while I often observed people fishing there, I opted to stay as far away as possible, convinced that all sorts of slimy, unfriendly creatures were lurking in its depths, waiting to make a snack of a curious little girl like me.

About twelve years ago, my parents built an addition on to the back of the house, including a deck that overlooked the pond. Before that we had only able to see the pond from the windows along the back of the house, and even then the view was obstructed by a thick stand of trees.

We spent a lot of time on the new deck, and it wasn’t long before we began to observe a swan — and then a whole family of swans — living on the pond. My mother in particular was fascinated by these large, graceful birds. She would spend hours watching them through the zoom lens of her camera, snapping the occasional photo. In time, she convinced my father to limb, and later cut down a few trees to improve the view.

As the view improved, the amount of time we spent on the deck increased. We watched the trees leaf out in the spring and turn colors in the fall, observing for the first time that the”other trees” among the pines were oak, maple and beech. We got to know some of the other creatures that lived on the pond — snapping turtles, the neighbors’ pet geese, and roving flocks of ducks. And we learned that the reflection of the setting sun on the waters of the pond was as beautiful as any we’d seen elsewhere. In our eyes the pond had transformed from a dark, swampy eyesore to an asset worthy of high praise.

None of my family has ever considered him or herself a birder — we’re lucky if among the four of us we can identify more than fifteen species — but soon we grew familiar with the birds that flew through our viewpath to the pond. While I was away at college my parents got their hands on an Audubon Field Guide and before long the back yard was filled with a variety of bird feeders. I was surprised when I came home for the summer by how easily they could identify particular species.

Next they purchased a spotting scope, and it was no longer chickadees and finches they were getting excited about, but red hawks and even a Great Blue Heron. At last they understood why the man who lived next door made a point to tell them when he saw an osprey or barn owl out back or, as occurred two weeks ago, a rare Caspian Tern.

My family has always loved the outdoors, and with our combined enthusiasms for gardening, chopping wood, and raking leaves, we probably spend more time working in the yard than most of our neighbors. Still we never considered our back yard to be “nature” — instead it was something to manage and maintain. But ever since we saw that swan several years ago, our perceptions have been changing. We have come to understand that the natural world exists not just in designated areas around town, and not just out back near the pond, but right under our noses.

I wonder if everyone experiences this change in perception in some way or another. When we buy or build a house, we are so involved in perceiving that place as “property” that sometimes we neglect to see it as “land” too, as nature. But perhaps after the thrill of ownership dies down, we become more attuned to the more enduring qualities of a particular place. Perhaps it is then that we realize that the trees are older than our grandparents and the rocks have existed longer than mankind itself.

In Native American traditions, the land is perceived as something that can be borrowed but never owned, as it belongs to the Earth or a higher power. Try as we might to control it, nature will never observe property lines — at least not for long. The natural world was here long before we were and it will exist long after we are gone. Although in some places we may have to look more carefully, we don’t have to go to a preserve or sanctuary to find it. It’s all around us.

Feel like going for a nature walk? Why not grab your guidebook and start right outside your back door?

By Kezia Bacon, Assistant Director, North and South Rivers Watershed Association
April 1997