Your backyard: Where the wild things are

By Lenore Skenazy

Giving mice a re-think. That’s what I’m doing, having just watched the amazing new 3D film now playing hourly at the American Museum of Natural History: “Backyard Wilderness.”

It is hard — well, let’s say a little harder — to hate the whiskered nibblers once you see what they’re up against, including freezing, starving, and staring down the family dog as it peers inquisitively into the mouse hole. Give it up for these mice! Backyard Wilderness is a movie that makes you so thrilled to be part of all the living things on earth, you feel a kinship not just to rodents, but to salamanders, frogs, and even some bugs.

Heck, even to a dead deer.

Let me explain.

The movie is about a year in the life of a suburban New York home and its backyard. But rather than a tale of the family that lives there, the humans are almost comic extras in the film, often seen tapping away at screens — or driving off in their big red cars — oblivious to the gobsmacking drama happening all around them in the natural world.

And that, say husband-and-wife filmmakers Susan Todd and Andrew Young, was pretty much true of their own family. Although the couple spent several years making nature documentaries in places like Madagascar and Alaska, home was just, well, home. They lived in New York City for a while — land of pigeons and squirrels — then moved up to Croton-on-Hudson, land of deer and squirrels. Nothing that remarkable.

But once they had kids and read Richard Louv’s “Last Child in the Woods,” they realized this generation wasn’t growing up as connected to the outdoors as previous ones.

“It gave us a feeling of urgency,” says Young.

They wanted their kids — and everyone else’s — to understand that nature isn’t only in exotic locations. It’s everywhere, from vacant lots in the city to the lush lawns of Larchmont. There are beavers in the Bronx River, says Todd. And hawks and falcons throughout the five boroughs. Snowy owls have been spotted in Central Park, as have coyotes.

“There’s all these amazing animal actions happening right outside, some of them at night, and you’re going to miss them if you glued to your screen,” she said.

They set out to prove it.

And so, over the course of four years of filming, they managed to get footage of things even they hadn’t realized were happening, like a duck family living in their backyard tree (yes, some ducks live in tree holes).

Thanks to a camera they managed to wedge into the hole, we get to watch as the duck eggs hatch, all at once. Downy little critters peck through their shells to emerge cute as kittens, but braver than Braveheart. How brave is that? Later the very same day of their birth they waddle over to the hole their mom has just blithely flown out of, look up, look down — and jump.

Duckling after duckling takes floppy flight, an amazing sight captured by the cameras (and vastly enhanced by Tom Petty’s “Free Fallin’”). All told, about 10 ducklings leave the nest, find their mom down below, follow her to the local pond and then, in yet another act of derring-do, jump in and start swimming. Triatheletes got nothing on them.

And that’s just one species! The film burrows into a raccoon home and shows a mama with her babies. It soars above a hawk and shows him flying in slow motion. The filmmakers manage to document a caterpillar as it morphs into a chrysalis — so weird — and then into a butterfly. Seeing that makes you want to pump your fist in the air and give it up for Mother Nature. She is unstoppable!

Of course, that doesn’t mean the animals themselves are unstoppable. We watch a pack of coyotes track a deer. Dear readers, the deer does not win — but we do. Using time-lapse photography the film actually shows us, over the course of just a minute or two, the six months it takes for the carcass to decay into the earth. It’s a little unsettling to see the bones so bare, but at the end, wonder of wonders, the deer has truly disappeared. And precisely where it died, we see, in the spring, new plants, green and glorious, shooting up. It is remarkable to the point of prayer-like: World without end, amen.

The movie makes you laugh, too, especially when you see the parallel existence of the mice, just trying to live their life in the wall, and the suburban kids just trying to do their homework.

Let’s hope that the homework for many a New York City school child this year is to see this film and go home to look for nature. Hint, kids: You got this.

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, a nonpartisan group promoting childhood independence and resilience, and founder of Free-Range Kids.

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