Watchable Wildlife and Interpreting Biodiversity

A few years ago, the Bureau of Land Management hired me to design an interpretive sign for Dankworth Ponds, a nature retreat and recreation area in Arizona. I do a lot of these types of projects—helping people understand that recreation in a natural area means making room for other living creatures. It’s a gentle way of saying, “Hey people! Animals live here! Take care of this place!”

I designed, illustrated and wrote the text for this 2 x 3 foot sign.


Sometimes I wonder how these images would look to a person from the distant future.  “Look how many animals there were,” I imagine them saying. “Such biodiversity! Every inch taken up by some different species! What a world it must have been back then!”

It reminds me of the Native American tales of long-ago times when “rivers ran so thick with salmon, you could walk from shore to shore on their backs and not get your feet wet.”

(Of course, those tales are probably true. I’ve seen photos of rivers supporting huge runs of wild salmon in Alaska, and they appear almost solid with fish. It’s an amazing sight.)

But, my interpretive projects are illustrative. It helps people realize that even if they don’t see animals in every nook and cranny of a habitat, those little places are all important in some way, at some time, to some creatures. In a healthy habitat, nature tends to fill in the gaps with life.

Often, what wildlife needs more than anything is time and space in quiet, undisturbed places where they can hunt, rest, feed…whatever.  You can learn from them—wildlife watching takes time and patience. You have to stay still and quiet. If you wait long enough, something will show up. And when it does, back off a little. Give it some space.

Some close-up views:

Bass are an interesting fish. Did you know the males stand guard over their young for weeks, fighting off lurking predators? (You do if you read Hawgs, Toads, and Lunkers!)


Mallards seem to be found anywhere there’s water. They feed by dabbling, or tipping upside down and nibbling plant material growing on the bottom of the pond. There are actually domestic mallards and wild mallards, which interbreed and produce semi-domestic hybrids. At some point, wild mallards will probably be bred out of existence.

It’s fun to watch great blue herons hunting. They stand perfectly still, poised with their necks stretched forward, then, strike! Fish, frog, or snake get stabbed with the bill and gobbled down as quickly as possible. They manipulate the prey to get it to go down headfirst. I guess it’s easier to get a squirming critter down your gullet head first.

Is Weedy the new Wild?

We are fighting a war against alien invaders…and we’re losing. But there is increasing doubt as to whether the invaders are really our enemies. If treated right, could they actually become our friends? Is it time to rethink our attitudes about weeds?

A Pretty Good Piece of Turf

Whether it’s native species we have no liking for, or exotics we cannot tolerate, weeds cost us a lot of time, money and aching muscles. I’ve been thinking about this topic a lot lately, especially since reading ‘The Rambunctious Garden: Saving Nature in a Post-Wild World’, by Emma Marris. At first, the words post-wild world made me cringe—but I discovered I really liked much of her approach to the future of nature on planet Earth.

I won’t do a book review here—that has been done already by others—I’ll just discuss what I like best about the book, from a nature-lover/non-scientist point of view.

Marris challenges our current approaches to dealing with the growing problem of invasive species, which are generally accepted as the Number One threat to biodiversity. She makes some compelling arguments, using examples of conservation biology from around the world, and in the end—although she does not provide a clear plan for moving forward—she does lay out the general direction of what may be our best to save nature.



Marris goes to great lengths to convince us we need an attitude shift in thinking about conservation goals. Rather than focusing on an ideal of ‘pristine’—anything we consider non-native—we should be aiming toward a planet that is bursting with nature: diverse, thriving, and best of all, surrounding us in our daily lives. Nature is not just confined to the grand, magnificent National Parks and preserves. It should be all around us, every day. It won’t always be native species, though. We will need learn to exploit the potential of exotic species to contribute to biodiversity. She provides examples of biologists who are working in this area.

Appreciation for Nature on all levels

It’s not just the cute and fluffy parts of nature that merit our attention—it’s all kinds of nature. Rather than focusing only on preserving pockets of nature we value as ‘pristine’, we should aim toward a planet-wide blend of functioning ecosystems with a diversity of species. It includes preserving the wilderness we have left and doing what we can to control the worst invasive offenders, but also paying lots more attention to the spaces in between wilderness areas. They may not be magnificent or even very pretty by some standards. They might be buggy or look messy, overgrown or weedy. But if they are tended right, they will be rambunctious.

Exotics are everywhere – and it may be impossible to get rid of them. Do some of them have potential to add to conservation efforts and biodiversity?


Being “gardeners of the planet”

If people embrace the idea that nature should be everywhere—if we demand it—then we can vastly increase the total acreage devoted to conservation. She envisions every patch of ground—no matter how small—in cities, towns, and open spaces, being ‘gardened’ to have conservation value. Some can be left to go pseudo-wild (which may lead to interesting surprises), some can be tended more carefully, some may be more geared toward food production or recreation, but little spaces added together can amount to a huge net gain for conservation. They can serve as refuges for smaller, yet very important species, and as connectors to larger areas like parks and protected nature preserves. The value multiplies when communities cooperate with one another, making a kind of large ‘garden plan’ geared toward sustaining biodiversity. The deeper we get into global climate change, the more important this type of cooperation will be, but it is also a great opportunity to build community and for people to feel they are taking positive action.


Where to spend the money

As always, money is the biggest problem. My greatest fear about this book is that people might use it as an excuse to simply stop funding conservation at all, or discredit ecology entirely. A great deal of her book demonstrates how our efforts at controlling invasive species are often ineffective, both scientifically and economically. But, it’s taken us so long to get this far—to convince people to care about things like preserving habitats, endangered species, and global climate change. If we’re failing…then why keep trying? Why not just pave over everything and be done with it? Marris points out that the money we’re spending now can be more effective if we spend it differently, which makes sense…if enough people agree to try.


It all comes down to open space

Boiling it down, it’s land—not simply ripping out invasive plants—that is the key to a rambunctious future. And not just large tracts, but basically every square foot that is not paved or covered with a structure. We need to concentrate population growth in already developed areas, preserve more open space, and use all of our land better to encourage biodiversity everywhere, not just in parks. We all need to become gardeners of new, rambunctious nature.


What do you think?

Do you like the idea of rambunctiousness? Can you live with weediness? Would you like to see a world with nature spilling out from every spare inch? Can you live with some untidiness and share your area with small creatures, even if they are bugs? Have you read the book…what was your reaction?


To read an excerpt from the book:


A short interview with Marris and some interesting comments:


A longer interview with Marris from the Nature Conservancy Blog:


An essay by Marris featuring Seattle’s Schmitz Park:


Did you know we’ve officially entered a new Geological Epoch? To learn about the Anthropocene: