Just Outside

By Lenore Skenazy

September 21, 2018 5 min read

Giving mice a re-think: That's what I'm doing, having just watched an amazing new 3D film, "Backyard Wilderness," now playing hourly at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City.

It's hard — well, let's say a little hard-er — 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 their mouse hole. Give it up for these mice! "Backyard Wilderness" is a movie that makes you thrilled to be connected to 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 a suburban home and its backyard. But rather than a tale of the family that lives there, the film's humans are almost comic extras, often seen tapping away at screens, 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 at one point pretty much true of their own family. Though the couple spent several years making nature documentaries in places like Madagascar and Alaska, home was just ... home.

But once they had kids and read Richard Louv's "Last Child in the Woods," they realized this generation is growing up less connected to the outdoors than 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.

They set out to prove it.

And so, over the course of four years of filming, Todd and Young managed to get footage of things even they hadn't noticed before, like a duck family living in their backyard tree. (Yes, some ducks live in tree holes.)

Thanks to a camera they wedged into the ducks' hole, we get to watch the eggs hatch — all at once. Later that day, 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 on camera (and vastly enhanced by Tom Petty's "Free Fallin'"). All told, about 10 ducklings leave the nest, find their mom down below and follow her to the local pond. Then, in another act of derring-do, they jump in and start swimming.

And that's just one species. We also burrow into a raccoon home and see a mama with her babies. We soar above a hawk and watch him fly in slow motion. The filmmakers manage to document a caterpillar as it morphs into a cocoon — so weird — and then into a butterfly. It all makes you want to pump your fist in the air and give it up for Mother Nature. She is unstoppable.

But of course, that doesn't mean the animals themselves are unstoppable. We watch a pack of coyotes track a deer. The deer doesn't 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 deer 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. Precisely where it died, we see in the spring new plants shooting up, green and glorious. It is so remarkable that it's like a prayer: world without end, amen.

The movie makes you laugh, too, especially at the parallel existences of the mice just trying to live in a wall and the suburban kids just trying to do their homework.

Look up from the screen, kids! The real world is just as educational and a whole lot more exciting.

Lenore Skenazy is president of Let Grow, founder of "Free-Range Kids" and author of "Has the World Gone Skenazy?" To learn more about Lenore Skenazy ([email protected]), and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators website at www.creators.com.

Photo credit: at Pixabay

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