Best-selling YA author Liz Braswell cherishes the tiny life found on her Brooklyn balcony

photo credit Alice Licht

Mountains. Oceans. Deserts. Jungles.

When you think of nature or the environment, I’ll bet you’re probably thinking of some of these things.  Glorious, awe-inspiring biomes full of exotic life and giant trees, fish, dunes, or snow.

I’m a nature fanatic, but on the tiny deck of my Brooklyn apartment there isn’t any of this. My horizon is surrounded by buildings, not hills; the focus of my attention has to shrink to tiny, ‘city-sized’ life.

I hang birdseed bells to attract songbirds you don’t normally see on the street: mourning doves, a proud and aggressive mockingbird, a noisy gaggle of red-splotched house finches.

I laugh at the antics of pill bugs (also known as roly-polies)—and remain amazed by their mere presence; they are crustaceans, not insects, more closely related to shrimp than ants. Their family tree goes back 160 million years!

I plant dill in pots to attract swallowtail butterflies who sometimes lay their eggs in my sixth-floor garden. Then my children and I get to watch the brightly-colored caterpillars grow, spin chrysalises, and hatch into beautiful butterflies.

Bugs, birds, and butterflies. These are the exotic animals of my personal biome.

Not….

Elephants. Polar bears. Silver-backed Gorillas. Tigers. The Spotted Owl.

When you think of endangered species we need to protect, I’ll bet you’re probably thinking of some of these animals. And you would be right!

But there are other creatures and plants, tiny and easily missed and even ugly, who are just as endangered—and important.  Teensy and Brooklyn-sized.

Take certain kinds of forest-dwelling fungus, for instance. Sometimes ugly, often slimy, occasionally poisonous. Almost always ignored.

Some of these fungi produce underground mushrooms, or truffles. No, not the expensive kind you might get on your pasta at a fancy restaurant. The wild, inedible-to-humans kind.

But you know who does love them? The northern flying squirrel. More than love, actually; they depend on these mushrooms as a major source of their food.

And do you know who loves the northern flying squirrel? More than love, actually; they depend on the rodent as their major food source?

The northern spotted owl.

Without the fungus, no flying squirrel. Without the squirrel, no spotted owl.

(without the fungus, no healthy trees for either the squirrel or the owl to live in, but that’s another story)

The rusty-patched bumble bee is another tiny resident of the wild. You might not even notice one in a meadow with everything else going on—dragonflies and birds and big, showy flowers and deer. But she is an extremely important pollinator, without whom some of our food crops would be in jeopardy and certain native plants would probably go extinct.

Common milkweed is dull green, weedy and ignored by all except for when its famous silky seedpods take to the winds. It is also the only source of food for endangered Monarch butterfly caterpillars. What you might miss or dismiss as your car speeds by an unruly roadside ditch is absolutely vital to the beautiful orange, yellow and black butterflies that fly to Mexico every year.

Everywhere you look there is something small, vital, and important to our world.

So when you’re out and about in nature (or Brooklyn) remember: it’s not just the lions and eagles and seals and orchids who deserve our attention and protection. Look around at the tiny things, the boring things, the ugly and the slimy things; the ones whose place in the web of life is beautifully unique—and makes life possible for everyone else.

Liz Braswell is the England-born author of more than a dozen books for young readers, including the A Twisted Tale series by Disney Press and The Big Empty series, which she wrote under the pseudonym J. B. Stephens. Liz’s best-selling YA novel The Nine Lives of Chloe King aired as a television series on ABC Family. Learn more about her work at www.lizbraswell.com.

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