A Backyard Mandala

Contributed by: John Braverman, SJ, Assistant Professor of Biology, St. Joseph’s University

During the past 15 months, I have lived in a regular house on the campus of Saint Joseph’s University. It has a backyard, a driveway, and an artificial pond. The predominant tree is the tall tulip tree, with marked straight trunks and relatively smooth bark. The yard is a new experience for me, since I can observe a natural established suburban habitat. Not only can I see the non-human residents, but I can also see how things change over the course of the year, as seasons change. For example, over the past months, I saw the last of the noisy grey catbirds, and the arrival of flashy flocks of dark-eyed juncos.

As an observer of localized wildlife, I was elated to read a recent New York Times article about David Haskell, “Finding Zen in a Patch of Nature,” profiling a year-round observer of a very small spot of nature. Dr. David Haskell comes back frequently to the same place in a forest in Tennessee frequently to observe. This place, a randomly selected circle, he calls a “mandala.” The term “mandala” has spiritual implications, although Haskell prefers not to use that term. Nonetheless, Haskell’s observations, made over his recurrent visits, elicit a sense of the meaning and beauty of nature. As the New York Times puts it, Haskell is able to “refresh himself with a kind of natural history meditation….”

If you seek a bit of serenity and insight into the natural world, I refer you to this article, to Haskell’s blog (“Ramble”), or to his book. In addition, you might find yourself doing what Haskell does: observing a small spot or mandala in the natural world over the course of a year. Note the changes. Note the visitors, residents, and incidents. My own experience of a backyard suggests a forest fragment is not required. You, too, might find yourself meditating.

What about Haskell’s scientific side? Well, Haskell is a professor of biology at the University of the South. His “inner scientist,” as the New York Times puts it, is constantly at work, alongside his meditation and contemplation. If you want to join in the fun, try being a citizen scientist. For example, I post my bird observations to ebird.org, and I recently set up my own yard map at: http://content.yardmap.org. These two resources value nature observations even from disturbed or cultivated habitats. Reporting to these units helps science and it helps us become better observers in our own mandalas.