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The Nature Of Your Own Backyard

Marcos Trinidad 0:00

[theme music] Hey, what's up? From LAist Studios, this is Human/Nature. I'm Marcos Trinidad. Every week I'll invite you to get out into the nature of your neighborhood with the help of people who see the world a little differently. People like LouAnne Brickhouse, founder of an Instagram account called The Daily James, where she documents the surprisingly rich natural world of her own backyard. The feed is full of interesting characters, ground squirrels chomping on plants, turkey vultures hanging out on railings, lizards searching for snacks, and ravens keeping watch over it all. [birds chirping] I had to see it for myself. So I went with my two producers, Carla and Caroline, to The Daily James HQ, LouAnne's home in the Hollywood Hills of Los Angeles.

Marcos Trinidad 0:50

Hi, good morning! [music out] It's Marcos. Hi!

LouAnne Brickhouse 0:55

Okay, well come on in and, feel free to look wherever you would like to. [ambient outdoor sounds and birds chirping]

Marcos Trinidad 1:00

LouAnne's house is on a quiet street, and behind is a big hill covered in ivy. When she first moved there, there was a lawn but over the years, she's transitioned to California natives and drought tolerant plants, like California Black Sage and Milkweed. As we walked around, I noticed Acorn Woodpeckers, California Towhee, Allen's Hummingbirds and little House Finches.

Marcos Trinidad 1:22

[to LouAnne] So I counted about eight species so far, and we're just like to the side of the house.

LouAnne Brickhouse 1:29

You're, you're very good. [LouAnne and Marcos laugh] So there's a Oak Titmouse um, making that kind of scrub noise.

Marcos Trinidad 1:37

The shh shh?

LouAnne Brickhouse 1:38

Yup. [Marcos laughs]

Marcos Trinidad 1:39

Are these little cameras? How cool.

LouAnne Brickhouse 1:41

Yes, there's like almost 50 cameras around the habitat that I'm using to learn about wildlife.

Marcos Trinidad 1:50

LouAnne's cameras pick up everything from coyotes stopping by to drink at the fountain at night, to recently hatched baby owls. But some of The Daily James regulars are easier to spot.

LouAnne Brickhouse 2:01

I'm putting out romaine lettuce right now [sounds of lettuce being torn] and it's very crunchy. I'm tearing it up right now.

Marcos Trinidad 2:09

Like a grey California Ground Squirrel and her grandchildren.

LouAnne Brickhouse 2:11

And [sounds of lettuce being torn] if I'm stressed out, I come and give her some romaine lettuce and, and she helps me. [lettuce being torn]

Marcos Trinidad 2:19

I was ex-

LouAnne Brickhouse 2:19

It's better than any kind of therapy.

Marcos Trinidad 2:21

I was expecting [laughs] like a leaf of lettuce. But that's- a full on--

LouAnne Brickhouse 2:25

Oh, well, [Marcos laughs] I don't always give her a [more lettuce being torn] whole head of romaine lettuce, but, but it's a special occasion. [Marcos says, "Special occasion."] You're here, so you know, everybody's celebrating your visit to the habitat. [in background, Marcos says, "Alright."] [original music]

Marcos Trinidad 2:37

Even though her house is in an urban area, right in the middle of Los Angeles County, LouAnne has learned to see her backyard as a window into the natural world.

LouAnne Brickhouse 2:47

I mean, I was one of those people like, Well, I have to go to Yosemite to experience [Marcos laughs] nature. Or, you know, I'm gonna have to go to a forest to experience nature. And that's not true.

Marcos Trinidad 3:01

After the break, how an unexpected wildlife visit changed LouAnne's outlook on nature and set off a journey of discovery. [music out] [break]

Marcos Trinidad 3:15

After giving us a tour around, LouAnne brought us inside to learn about her Instagram account, The Daily James, and how she went from an urban nature skeptic to a true believer. LouAnne told me that the story starts with a career change.

LouAnne Brickhouse 3:30

For most of my career, I've worked in Hollywood as a storyteller, a film executive.

Marcos Trinidad 3:36

But in late December a few years ago, she changed things up and started writing, which meant spending a lot of time at home.

LouAnne Brickhouse 3:44

And I bought a bird feeder one Christmas and hung it up, and we noticed how popular it was.

Marcos Trinidad 3:52

Birds started crowding around.

LouAnne Brickhouse 3:54

So we went and got another bird feeder. And then we built a bird bath.

Marcos Trinidad 3:59

And that's when it happened.

LouAnne Brickhouse 4:01

[original music] We filled the bird bath with water, and within hours, these two giant blackbirds showed up, and they were Ravens, which I didn't know what they were, I had to look it up just to make sure, and I was utterly enchanted.

Marcos Trinidad 4:21

The two birds that landed on LouAnne's birdbath were common Ravens. They were huge, with beautiful black shiny feathers.

LouAnne Brickhouse 4:30

So we named them James and Margaret, after James Baldwin and Margaret Mead, because they once had a conversation about understanding each other. And when I read that conversation, I was so transported and moved by it. And I felt like that was what was happening to me. I was being introduced to a truly magical world because in Hollywood, you know you're manufacturing the magic, you're making it up. But here, an individual came to me, and he was magical. And he was real.

Marcos Trinidad 5:11

One of those ravens, James, [music out] very quickly became a regular.

LouAnne Brickhouse 5:15

And The Daily James started, because, you know, I would fawn all over him like, You're so handsome, [Marcos laughing] and like I started talking to him because like, I just couldn't leave it.

Marcos Trinidad 5:27

Of course he's gonna come back. [laughing]

LouAnne Brickhouse 5:28

Yeah, yeah, I mean, and he would start knocking on the window. He would arrive, and he would come up to the window, and he would knock. And this blew my mind.

Marcos Trinidad 5:40

Like, where are my compliments? [laughs]

LouAnne Brickhouse 5:43

How does he know to knock on the window? How does he know that will summon a human? And then if we weren't in the room, he would knock harder. And that, like that level of intelligence, like when you start to think about it, it just, I could not believe the reasoning he was capable of. So then, you know, a Raven knocking on your window in your living room, I had to take a picture of that, because I would describe it to people and I could tell they were like, Well she's probably making a little bit of that up. [Marcos laughing] She's in that industry. You know, she's she's just embellishing it for a good story.

Marcos Trinidad 6:21

She can't help herself.

LouAnne Brickhouse 6:22

Yeah, like, that's what she does. So I started taking photos, and I, you know, didn't know the first thing about taking photos. And then I started The Daily James on Instagram. And I, over time, developed this incredibly close relationship with James and watched him in his relationship with Margaret, his lady love, and he is always so deferential to her. Never cranky. And so now I was learning, not only about like, how charming this, a bird could be, like, I'm in love with this bird, but then how loyal and caring and patient and like always romancing his partner. And I was learning about love and like, wow, it just, it made me stop and think like, maybe I shouldn't be so impatient, you know? [Marcos laughs] You know. Um, it just, it taught me so much. And then with James, watching him, and being out, that's what drew me outside more. I started to really watch more of the wildlife and see what was going on.

Marcos Trinidad 7:38

What was your connection to nature before you met James?

LouAnne Brickhouse 7:42

I liked nature, but I couldn't have defined it for you. And I liked dogs, but that's as much as the next person. I couldn't tell you really, any species of anything. I could not explain, you know, why water is so important. Like so many things I know now, like how we are connected, or what's the importance of allowing insects to live? Like I, I used to have cans of Raid everywhere. You know, Oh, an insect's in the house or a spider. Let me go get the can of Raid.

Marcos Trinidad 8:15

And I, yeah, I remember growing up and and Raid was just a household item.

LouAnne Brickhouse 8:21

Yes.

Marcos Trinidad 8:22

It's almost every home had Raid, [LouAnne: Mmm hmm.] at least in in my neighborhood.

LouAnne Brickhouse 8:26

Yeah.

Marcos Trinidad 8:27

Um, and folks used it without question.

LouAnne Brickhouse 8:32

Yes, 'cause I, I just didn't know. I didn't know any better.

Marcos Trinidad 8:37

It sounds like there has been a lot of changes, and and it almost seems like a lot of those changes started happening with meeting James. Can you tell me how you have gone from that person that loved dogs and and some nature to that, who you are now?

LouAnne Brickhouse 8:59

It's been a long journey, and a lot of self education. But it did all start with James, because the more I watched wildlife around me and saw their relationships and their care towards each other, it struck me. I didn't think of wildlife as having any sort of feeling, but they rea-, I, it, you know, when people say you're anthropomorphizing wildlife, I am so ready to have that conversation because let's let's look at you know, the family of elephants or the family of squirrels or Ravens. They do love, and they do mourn, and they do care for each other, and they do protect each other. And maybe it's not your exact definition of love, or mourning or caring, but it is, and you start to learn like, maybe we as humans are limited by our definitions of what that is. There are so many things that we just don't know, that you realize, I don't know anything, sometimes, [Marcos laughs] and maybe watching them, I can learn something.

Marcos Trinidad 10:26

So you call all the animals and and creatures that are around your home residents. Can you explain that relationship?

LouAnne Brickhouse 10:35

I call them residents because we share this place. And we're residents here, so are they, so I often say we share their yard. [Marcos: Mmm hmm.] And I've really learned how important it is to share your yard. I was on Nextdoor, you know the app, because I check that sometimes, and someone had seen a bobcat in their yard and was saying, Who can we call to remove the bobcat? [Marcos: Mmm.] And maybe that would have been me many years ago, but now I know like where do you want them to take it? Like, have you seen LA from Mulholland? It's all city. There's nowhere for it to go. And that bobcat is not going to bother you. And, you know, keep your pets indoors or be with them when they're outside, but I've really come to know how important it is that we find a way to just share our space. And, and not only share our space, because it's the right thing to do, but because it's way more fun. [original music] It's way more fun to go outside and see all these little faces happy to see you. It's better than any movie.

Marcos Trinidad 11:54

LouAnne tells me that the longest term resident before the two Raven friends, is the same California ground squirrel we were looking for earlier.

LouAnne Brickhouse 12:02

There's also Mildred the Magnificent and Mumford, the turkey vultures. They started coming in, I think 2015 also. Mildred the Magnificent has a favorite spot on the top of the telephone pole where she likes to spread her wings, and when I go outside to say hello to her and I tell her that she's beautiful, she'll spread her wings.

Marcos Trinidad 12:30

Wow.

LouAnne Brickhouse 12:30

And some people will say, Well, she's just doing that to warm herself, [Marcos laughs] which she is, but now, something has happened that when I go out to genuinely give her compliments, that she spreads her wings. And so Mildred the Magnificent, one year later, brought Scout, the turkey vulture, who- Scout lands on our porch and Scout grew up with [music out] James and Margaret's babies in our front yard. James and Margaret would drop off their babies, the Raven babies, in whatever tree Mildred the Magnificent was hanging out in, and they would stay there all day long like she was the [Marcos says "babysitter"] babysitter, like daycare? And I know this sounds so far fetched, but I have it all on, you know, I documented it all. [Marcos: Mmm hmm.] That's one of the reasons like, What? You know, Raven baby daycare with a turkey vulture. I don't believe it. Thank goodness, I recorded it.

Marcos Trinidad 13:37

As LouAnne became more and more enamored by the fellow residents of her yard, so did other people across the world. Today, The Daily James has over 200,000 Instagram followers.

LouAnne Brickhouse 13:50

The Daily James community first and foremost is kind, and they're funny, and they teach me, and they're this family that I don't know, you know, in person, but I feel like they're all a community. In the way that the habitat here surprises me, it also surprises me that in this internet age of trolls and negativity [Marcos laughing] and people fighting online, that there is kindness. [original music] And you know, there's always the occasional person who has to just bring things down in the comments, but for the most part, it's this beautiful relationship among all of these people that don't know each other. It's so heartening to see in so much negativity today that people can come together and and be kind to each other.

Marcos Trinidad 15:01

When we come back, LouAnne's tips for becoming part of the community that is already thriving all on its own in your neighborhood. [music out] [break]

Marcos Trinidad 15:17

What would be some tips or recommendations that you would have for for folks that are living their lives, that may not be tapped into nature in a similar way? What would you think could be that first step of of getting to a point where, not necessarily like, Hey, this is how you go make a friend, [laughing] a nature friend, [LouAnne: Yeah.] but these are the things that can start one on a path to observation.

LouAnne Brickhouse 15:46

Well, you, you brought up two interesting things. One is that nature, you know, it's not always love. There, there's the circle of life, [Marcos laughs] where a hawk may take out a songbird. And that's hard to see, that was really hard for me to see, but I accept it because I respect how how nature is and and there's no waste.

Marcos Trinidad 16:11

The hawk has to eat, too. [laughs]

LouAnne Brickhouse 16:12

Yeah, and there's no waste. And it also, the Hawk is, is generally taking, you know, maybe someone, uh, an individual who is sick or um, you know, it, it, there's a balance that is preserved. [Marcos: Mmm hmm.] And I think that's the important thing to recognize, that it's not all just sweetness, that it is harsh. Being a wild animal is very tough on its own, much less living with [Marcos: Mmm hmm.] humans. And so the first part is just respecting, and I think for me, the second part to what you're mentioning is, how do you put yourself in that space? I think the thing that helps me is just to listen, and to be still [Marcos: Mmm.] and let the animals teach me, and they train me. They let me know what's okay, and I really take my cues from them. It's a matter of being still and just watching and listening and paying attention, as opposed to saying, Well, this is what I think. Let me give you my opinion, [Marcos laughs softly] which is what we're always doing. It's saying, Well, what can I learn here? [Marcos: Mmm.] And that's what I sit outside and think about. Well, what can I learn? [original music] [birds chirping]

Marcos Trinidad 17:48

Out in LouAnne's yard, I couldn't help but look around for the residents I'm most excited to meet. The birds. So there's a, a California Scrub Jay in in the back. I hear um, House Finch are singing, [birds chirping] uh there was a Bewick's Wren up in the corner as well. Lesser Goldfinch, you can hear- they have like a a nice little whistle. Here's a a turkey vulture. I wonder if that's one of one of your friends. Yeah. So there's there's definitely a lot of activity. I don't know if you heard anything that I didn't list. I'm sure there's a lot more going on.

LouAnne Brickhouse 18:30

I am hearing all the sounds of construction and helicopters and planes because I know you're recording. [Marcos laughs] And I'm thinking oh, no...

Marcos Trinidad 18:41

That's what your focus is.

LouAnne Brickhouse 18:42

Yeah, well, that's Los Angeles.

Marcos Trinidad 18:44

That's, that's the beauty of everyday life. People are going places, people are traveling, people are working, and that's where I like to h- Oh, heard a Raven. Even as that happens, [birds chirping] [theme music] you can always pause and enjoy nature or appreciate nature.

Carla Javier 19:07

Human/Nature is hosted by Marcos Trinidad, and produced by Caroline Champlin and me, Carla Javier. Kelly Prime is our story editor. Fiona Ng is our acting supervising producer. Mixing and engineering by Parker McDaniels. Our time in the field was recorded on Gabrieleno Tongva Territory. Ex Manana composed our music. Doris Anahi Munoz is the music supervisor. Human/Nature is a production of LAist Studios. The marketing team created our branding with art by Christine Tyler Hill. Special thanks to Taylor Coffman, Sabir Brara, Kristen Hayford, Kristen Muller, Andy Orozco, Michael Cosentino, and Neha Shaida. Antonia Cereijido and Leo G are the executive producers for LAist Studios. Support for this podcast is made possible by Gordon and Dona Crawford, who believe that quality journalism makes Los Angeles a better place to live. This program is made possible in part by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting, a private corporation funded by the American people. That's all for this episode of Human/Nature. See you next week. [music out]

Transcribed by https://otter.ai