John Alcock was tired of his high-maintenance bermuda grass lawn, so he replaced it with a natural slice of desert. The xeriscaping went a step or two beyond the standard gravel and saguaro in faithfully recreating the messy, shrubby Sonoran landscape, but Alcock found that the extra effort repaid him amply with peace, joy and an endless source of scientific entertainment.
It could be a scientific goldmine, in fact -- if his neighbors don't call the yard police first.
Alcock, a regents professor of biology at Arizona State University whose research specialty is the behavioral evolution of insects, found that his transformed Tempe, Arizona yard was an ideal home laboratory where he could conveniently study a wide variety of subjects and conduct experiments morning, noon and in the middle of the night. For lab assistant, he had his wife Sue (who has the patience of a saint) and the neighborhood association served as an oversight committee for his lab practices.
Wanting to share the rewards of his domestic discoveries, Alcock has written a book about his experiences, In a Desert Garden: Love and Death Among the Insects , published by W.W. Norton and Company, 1997. Beautifully written, filled both with a profound love and respect for nature and with an infectious sense of scientific excitement, the book talks about the small commonplace events that go on everyday in the yard and flowerbed.
"There's such a wealth of natural history out there, even in your yard," Alcock said, "All I'm really doing is acting as a translator to give these stories a broader hearing than they would get otherwise."
Alcock has a knack for drawing the reader into the otherwise unnoticed world of the insects he
studies, beginning with simple, curious observations and leading to riddles of nature which he deftly
analyzes, revealing biological systems of stunning intricacy. Alcock shows the natural romance of
scientific inquiry, as his lay readers
Contact: James Hathaway
Arizona State University