We plan trips to experience nature, say that we need to have some peace and quiet with the animals and the trees, but how many of us just go for a walk or even peek outside our window to see the animals in our own neighborhood? In The Urban Bestiary, Lyanda Lynn Haupt introduces us to animals that we can see in our own backyard (squirrels, raccoons, opossums, birds, and trees), and animals that we can learn to appreciate (moles, rats, bears, cougars, hawks and owls). Haupt leads these introductions slowly and in a somewhat disjointed manner, but her love for the wild shines through. Haupt’s writing especially comes alive during the sections on birds, animals that she has devoted two books to already. Even Haupt admits her own occasional distaste for certain animals. She understands that not everyone can grow to love the mole, but what she attempts to do is convince us that we are not the only beings that matter. We should not be inviting these animals in our homes, but we can learn to appreciate what they bring to this earth and what they give us.
Haupt felt the need to write Urban Bestiary because she recognized that as the human world continues to expand, “the rural buffer that once separated cities from wilderness in the past is disappearing.” She felt that the urban world needed an introduction to the animals around us because we will only continue to have animal encounters. Haupt introduces us to animals in a special way: through storytelling. Every chapter begins with a story where this wild animal came into contact with the urban world. If humans stopped to think that the coyote or mole are just trying to survive and feed their young then maybe they would spend less time building traps to kill them and more time just sitting and watching them. Because, as Haupt writes, these animals provide us with something that we have lost ourselves: wildness. They give us that connection with nature that we so often long for and all we have to do is listen to the birds outside of our window.
Generally, when humans see a wild animal the encounter does not go well for either party. The human, fearing the animal, works to exterminate the animal from their vicinity and the animal, fearing the human, works to defend itself. If, by chance, the animal is deemed cute then the human attempts to feed it which means the animals will make return trips. In neither of these instances, does the human recognize the animal as a being. We like to think of animals in comparison to ourselves. We think of ourselves as supreme beings, separated and above every other being on earth because of our own intelligence, but Haupt contends that we should not think of animals in comparison to ourselves, we should recognize what each animal has to offer on its own. Haupt attempts to change our perspective on the animals through stories about them. For instance, we know crows are intelligent, but did you know they are masters of trickery? Haupt describes one encounter she had with a crow:
I saw a crow fly toward me with a large twig. When she spotted me standing there on the sidewalk, she landed on the electrical wire over my head, regarded me sidelong for a few seconds, then flew purposefully away with her stick, not to her nest, but to an abandoned crow nest across the street, where she actually pretended to go to work, nestling her stick among the others.
As someone who used to view crows as annoying and useless, this story makes me see them in a different light. As another example, we tend to regard every bear as dangerous, but consider this the next time a bear ransacks your food supply: bears are incredibly curious. Bears are just so big that “exploring” a mailbox can really mean “mauling” it, and “peeking” into your car window can really mean “smashing” it. They also explore objects by putting them in their mouth, just like babies! Neither of these facts are meant to humanize crows or bears, or any wild animal. Crows also have amazing facial recognition and sometimes choose certain humans that they hate for one reason or another and will actively dive at them. And bears are curious and playful, but they can get vicious if they see you as a predator or prey. What Haupt wants humans to understand is that we cannot chase away every animal around us, we share the earth with them.
Part of living in the urban wild, is working to cultivate wild of our own. Haupt herself owns chickens, and tends a backyard garden. Owning chickens is no longer a novel concept, many urban and suburban homeowners now own chickens, but Haupt contends that it is not the cost savings (the cost of chicken feed makes up for this) or the delicious fresh eggs that causes so many to love their feathery friends. Haupt believes that cultivating our own wild, brings us closer to the earth and an understanding of the creatures around us. By creating our own sustenance we are that much closer to the coyote, we are participating instead of conflicting with the wild.
Haupt ends her Bestiary with two unlikely beasts: Trees and Humans. We do not recognize it, but trees are just alive as the animals around us and we need them even more. We are kept physically alive by trees far away, but kept psychologically alive by the small amount of trees we see every day. We glance out of these trees outside of our window and grab their leaves as we walk past on our way out the door, but very rarely do we take time to visit with them. Haupt advocates for making appointments with trees. Bring no books, no devices, no phone, just a sketchbook or a journal. Sit with the tree and appreciate the nature all around. Grow an appreciation for these beings that sustain so much, but ask for so little. By connecting to wild in this way we can come to understand our connection and impact on the beings around us. We may not be the largest animals on the planet, but we take up the ecosystemetic space of a sperm whale. But, as Haupt writes, this is not about giving up all of our progress but rather about “choosing thoughtfully how we live and what we use, and living closer to scale.” In order to live thoughtfully we need to build a home and or a community “that provides opportunity for observation and interaction but permits wild creatures to maintain their wildness.” If we can do this, then maybe we can grow to appreciate the nature around us without even leaving the front porch.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a naturalist, eco-philosopher, and author of two previous novels, Crow Planet, winner of the 2010 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, winner of the 2002 Washington State Book Award. Haupt has spent her literary and professional career working to bridge the separation between people and nature. Haupt currently lives in West Seattle with her daughter and husband.