In Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, author Lyanda Lynn Haupt explores the relationship of humans and the more-than-human world from the perspective of the urban environment. Suitably, she focuses on crows in this exploration, for not only are crows one of the most familiar wild animals to humans around the world, but their populations are also increasing – a sign of the not-so-positive influence we have had on other species. “Abundant crows are an emblem of rampant habitat destruction and of the creation of an earth that is inhospitable to all but a handful of the most resilient beings,” she writes.
Apart from that, crows are interesting in themselves. They are highly intelligent, have been known to use tools, and have a complex social structure. Reading Crow Planet, I learned about how they raise their young, how they communicate, and that they are unusual among songbirds (crows are technically classed as a songbird, even though they don’t sing) in that they walk rather than hop. I especially enjoyed reading about Haupt’s own encounters with crows, especially her description of the crows who seemed to be listening to (and enjoying) a live music concert, and her debates about whether or not to help an injured fledgling that she finds on the sidewalk. Although she fully admits that with the increase in crow populations “letting the crow die would probably be the most ecologically enlightened move”, she also recognizes that “once an injured crow has entered one’s sphere… the decision becomes more complicated.”
But Crow Planet is not really about crows. Crows are simply a lens by which Haupt examines the relationship modern humans have with nature, especially as that relationship is expressed within the urban environment. One of the things I appreciate most about this book is her recognition (as in her encounter with the injured fledgling) that this is relationship is often uncomfortable, sometimes even paradoxical, and rarely easy.
“We have backed ourselves into a paradox – loving the idea of the wild from an aesthetic, recreational, and perhaps moral dimension, and particularly loving the idea that we have not eradicated all wild things…. We are pleased with ourselves at the thought of their presence; it reflects well on us – does it not? – that they are here. But nothing will eradicate such goodwill more quickly than the sighting of a cougar anywhere near a schoolyard or, say, a backyard coyote eating Fluffy the cat.”
In the chapter “Coexisting” in particular, Haupt examines many of the challenges we face to living with the more-than-human world, perhaps the most basic of which is that while most of us like nature and think that we ought to help it, we are not always comfortable when it gets too close, especially the parts of it that aren’t so good at following our rules.
But I appreciate also that Haupt retains a sense of hope, and Crow Planet is filled throughout with her love for nature and birds in particular, and her sense of curiosity and even wonder. The crows themselves can serve as a both a lesson and a reminder to us, for “no matter how drastically removed we as a culture and as individuals may have become from any sense of wilderness or wildness or the splendid exuberance of nature, we will nevertheless be thrust, however unwittingly, into the presence of a native wild creature on a near-daily basis.” And through observing crows we can learn much, even if we live in the heart of the city, for, as Haupt also reminds us, the wilderness is in the city just as surely as it is in our forests and mountains, even if we have to look a bit more closely to find it.
Crow Planet is a meandering type of book, and along the way, Haupt reflects on many diverse topics, such as walking on sidewalks (“sidewalks are a reminder of where we want to be headed, for surely we cannot declare that we are ‘off the beaten path’ if we aren’t, at least for a while, on it”), the monastic practice of lectio divina (“if we take one question and work on it well over time, this kind of contemplative flow settles upon our watching”), and wearing binoculars (“I have been stared at, asked… what I am doing, questioned by police, and whispered over by teenagers”). Chapter Two (“Preparing: A Crash Course for the Urban Naturalist”) alone contains invaluable tips for anyone (especially someone living in an urban environment) who wishes to become a better observer of nature.
I am not sure that Crow Planet contains any earth-shattering revelations, but it is the kind of book I love to read, a book that is rooted very much in the author’s own environment and experiences, and yet steps from there to study the larger questions that we all face, wherever we live. Most telling, perhaps, is that while reading Crow Planet I found myself noticing crows more often. Just this morning one perched on a branch over my head and cawed loudly several times before flying off, and a few days ago several of them were gathered in the branches of a large Douglas-fir tree near our house. In Crow Planet, Lyanda Lynn Haupt gently encourages us to do simply that – to look at what is in our own environments – and then from there to take steps to change our lives.