“Toward an Urban Naturalism”
A Review of
Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.
by Lyanda Lynn Haupt.
Reviewed by Chris Smith.
Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.
Lyanda Lynn Haupt.
Hardback: Little, Brown Books, 2009.
Buy now: [ Amazon ]
As many of you will know, I have for some time now been exploring and reflecting on what an urban naturalism might look like. Thus, I was very excited to find Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s new book Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, in which she too ponders what it might be like to be a naturalist in the city. As a means to probe the depths of this question, Haupt has chosen the crow, a bird whose presence in almost any environment, even ones that have been highly humanized, is a reminder of the reality that “no matter how urban or suburban, … 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” (11). Haupt takes this ubiquitous presence of the crow as a sign of hope that humanity will not destroy the tenacious complexity of wild life.
Over the course of the book, Haupt names and describes essential facets of an urban naturalism and does so using stories from her own experience of watching crows. First and foremost, the presence of crows is an energizing one, spurring even the most ecologically-sensitive of us out of a hopeless lethargy. They remind us that even in the grittiest of cities we are a part of nature and we must seek to reconcile the whole of our lives with wild life in all its manifold forms, wherever we are. Noting our tendency to sentimentalize Nature and ignore the “ravenous uses of natural resources” in our everyday lives, Haupt writes: “When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency. If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter” (35). The second chapter of Crow Planet “A Crash Course for the Urban Naturalist” could, as its title implies, be taken by itself as a wonderfully concise introduction to the concept of urban naturalism. Having offered in this chapter the excellent definition of a naturalist as one “who studies deeply, richly, seriously, and over a swath of time, the life and ecology of a chosen place or places” (47), she fleshes out in the heart of this chapter some basic practices of an urban naturalism that include:
• Study of relevant science/nature literature
• The practice of naming things
• The importance of patience
• Respecting the wildness of animals
• Cultivating a specific obsession
• Carrying a notebook
• Being wary of gadgetry
• Maintaining a “field trip” Mentality
• Making time for solitude
• Standing in a Lineage of Naturalists, and with a sense of purpose
Having properly introduced the basic elements of an urban naturalism, Haupt sets about the task of exploring certain practices of the naturalist in greater detail. The first of these practices on which she reflects is reading, both the traditional practice of reading literature about animals and other wild life in a place and, following Aldo Leopold, the practice of “reading the land.” With regard to the latter of these types of reading, she argues persuasively here for a literal reading of natural phenomena, noting “[T]he wild beings have their own stories to tell, and in the reading of their singular alphabet – their tracks, voices, homes, scats, feathers, presence and absence – we may find that they sometimes object to things we have always believed to be true” (85).
The second practice that she describes in detail is walking. Urban naturalists, for whom there are many possible modes of transportation (even ecological ones: biking, public transit) would do well to consider Haupt’s wisdom: “[I]f we want to KNOW the earth, to cultivate reverence, to look wild nature in its myriad forms for inspiration, mentoring, sustenance and perhaps correction, then walking is a necessary practice” (90). While I certainly agree with Haupt’s insistence on the virtues of walking, the most striking part of this chapter for me – an aspiring naturalist in a highly-developed urban area – was her reflections on concrete, in particular her emphasis on the reality that concrete, however ugly and destructive, does not hold the final sway over wild life. She says:
[C]oncrete is far from permanent, especially as a sidewalk. Concrete sidewalks crack. They crack as they settle, as they weather, and as they are contorted by the roots of growing trees. These cracks fill with ants, soil, seeds, and eventually plants, whose roots invade and split the concrete further. Water enters and plays at the semiporous edges, then freezes, expanding to create even more cracks. Sidewalks are poured by humans, and as such are subject to the usual human miscalculations and errors, especially those that surface when we fail to properly gauge the interplay of our own designs with the forces of wild nature (101-102).
Her next chapter “Dwelling: How we nest” spurs us to consider all facets of how we live in the midst our particular places, and gets to the heart of WHY naturalism is essential for human life. With the counter-cultural observation that “we are incapable of isolation,” Haupt emphasizes that naturalism helps to reorient us in the direction of “a habit of being, a way of knowing, a way of dwelling … [an] attentive recognition of our constant, inevitable continuity with life on earth, and the gorgeous knowledge this entails” (123). Haupt’s chapter on seeing is superb, as she emphasizes the key place of wonder in naturalism. This chapter, in particular, resonated with one of the key themes of my own experiences of urban naturalism, namely the process of discovering the “magic wonderment” of a place (to borrow a phrase from Liberty Hyde Bailey). The book’s next chapter “Coexisting: Finding our place in the Zoöpolis” is an eloquent plea for human humility in urban life. Haupt’s reflections in this chapter are a superb counterbalance to the typical powers of apathy toward nature and human conquest that drive most urban development. It seems appropriate to me that after a chapter on death and dying, Haupt is not content to let death have the final word and concludes the book with a chapter on hope, which she organizes around the image of the crow flying.
Crow Planet is an essential book, especially for those of us called to live peaceably with humanity and all forms of life in urban places. Haupt’s writing, to be sure, is not always smooth, but her wisdom and passion gracefully carry the reader through the text. Her vision for the integrity of a holistic life is inspiring and I undoubtedly will return to this book time and again. You would do well to do likewise, especially if you live in the city or the suburbs!