Hope More, Not Less

As I noted at the beginning of this discussion of Crow Planet, it seems impossible to talk seriously about the environment without depressing your reader, knowing full well that the only hope for the environment is to inspire others to help save it, not to resign themselves to defeat. Haupt is too good of an environmentalist not to see the seriousness of the problem:

I look once more at the new climate change predictions that grace the paper. My winged reveries among the morning crows suddenly strike me as both frivolous and irrelevant. It is all just too overwhelming. I try to imagine what hope would look like in such a scenario, hope that bears any semblance of intelligence. There isn’t any, I decide. There is no sensible hope. Despondently (and a little more painfully than intended) I plunk my head down on the breakfast table, just as Claire bounds down the stairs, resplendent in ballerina pajamas and pink-flushed morning face. “Mommy,” she deadpans, “your hair is in the milk."

I don’t think it’s coincidental that she ends this short meditation by humorously reintroducing her daughter into the narrative. Despite claims from Conservatives that environmentalists are more concerned about birds and animals than about people, most environmentalists I know are most concerned about future generations. Nature in the end will right itself, even if that means destroying those that cause the imbalance. Anyone who believes that humans can survive no matter what damage they inflict on the Earth are simply deluding themselves.

She also knows how difficult it is to avoid becoming cynical in the face of what seem insurmountable odds:

Certainly it is difficult not to be cynical. Despite Al Gore, Leonardo DiCaprio airlifted to the Arctic in shiny new winter boots on the cover of Vanity Fair and footage of drowning polar bears on Oprah, the pace of our ecological destruction has never been so quick, so forceful, so unabashed. There have never been so many species threatened with extinction. We have the voices of science, poetry, literature, celebrity, we have the beauty of the earth itself, and what do we come up with as a model of ecological living? Two-hundred-dollar recycled designer jeans and a hybrid Lexus — a more efficient conquering of the earth. It was 1949 when Aldo Leopold Wrote, “In our attempt to make conservation easy, we have made it trivial." He had no idea.

How, then, does one avoid becoming cynical and stand up to environmental destruction? Perhaps it’s not accidental that Haupt finds her final answer in a monastery:

“Listenl” it rigorously begins. And how? With “the ear of the heart.” Here Benedict sets himself apart from the intellectual Platonic tradition, grounding his work in the experiential-heart is a word that comes up often. “The question is,” he writes, “Will we fulfill the duties of an inhabitant?” This, I realize, is my question. Now, more than ever, I think of Benedict's unsparing exhortation in relation to the problem that has grounded my up-and-down year of learning, study, Watching, and on-and-off mental shakiness: how to live. And not just as a decent human, but as an inhabitant-an elegant and perfect word-an inhabitant of an earthly community that has never been more troubled. Benedict’s answer is beautiful: we run toward our ‘great work,” and not in fear, but joyfully. I do not think this means we will not despair. The honesty of our despair may preclude blind hope, but it need not preclude joy or action based in love.

For better or worse, I have had much more training in the Platonic/Aristotelian traditions than in any religious tradition. The only “religion” I’ve seriously studied is poetry. For most of my life, Transcendentalism is as close as I’ve come to a religion. Unfortunately, facts and sheer logic suggest that the environmental damage I’ve observed in the Puget Sound area during my lifetime will continue until the problem becomes unbearable.

In the end, though, like Haupt I trust my heart more than I do my mind; faith not reason drives my efforts to save the environment:

And besides, blind hope is not the only sort. In the monastery library, I find this definition: hope is “that virtue by which we take responsibility for the future.” Not just responsibility for our individual futures but also for that of the world. Hope gives our duties a “special urgency.” Hope is a virtue, a term that can sometimes sound primly moralistic, but the definition I find is just as expansive as the one for hope: virtue is the power to realize good, to do it “joyfully [yes, joy again] and with perseverance in spite of obstacles.”

In this light, hope is our positive orientation toward the future, a future in which we simultaneously recognize difficulty, responsibility, and delight. Hope is not relative to the present situation, nor is it dependent upon a specific outcome. lt has everything to do with the renewal of the earth, whatever shape that will take. Hope is not an antidote to despair, or a sidestepping of difficulty, but a companion to all of these things.

I’ll have to admit most of the time I feel resigned, rather than delighted, to be doing everything I can do to help preserve the environment. If I didn’t think it was possible to improve the situation, though, I wouldn’t be wasting what time I have left worrying about the environment, and I certainly wouldn’t be sending money to the many environmental organizations that besiege me with requests for money.

While I think environmental groups and the media, particularly PBS, have played a part in my concern for the environment, I really identify with Haupt when she describes her connection with nature:

….I do think we can develop a positive sense of our interconnection with life. Aldo Leopold spoke of "ecological perception,” the confluence of knowledge and sense of connection with nature that would allow positive change. This is why the attentive inhabiting of our home place matters so immensely. As we become increasingly aware that our actions are always entwined with the creatures and rhythms that constitute the natural world, we begin to cultivate that outward sensibility, from our homes to the farthest-flung secret wilds and back again. This is a mystical awareness, in part, pressing the boundaries of our material skins. It comes naturally to some and is work for others. In all cases, it is a perception that can be nurtured and cultivated.

John and I were talking about this during our recent walk at welfare, and I realized that my connection with Puget Sound stems in large part from my early fishing trips with my family and from exploring the wetlands near by Rainer Valley home in Seattle. My early fascination with dragonflies has never vanished.

I doubt that I would have been able to articulate this, though, until much later when I read Emerson, Thoreau, and Whitman. Unless, of course, I’d read Crow Planet before them.

Just Wondering

It may say more about me than it does about Crow Planet but the chapter entitled “Seeing: The Monk, The Professor, and the Sense of Wonder” is my favorite chapter in the book, perhaps because it helps me justify the Pollyannaish tone of this blog. After seven years of college English classes it’s difficult not to see life is “ironic,” as Haupt notes:

It is difficult to say sense of wonder in this millennial moment, when sleek, cynical, pop-nihilistic writing seems to be a sign of intellectual rigor and rightness. Wonder, as a quality of intellect, has fallen from favor. Too often the word wonder is preceded by one of two rather dopey descriptors. We have childlike wonder, or we have wide-eyed wonder, as if wonder entails a suspension of our intellect. As if, to wonder properly, we have to stand with our mouths agape, waiting for the flies to come in and the drool to ooze out. Grown-up wonder can be just as worthy of the title as that exhibited by a three-year-old. Wonder feeds our best intelligence and is perhaps its source.

I have become a dedicated birder because birding constantly re-creates a sense of wonder. Nothing I’ve done as an adult has recaptured my sense of childlike wonder better than birding. In fact, paying attention while birding has even rekindled my love of butterflies and dragonflies.

Linda Haupt is absolutely right when she declares the importance of creating a sense of wonder in children

In 1956, Rachel Carson wrote an article for the Woman's Home Companion titled “Help Your Child to Wonder.” In it she both inspired an appreciation for wonder as the primary basis for understanding the natural world properly, and expressed the essentiality of protecting and cultivating this quality as children grow into adulthood:

If l had influence with the good fairy who is supposed to preside over the christening of all children, I should ask that her gift to each child in the world be a sense of wonder so indestructible that it would last throughout life, as an unfailing antidote against the boredom and disenchantments of later years, the sterile preoccupation with things that are artificial, the alienation from the sources of our strength.

One of my favorite things to do as a grandparent is to inspire that sense of wonder in my grandkids, even if they sometimes think we’re trying to torture them by taking them on three mile long walks where nothing happens.

Perhaps the hardest part of instilling that sense of wonder is teaching them to slow down and really see what’s there.

We practice wonder by resisting the temptation to hurry past things worth seeing, but it can take work to transcend our preconceived standards for what that worth might be. In the disturbed urban landscape, this is particularly challenging. Unless we happen into a zoo, or unless something goes badly, we are not normally going to be seeing bears, cougars, or even deer. Without the hope of a megafaunal sighting to keep uson our toes, our watching must delve one layer, or several, deeper. This is one of the blessings of the urban nature project: without the overtly magnificent to stop us in our tracks, we must seek out the more subversively magnificent. Our sense of what constitutes wildness is expanded, and our sense of wonder along with it.

I’m always amazed by how much I didn’t see before I took a birding. I am constantly discovering birds I never knew existed before, despite how long I’ve lived here. I’m still surprised when I look up now and see eagles and terns fly over my house, birds I’d never noticed before. A few years ago while trying to capture pictures of hummingbirds in the front yard, I was amazed at the number of birds in the woods across the street.

Most birders I’ve met, certainly the best birders I’ve met, thrive on this sense of wonder:

On the lookout for wonder in modern students of natural history, I was struck by a line in Robert Michael Pyle’s recent Sky Time, where he spoke of the “certainty of wonder in all places.” Though this is a lovely sentiment, perhaps it is not quite right. Surely there is the certainty of the wondrous in all places. But wonder is a response, an attitude of mind and heart, a graced completion of a circle between observer and observed. Wonder is not a given; it is contingent on the habit of being that allows it to arise in the face of the wondrous. This habit is not an accessory for the naturalist, but an essential. When I spoke with Thomas Eisner, the renowned Cornell biologist (also one of the earth’s Finest naturalists and dearest humans) about his course The Naturalist’s Way, I asked him why he had decided to grade the class Pass/ Fail. If part of his goal was to bring natural history back into academic favor, then shouldn't the students receive traditional grades? Dr. Eisner, who has had more papers grace the cover of the rigorously academic journal Science than any other scientist dead or living, responded simply, “How do you grade wonder?"

This sense of wonder is perhaps birding’s greatest reward. Although it has driven me to far away places, it seems even more magical when it occurs in my own backyard.

A Daunting But Beautiful Awareness

I hope I’m not doing Lynda Haupt's Crow Planet a disservice by pulling ideas from the book to discuss without relating them to her central narrative. These ideas are best seen in light of Haupt’s attempts to help a young injured crow and the events that followed that attempt. It’s a charming story in its own right and well worth reading.

For better or for worse, the animal with whom the injured bird now shares company is a complex one-one capable of scientific analysis, one that might be prone to ecological understanding, but one whose most remarkable capacities, whose saving grace, is of a higher order. This is a human animal, who can not only think well but also feel, quite deeply, compassion for other beings, including nonhumans, particularly if they are hurt. To think that it somehow shows greater intellectual discernment to stuff compassion away for the sake of scientific distance is an error, one that does not sufficiently allow the range of the human animals complexity. We can think and feel compassion at the same time. We can act on this compassion without forsaking our intelligence. To believe otherwise is a myth of pure humanistic materialism.

For me, it is this combination of “compassion and intelligence” that makes Crow Planet a powerful, appealing work. On one hand I learned a lot about birds, and crows in particular, that I didn’t know before I read the book. It is really Haupt’s love for her subject, thought, that made me love this book.

Haupt expresses many of the ideas I’ve discovered while birding the last five years.

Attempting to read crow lives attunes my eyes to this quieter, penciled world — its stories, its struggles, its needs. It inspires me to watch for the next layer, and then the next. In our urban watching, we learn to remain alert to the presence of the wild on earth, to grow an awareness that is an essential counterbalance to the isolating loss of wild knowledge that urban and suburban living so typically brings.

Like her, I’ve found that Paying attention to birds has made me pay closer attention to nature itself. When I was teaching, I measured time in terms of quarters and semesters, in terms of grading periods. Since I’ve taken up birding, I am suddenly aware of the changing seasons — even here in the Pacific Northwest where some claims there are only three “seasons.”

Attuning my eyes to this “quieter, penciled world” has certainly improved my photography:

Crow

While birding has made me more aware of the many birds I share my home with and of their beauty, it has also made me more aware of the frailty of our home:

Continuing my walk, I crane my neck for more; but no, that is all. In a less disturbed habitat, the numbers would be greater, and the surprises-in the form of species I had not remembered to expect-would be more numerous. I feel that absence keenly. The watered-down homogeneity, the diminished diversity, the absolute loss of the most sensitive species. True intimacy with the places that we live implies this intimation of what is missing, and includes a sense of what might be recovered along with what is heartbreakingly lost. With conflicted gratitude, I look again at my bird list, what is given, for now, for today, in this place. I want to keep walking; perhaps there will be one more bird species, after all. But glancing at my watch I realize I have to rush back my daughter is returning from school, and I have to be home.

In the five years that I’ve been birding, I’ve already noticed some significant changes in bird migration. More experienced birders describe major declines in the number birds in the Puget Sound over a 20 year span. A majority of Puget Sound residents see only the surface beauty of Puget Sound and think it is perfectly healthy; scientists, unfortunately, offer a very different viewpoint. The tremendous population growth in the area has contributed to serious degradation of the water. Without intervention, scientists are afraid the entire ecosystem system may fail.

Those who pay the most attention to the natural world best realize that we as a society need to change our lifestyle if we are going to prevent environmental disaster:

We are incapable of isolation. Every time we sip wine, feed the cat, order pizza, watch Survivor; every time we do anything, anything at all, we are brushing, however surreptitiously, however beneath our awareness-however, even, against our will — a wilder, natural world. Such awareness is simultaneously daunting and beautiful. It means that everything we do matters, and matters wondrously. More than we thought, more than we can even know. Yes, of course we must do all of the things we now know by rote: we must replace our incandescent lightbulbs with compact fluorescents, and recycle, and compost, and ride our bikes, and buy organic, local, biointensive, fair-trade. All of it. And if we can manage these things with a joyful heart, then all the better. But this is not about checklists, is it? About the reduction of our planetary relationships to a mean tally of resources used, paved, and available? It is about a habit of being, a way of knowing, a way of dwelling. It is about attentive recognition of our constant, inevitable continuity with life on earth, and the gorgeous knowledge this entails. There is a crow’s nest in the neighbor’s yard, and there are feathers at our feet. We walk around like poems-our lives infused with meaning beyond themselves.

“Such awareness is simultaneously daunting and beautiful.” I can’t overstate how many times I’ve experienced those feelings. How can anyone who loves the natural world not feel daunted by the realization that our world as we know it is constantly sacrificed for the sake of jobs. Emerson and Thoreau warned us of this 150 years ago when they said, “Things are in the saddle and ride mankind.” One can barely image how they would feel if they could see America now. But we cannot let that knowledge keep us from finding joy in nature’s beauty.

Are You a Naturalist?

One of Haupt's recurring themes in Crow Planet is the concept of a naturalist. She thinks becoming a naturalist is important not only to the individual himself, but to society as a whole.

Over the past decade I have thought and written a fair bit about the role of the naturalist — the importance of the naturalist’s attitude both for oneself and for the conservation of earthly life. I believe strongly that effective and lasting conservation efforts are based in an everyday awareness of our continuity with the more-than-human world, an awareness that is cultivated through study and observation. Still, bringing this sensibility to my daily urban life has posed an unexpectedly steep challenge. My images of what is and what is not nature, what is and what is not worthy of the kind of attunement that characterizes the naturalist's way of seeing, are more deeply ingrained than I even guessed. I quickly discovered that just declaring myself to be an aspiring urban naturalist was not enough. I didn’t believe myself.

I’ve never thought of naturalists in this way. When I think of naturalists I think of professionals, experts, whose ideas guide the rest of us who care about the environment, not ordinary people who pay particular attention to their neighborhood environment.

However, when Haupt offers her definition of a naturalist,

To my mind, a contemporary naturalist is a person who studies deeply, richly, seriously, and over a respectable swath of time, the life and ecology of a chosen place or places. Naturalist is a liberal arts title, and it might involve philosophy, literature, art, and an expansive sense of spirit as much as it does science. This is absolutely not to say that we ought to lapse into some murky New Age condition in which we become one with nature at the level of the heart and avoid the “cold” academics of science. Not at all. Rather, the amateur naturalist is in the wonderful position of being both scientifically informed and unencumbered by the restrictive parameters of traditional scientific reporting (statistical significance, aversion to anecdote, and so on). As naturalists, we can fill our notebooks with anything that the breadth of nature can dream up and give us. Anything true. Anything that we are present and attentive enough to witness. In the modern urban setting, the naturalist's way suggests an antidote to the over influence of specialization upon our everyday lives. Today we leave our health to doctors, our food to agribusiness, and our knowledge of the biological realm to information received from scientists. Such specialization, writes author Michael Pollan, “obscures lines of connection — and responsibility.” The foundational knowledge unearthed by modern naturalists is simultaneously freeing, consoling, and revolutionary. So often it is the amateur naturalists in a community who spearhead grassroots projects to protect local, wild places and their denizens. We can take responsibility for our own biological education, and the earth-sustaining work it entails need not wait for anointing from either academia or politicians.

it seems that many of the birders I see regularly and bloggers who I link to could be called “naturalists.” I’m not sure that I do, but is certainly something I aspire to. The best birders I know have observed in the same areas for years and “own” those areas. Most are actively involved in environmental actions.

Most birders may actively push environmental issues, but they will tell you they bird for the sheer joy of it. Haupt cites E.O. Wilson’s argument that connecting with our ecosystem puts us more in touch with ourselves:

We are human in good part because of the way we affiliate with other organisms. They are the matrix in which the human mind originated and is permanently rooted, and they offer the challenge and freedom innately sought. To the extent that each person can feel like a naturalist, the old excitement of the untrammeled world will he regained. - E. O. WILSON

E. O. Wilson has written extensively of biophilia - the innate human tendency to know and love the natural, wild earth, and the further sense that this knowing is part of our health, our imagination, and our intelligence. In the habit of writing down our observations, however messily, sketchily, or dreamily, we unearth and indulge this love.

Birding and photographing nature has certainly enriched my life, reviving a sense of wonder that I’d at least partly lost since childhood. It has also rekindled my love of art.

Though I’ll admit that I spend a lot of money on photographic equipment, Haupt rightly points out that being a birder doesn’t require much more than a desire to pay attention to the birds you see:

Long before laptops, the philosopher ]ean-]acques Rousseau claimed, “The more ingenious and accurate our instruments, the more unsusceptible and inexpert become our organs: by assembling a heap of machinery about us, We find afterwards none in ourselves.” This commodification of watching is a falsehood, and a terrible loss. The plain, subversive, radical truth is that we do not need to go shopping in order to watch birds. In its pure simplicity, observation of nature may be the most countercultural thing an ecologically minded person can do.

Though I’m seldom satisfied until I can capture a good shot of a particular species I’ve sighted, unlike most birders I don’t use binoculars or scopes. I’m not even particularly interested in looking through someone’s scope to see a rare species. It’s only after I’ve spotted a bird with my own eyes that I worry about getting a shot of them. And as I’ve pointed out many times, more often than not the real thrill of the day goes unrecorded because it happened so fast that I couldn’t photograph it, and, for the moment, at least, I’m thrilled by that moment, even though I can’t share it with you.

Before I started birding myself I quite often met an elderly woman with binoculars and a back pack wandering through Point Defiance Park. Known by many as “The Bird Lady,” she used her annual bus pass to come to the park nearly 365 days a year and spent most of the daylight hours walking the trails observing birds and animals. I was fascinated by her knowledge and her tales of the park. I doubt any “expert” understood the park’s ecosystem as well as she did. She certainly didn’t let her limited income limit her birding. She never pursued the “rare birds” that many birders seem devoted to, but I suspect that the depth of her knowledge about the park exceeded the width of many birding experts.

I suspect birders are often stereotyped as sweet little old ladies who lovingly fill bird feeders daily. My experience has been that birders are closer to Haupt’s view of the role of naturalists:

How nice it would be to just watch warblers and make little yellow watercolors of them in our notebooks. But I believe strongly that the modern naturalist's calling includes an element of activism. Naturalists are witnesses to the wild, and necessary bridges between ecological and political ways of knowing. When Rachel Carson began work on Silent Spring in the late 1950s, she was already the acclaimed author of three books on the sea. Her beloved friend Dorothy Freeman objected to the new “poison” book, believing the subject matter was too negative and dark. In a letter to Freeman, Carson wrote, “You do know, I think, how deeply I believe in the importance of what I am doing. Knowing what I do, there would be no future peace for me if I kept silent." As we work to know the life that surrounds us, we stand in a lineage of naturalists-past, present, and even future. We join the “cloud of witnesses” who refuse to let the more-than-human world pass unnoticed.

Though it’s a lot more popular than often given credit for, birding is definitely a counterculture activity. Most birders I know donate to environmental groups and are subversive in their attempts to protect the environment, even if it may cost a few jobs to do so.

“Nature” is Right Here, Right Now, Every Day

The “Essential Wisdom” that Haupt promotes in the second chapter of her book is one I’ll have to admit I probably often overlook. Because I’m a lover of Nature, I’m afraid I too am guilty of romanticizing Nature as Haupt points out:

ln his essay Home Economics, agrarian writer Wendell Berry defines nature this way: “What we call nature is, in a sense, the sum of the changes made by all the various creatures and natural forces in their intricate actions and influences upon each other and their places.” In other words, for humans, how we live where we live is what makes us part of a natural ecosystem. It is also the source of our most profound impact on the more-than-human world. We love our vision of untouched nature and cling tightly to images of pristine wilderness or desert or ocean as solace for our souls, as places of peace and transcendent beauty to which we can turn as a diversion from our cluttered, material lives. We believe ourselves to be intimately connected to wild places, as indeed we are.

When I think of Nature, I do envision wildernesses I’ve hiked and backpacked in the last forty years not my backyard. I imagine most people do. I’ve donated more money to organizations like the Sierra Club, the Wilderness Society, or The Nature Conservancy than to organizations like Environmental Defense.

I suspect that Haupt herself has occasionally been guilty of seeing Nature this way:

Too often, though, nature is romanticized as the place out there, the place with all the sparkly trees in the Sierra Club calendar, the place we visit with a knapsack and a Cliff Bar, where we stand in awe of the beauty and refresh our spirits. But it is a kind of hubris to pretend that we come to such places unencumbered, that we can leave behind the snares, entanglements, and activities of our everyday lives and return to a kind of purity when we drive our SUVs (or even our hybrids) up to the hills for a subalpine-meadow hike, no matter how far we walk. Such sojourns are nourishing and necessary, but it remains our daily lives, in the places we live, that make us ecosystemic creatures; these are the seat of our most meaningful interactions with, and impact upon, the wider, wilder earth. We are connected by the ways that we choose, consume, and share water, food, shelter, and air-just like all the other animals. We cherish the few, sweet days we manage to escape to places we consider true wilderness, but the most essential things we can do for the deeply wild earth have to do with how we eat, how we drive, where we walk, and how we choose every moment of our quotidian urban lives.

This almost makes me feel guilty about wanting to visit parts of the country I haven’t managed to see before, i.e. my recent trip to New Mexico and Arizona. However, I’ve long been aware that the way I live, the economic choices I make, affect the world I live in. My son referred to me as a “granola” when he was in high school, and I was proud to claim the title. A life-long city gardener, I discovered Rodale and organic gardening nearly forty years ago and started recycling long before it was collected along with the garbage. My Honda CRX got fifty miles per gallon long before people seemed concerned about gas consumption.

I still have a hard time thinking of Tacoma and Seattle as “Nature,” but I agree with Haupt that our everyday life plays a critical part in altering, destroying, or consuming nature:

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. Jennifer Price writes in Flight Maps, her eloquent critique of romanticized nature, that modern Americans use an idea of Nature Out There to ignore our ravenous uses of natural resources. “If I don’t think of a Volvo as nature, then can’t I buy and drive it to Nature without thinking very hard about how I use, alter, destroy, and consume nature?" In my urban ecosystem, I drive around a corner and a crow leaps into flight from the grassy parking strip. We startle each other. If nature is out There, she asks, then what am I?

My camping and hiking trips stand out in my memory, but the time I spend doing those things is dwarfed by the time I spend driving my car back and forth to the YMCA, the grocery story, or the mall. And that is dwarfed by the time spent on my computer or watching television. It’s naive to believe that the time I spend NOT camping or hiking doesn’t determine my overall effect on the ecosystem.

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness

When I wrote about Lynda Lynn Haupt’s Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds in October of 2006 I ended my discussion with this quotation:

E. 0. Wilson wrote in Biophilia, his classic text on the innate human connection with the wider, living earth, "Every species is a magic well," a window onto all others. As an urban dweller I am forced to come to grips with the idea that I might turn to the starling as easily as any other species for lessons in living with and alongside birds and the natural world. I consider the unique landscape of the Pacific Northwest to be my wider home, but every day I live in an urban cottage, not an ancient forest, a coastal prairie, or a heavenly alpine meadow. Those places surround me, they are my authentic home, inhabited by the lives of astonishing birds. I like to think that in the widest sense we are in the presence of all these birds, always. But today, we start where we are.

Little did I realize then that this passage presaged her next book Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness. In Crow Planet she uses the ordinary crow as a “magic well,” a window into her relationship to the world. It’s a delightful, thought-provoking work that reminds me of old favorites like Thoreau while leading forward to new discoveries like Aldo Leopold.

The first chapter entitled “Crows and Kairos” focuses on the ecological challenges that our world faces. She uses the Greek word “kairos” to describe our present situation:

There are two Greek words for time. One is chronos, which refers to the usual, quantifiable sequential version of time by which we monitor and measure our days. The other word is kairos, which denotes an unusual period in human history when eternal time breaks in upon chronological time. Kairos is “the appointed time,” an opportune moment, even a time of crisis, that creates an opportunity for, and in fact demands, a human response. lt is a time brimming with meaning, a time more potent than “normal” time. We live in such a time now, when our collective actions over the next several years will decide whether earthly life will continue its descent into ecological ruin and death or flourish in beauty and diversity.

Describing our precarious position as “an opportune moment” may motivate some readers who have been numbed by the constant environmental warnings to renew efforts to preserve a world they may well love as much as Haupt does.

Calling it an opportune moment, however, does not alter the magnitude of the challenge facing us, which Haupt also readily admits:

We live on a changing earth where ecological degradation and global climate change threaten the most foundational biological processes. If the evolution of wild life is to continue in a meaningful way, humans must attain a changed habit of being, one that allows us to recognize and act upon a sense of ourselves as integral to the wider earth community. … In spite of the string of magazine covers announcing the contrary, we all know that ten simple things will not save the earth. There are, rather, three thousand impossible things that all of us must do, and changing our light bulbs, while necessary, is the barest beginning. We are being called upon to act against a prevailing culture, to undermine our own entrenched tendency to accumulate and to consume, and to refuse to define our individuality by our presumed ability to do whatever we want.

Perhaps the true extent of our problem is indicated by the fact that many who claim to love Nature most feel it’s necessary to drive to National Parks in gas-guzzling Motorhomes and run generators all night long to cool/heat the monstrosity so they can watch television on their DirectTV or sleep comfortably. If this is the best we can manage the environment is in serious danger.

Don’t be confused. This book makes no attempt to suggest direct solutions to our environmental problems. It does, however, suggest changes in attitude that are necessary before the problems can be solved:

In the environmental classic A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold proffered a touchstone by which to judge human activity, one that most first-year ecology students have memorized: ‘A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.” Eco-philosophy has come a long way in the sixty years since Leopold, but no one has managed to improve on his simple measure. In his use of the gentle, open-ended word tends, Leopold recognizes that such things are not cut and dried. But he does realize that we cannot judge the leanings of our actions, whether they tend toward preservation or otherwise, from a vantage of pure abstraction, from an urban existence cut off entirely from the cycles of nature. The reckoning Leopold asks of us requires the cultivation of insight based in attention, knowledge, and intimacy. It asks that we pay loving attention to the places we live, to understand their intricate net of connections with the wider earth.

It is this “loving attention to the places we live” that Haupt hopes to generate through her book, though she has chosen an unusual way to try to generate it, as even she seems to realize. Admitting that the crows seem to have chosen her and not the other way around, she argues that we have much to learn about our “urban wilderness” from crows:

Crows can show us how certain wild, nonhuman animals live-what they need, how they speak, how they walk, and how they tip their heads in that special sideways manner to sip the slenderest bit of rainwater. They make us notice just how many of them there are getting to be, to realize that as humans generate the conditions that allow crow populations to grow, many other wild animal species, birds in particular, are present in far fewer numbers and others are gone completely. Crows are wild beings in our midst, even as they point to the wildness that we cannot see and have lost. Their abundance holds a warning but also a promise: no matter how urban or suburban, how worldly-wise and wilderness-blind, 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. This means that, if we are willing to tolerate our crow-related uneasiness and accept certain lessons, there is hope. Hope that we can renew our sense of natural connectedness and integrity. Hope that we can learn another kind of attention that is deeper, wilder, more creative, more native, more difficult, and far more beautiful than that which has come to be accepted as adequate.

As I’ve noted before, I've long been a crow fan, not to mention a Raven and Magpie fan, so Haupt didn’t have to sell me on them, though I learned more about them from reading her book than I would probably have learned from a lifetime of personal observation.

I think since I took about birding recently I’ve already discovered that the Puget Sound is a zoopolis,

Crows remind us that we make our homes not in a vacuum, but in a zoopolis, a place where human and wild geographies meet and mingle. They press us to our own wilder edges. They may step along our sidewalks, but in the next moment they fly off the path. If we want to watch them well, we will have to leave our own accustomed paths, the cultivated places, the neat edges of our yards and minds. We will find that our lives are not as impoverished as we’ve been told they are; the sidewalk is not as straight as we thought.

and that discovery has certainly enriched my life connecting me to this place in ways that I’ve never felt before, or, at least, not since I was a child.

Despite what many may interpret as a pessimistic introduction, it seems to me that the real power of this book is that it’s inspirational for Haupt ends her book with:

I am no ecological Pollyanna. I have borne, and will continue to bear, feelings of wholehearted melancholy over the ecological state of the earth. How could I not? How could anyone not? But I am unwilling to become a hand-wringing nihilist, as some environmental “realists” seem to believe is the more mature posture. Instead, I choose to dwell, as Emily Dickinson famously suggested, in possibility, where we cannot predict what will happen but we make space for it, whatever it is, and realize that our participation has value. This is a grown-up optimism, where our bondedness with the rest of creation, a sense of profound interaction, and a belief in our shared ingenuity give meaning to our lives and actions on behalf the more-than-human world.

The book, like birding itself, inspires me, reminding me of the wondrous world we live in while making me want to share that wonder with others. Needless to say, it seems impossible to feel that way without wanting to preserve that source of wonder.