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.