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:


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.