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:


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.

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