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Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness
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Crow Planet richly weaves Haupt’s own “crow stories” as well as scientific and scholarly research and the history and mythology of crows, culminating in a book that is sure to make readers see the world around them in a very different way.
Copyright © 2009 by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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First eBook Edition: July 2009
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The excerpt from "Crows" is from New and Selected Poems by Mary Oliver, copyright © 1992 by Mary Oliver. Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston.
ALSO BY Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent
Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds
For my radiant daughter, Claire
—a friend to slugs, spiders,
birds, and the wild earth
From a single grain they have multiplied.
When you look in the eyes of one
you have seen them all.
At the edges of highways
they pick at limp things.
They are anything but refined.
Or they fly out over the corn
like pellets of black fire,
Crow is crow, you say.
What else is there to say?
Drive down any road,
take a train or an airplane
across the world, leave
your old life behind,
die and be born again—
wherever you arrive
they'll be there first,
glossy and rowdy
The deep muscle of the world.
CROWS AND KAIROS
By all rights, I should never see the crow who perches almost daily on the electrical wire just beyond my study window. Her story will be told in these pages, and it will become clear, first, that she should be dead and, further, that since she did not die after all, my wire should be the last place that she chooses to land. This young crow is immediately recognizable by her habit of roosting with her belly on the wire rather than perching properly upright, a habit shared by broken-legged crows, who cannot support their full weight or stand on a wire, balancing on just one good foot. I call her Charlotte. (Naming wild animals is problematic, inviting confusion between our relationships with wild and domestic animals, which must be qualitatively different. Still, familiarity breeds naming, and I have been watching this crow every day for months, learning her individual needs, quirks, and habits. Without even thinking about it, I began calling her Charlotte, after the brilliant, self-effacing, fragile-but-brave Charlotte Brontë.)
When Charlotte was an injured fledgling, I gently kidnapped her and held her captive in my bathtub for an entire day, force-feeding her cat food and egg, and splinting her bent leg. Having worked as a wild bird rehabilitator, I possess an instinctual, if not always sensible, impulse to tend to injured birds. Her parent crows—who have continued to tend to the fragile Charlotte long after other adult birds have given off caring for their young of the year, and who often perch on my wire along with her—should, given my offense, take her somewhere else. They all recognize me, of that I am sure. A recent study by John Marzluff, corvid researcher at the University of Washington, confirms that crows can recognize individual human faces. Marzluff noticed that crows he had captured and banded would react negatively to his presence, cawing and dive-bombing whenever he approached. His students, who had also banded crows, experienced the same discrimination from crows in the campus study area. To test the idea that crows were recognizing faces in such instances, rather than clothes, gait, or some other identifying characteristic, Marzluff employed masks. A "dangerous" caveman mask was donned by students who trapped and banded seven campus crows. In the following months, volunteers wearing the caveman mask walked prescribed routes known to be frequented by these crows and their associates. The birds went wild, reading the crow riot act whenever the mask wearers passed. For control purposes, the same volunteers walked their routes wearing a Dick Cheney mask, which had not been worn by the trapper/banders, and the crows left them entirely alone. It appears that crows also learn to dislike individual humans through social learning—if birds in a given group appear to loathe a particular person, other crows in the group will take up this aversion for themselves, uttering a vocal rebuke when the person is spotted or avoiding him entirely.
Many people don't need a study to tell them that crows can pick them out of a crowd. Anyone who has chased a crow, come too close to a crow's active nest, or tried to approach a crow's chick knows that the crows involved, and others watching, will harbor an unforgiving resentment toward the guilty party. For months, and sometimes for years, the perpetrator will be swooped and scolded on sight.
The people whom crows recognize most readily seem to be the ones who come overly near to their young, so actually picking a crow fledgling up and toting it home in broad daylight should be a radically punishable offense in the crow-human societal borderlands. But for some reason, the adult crows who dive-bombed me when I kidnapped Charlotte and again when I returned her to their care never bothered me again. Instead, they cared incessantly for the broken-legged fledgling. They kept her from harm, even though she was weak and broken and by all guesses a hopeless case; they hid her from cats, rats, and raccoons, and they continue to preen and coddle her. While I would expect them to avoid me, they bring Charlotte back to the scene of my crime almost every day and let me see how she's doing. I cannot help thinking that some communication has taken place, that it is somehow clear to the crows that my grievous offense was accomplished in good faith. We all experience such times—don't we—when our guarded separateness breaks down.
Such a question is timelier now than it has ever been. 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. Fortunately, this will not normally involve the kidnapping of young crows, but it will mean some radical thinking and even more radical doing. 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.
It is easy to become cynical about the fact that we as a species appear to have waited until the last possible moment—the moment in which we must radically change our way of living in order to forestall an unprecedented human-caused ecological collapse—and even that, for many, seems not quite enough incentive. It is easy to become cynical, but it is not helpful. My ongoing education in the close-to-home wild has reinforced my sense that we are living in an absolutely graced moment, a rare earthly time in which our present, everyday actions are meaningfully entwined with a broader destiny. 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. It 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.
We all know dour environmentalists (or perhaps we are one), wringing their hands while myopically bemoaning the disasters to befall the earth in the near future. Why, when we know that they are right, do we want to spill organic cranberry juice all over their hemp sandals? Because they are no fun, for one thing. And, more important, because they will suck us dry if we let them. But we don't have to let them. There is a way to face the current ecological crisis with our eyes open, with stringent scientific knowledge, with honest sorrow over the state of life on earth, with spiritual insight, and with practical commitment. Finding such a way is more essential now than it has ever been in the history of the human species. But such work does not have to be dour (no matter how difficult) or accomplished only out of moral imperative (however real the obligation) or fear (though the reasons to fear are well founded). Our actions can rise instead from a sense of rootedness, connectedness, creativity, and delight. But how are we to attain such intimacy, living at a remove from "nature," as most of us do, in our urban and suburban homes?
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.
Many nature writers send dispatches from their wooded homes with the brook babbling outside the ever-open window; they go on weeks- or months-long solitary rambles in remote places. They bring us along, in their writing, on these adventures and in the musings they inspire. And they do inspire. Certainly, I believe that wilderness experiences are both restorative and essential on many levels. I am constantly contriving to get myself and my family out of the city to go hiking or camping in forests, mountains, and meadows in our Pacific Northwest home and beyond. But in making such experiences the core of our "connection to nature," we set up a chasm between our daily lives ("non-nature") and wilder places ("true nature"), even though it is in our everyday lives, in our everyday homes, that we eat, consume energy, run the faucet, compost, flush, learn, and live. It is here, in our lives, that we must come to know our essential connection to the wilder earth, because it is here, in the activity of our daily lives, that we most surely affect this earth, for good or for ill.
Clearly, our cities, suburbs, and houses cry out for improvements that reflect ecological knowledge. I am not claiming they are as natural as those places we traditionally think of as Nature or Wilderness. They are not enough. They are, nevertheless, inhabited by spiders, snails, raccoons, hawks, coyotes, earthworms, fungi, snakes, and crows. They are surrounded as surely as any wilderness by clouds, sky, and stars. They are sparsely populated by beautiful, unsung, eccentric-seeming people who have spent decades studying the secret lives of warblers or dragonflies or nocturnal moths or mushrooms. They are our homes, our habitats, our ecosystems.
The title Crow Planet has two intertwined meanings. First, it refers to an earth upon which native biodiversity is gravely threatened, where in too many places the rich variety of species is being noticeably replaced by a few prominent, dominant, successful species (such as crows). At the same time, Crow Planet alludes to the fact that no matter where we dwell, or how, our lives are implicated in, and informed by, all of wilder life through the insistent presence of native wild creatures (such as crows).
There are more crows now than there have ever been in the history of the earth. There are more people, too, and in fact, the crow-human ratio has remained fairly constant for the last several thousand years. But what has changed, for both species, is density and proximity. The spread of human-made habitations, urban and suburban, has pressed humans and crows into unprecedented nearness, and into an uneasy relationship. Unlike most wild creatures, crows tolerate human habitations and relish the benefits of living within them—mainly the easy food sources. But to say that crows enjoy human company, or even prefer to live near humans, would be an overstatement. Though they may appear bold, most crows live in a constant state of wary readiness. And people, in turn, are vaguely unsettled by crows. Some love crows, some hate them, but nearly everyone respects their intelligence, and nearly everyone has a "crow story" to tell.
The spread of crow-ness is distressing on many levels. Abundant crows are an emblem of rampant habitat destruction and of the creation of an earth that is inhospitable to all but a handful of the most resilient beings. But they also offer an oblique suggestion of hope. The conspicuous presence of a native wild animal, one that struts our sidewalks, simultaneously accepts and balks at our presence, shares our food, and drops its children at our feet for close observation, can lend a great deal to our biological education. 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. There is, at least, reason to dwell in hopeful possibility, to believe that humans just might be capable of the momentous, humble, graced actions that will allow the evolution of wild life to continue. *
How, exactly, are we connected to the earth, the more-than-human world, in our lives and in our actions? And in light of this connection, how are we to carry out our lives on a changing earth? These are the questions we are called to answer in this kairos, this graced moment of opportune crisis. I have come to believe that opening ourselves to such inquiry and participating daily in the process of discovery it implies is our most urgent work as humans in the new millennium. And not because engaging these questions will make us happier, or smarter, or make more of our moments feel enchanted, though it will certainly do all of these things. It is urgent because an intimate awareness of the continuity between our lives and the rest of life is the only thing that will truly conserve the earth—this wonderful earth that we rightly love. We cannot know a place well or understand to which side of Leopold's tendency our actions swing unless we walk the paths and know the breadth of our neighborhood and neighbors, on and off the concrete, above and below the soil.
We can all find our place in this unfolding story. In seeking my own, I have been to the library, the monastery, the backyard, the city parks, the ocean, the wilderness, and the edge of my sanity. I have relinquished, over and over, my attachment to definitive universal answers. Time after time I find that I am misguided, mistaken, lazy, or lost. But I return anyway, to the questions and to the crows. Here, after all, is a bird very much like us—at home, yet not entirely at home in the urban habitat, gleaning what's here while remaining wild, showing us what's beautiful, what's ugly, and what's missing. Crows remind us that we make our homes not in a vacuum, but in a zoöpolis, 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.
A Note on Names and Pronouns
Avian. Scientifically, linguistically, and according to the Chicago Manual of Style, it is the third person singular pronoun of choice for crows, and any bird, for that matter. But after hundreds of hours spent watching crows in the past two years, I have seen enough of them as individuals, as members of family groups or winter flocks, and as plain old animals like myself trying to get through the day, to call any crow "it."
On the surface it is almost impossible to tell a male crow from a female. Their plumages are exactly alike. Male crows are on average somewhat larger than females, but any experienced birder will tell you that size is terribly difficult to gauge in the field. Plus, large female crows are sometimes bigger than small male crows, making size a factor but not a definitive indicator of sex. With practice, an observer may learn to tell male from female crows based on behavioral cues with some reliability, particularly during the breeding and nesting season, when we can see males climbing onto the backs of females, and then observe the sexes taking on different roles at the nest. Male crows have more testosterone than females, and this sometimes comes across in their social interactions. But such distinctions can be subtle, and gender calls based on social interactions are risky. When I have a good reason to guess that a crow is either male or female, I refer to it, naturally, as either he or she. When I am unable to reliably determine a crow's sex, I often make an intuitive guess, knowing that I have a 50 percent chance of being wrong (or maybe, so as to give some credit to educated intuition, a 45 percent chance), and so, even though I call many crows in this book he or she, they may actually be the other. I've noticed that whenever I refer to a crow as a she in conversation, I am invariably asked, "How do you know it's a female?" However, if I refer to a bird as a he, no one ever asks how I know it's a male—not ever. Our efforts to move toward inclusive language in our lives and literature seem to have stopped cold in our discussions of the natural history world, where all animals are still neutrally male unless we know better.
Human. When I refer to friends in this book, sometimes I use their real names and sometimes I give them assumed names, depending on their preference. "Dr. Steffan" is a composite character made up of both a real-life therapist and a real-life psychiatrist. His name is invented.
A RELUCTANT CROW WATCHER
[The crow's caw] mingled with the slight murmur of the village, the sound of children at play, as one stream empties gently into another, and the wild and tame are one. What a delicious sound! It is not merely crow calling to crow, for it speaks to me too. I am part of one great creature with him; if he has voice, I have ears.
—HENRY DAVID THOREAU
Crows are not my favorite bird. I never meant to watch crows especially, or to write about them. I am not one of those people who particularly identifies with crows, or has dreamed of them since birth, or believes that crows are my special totem. I've paid perhaps more attention than is usual to crows because they are birds, and I am a lifelong student of things ornithological. But I really started to study them only because the editor of my first book told me to. The book was a collection of essays that considers the human relationship with the natural world via birds. I wrote the essays because I was interested in a particular question having to do with a certain species, because something in my studies of these species sparked ideas I felt compelled to write about. But that hadn't happened to me with crows. I knew they were smart and interesting, and I had my own crow stories to tell, as all nominal watchers of birds do, but that was it. Besides, I had already written about starlings in that book, and that seemed to me enough of ultracommon, shiny-black, very urban birds. So when my editor said he'd like to see a crow chapter, I said, well no, I didn't think so. But he insisted, charmingly. And because I was rather in awe of him, and not at all because I wanted to write about crows, I said, reluctantly, okay.
Since I thought I had nothing to say about crows, and since I was in a hurry, I started watching crows constantly, and with some urgency. Just as instructively, I began asking people—normal people, not "bird people"—what they thought about crows. And I've rarely been so surprised. Whenever I ask someone about chickadees or robins or flickers or other common birds that people see with some regularity, the response is almost always lackluster, noncommittal, or at best blandly cheerful. But not so with crows. People's opinions about crows are disproportionately strong. Some love crows. Oh! They are so intelligent! And beautiful! Others hate them. Loud. Poopy. Evil. A pestilence upon the city.
- On Sale
- Jul 27, 2009
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Little Brown Spark