Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Book Review: Crow Planet

Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. New York: Little, Brown and Company P, 2009. 229 pp.

Among the native birds of North America, there is probably no more common or successfully adapted urban species than the American Crow, Corvus brachyrhynchos. Corvids of many stripes have been the focus of much recent research and writing, as it has become clear that they are perhaps the most intelligent of birds. While many researchers have focused on more exotic species, such as the New Caledonian Crow, or the more rare and reclusive Common Raven, the American Crow has recently been the highlight of publications out of the University of Washington (by John Marzluff, in particular), and has been the subject of an episode of the television show NOVA. Nearly ubiquitous throughout North America and an extremely common and capable urban animal, the crow also makes a natural centerpiece for Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s Crow Planet, a book that is not so much about crows as it is one that orbits around them.

Haupt is a naturalist, educator, bird lover, environmental activist and writer living in Seattle. It is in this urban setting that she tells a story that is by turns a natural history of the American Crow, including some quite good advice on how to become a naturalist in the traditional sense of the word; a collection of interesting bits of literature and history in the field of naturalism; a philosophical musing on what it means to be a naturalist, an environmentalist, or a human being living in an urban environment; and a personal confession of her battle with her own fragile condition as all three.

The book opens with Haupt’s wrestling with her “oversensitivity” to the world, both to its beauty and its tragedy. Haupt is in many ways almost a caricature of an environmentalist: fragile of spirit, quick to care for a wounded bird, taking joy in being barefoot in the grass, extolling the virtues of organic gardening, and longing for the wilderness but trapped in the city. Stuck in her bed due to her oversensitivity to the precarious condition of the world, she is one day forced into activity by the raucous, incessant cries of a crow outside her window. This event serves to launch her on a trajectory of discovering what it means to be an urban naturalist, and how to her shift her world view so that she can view her urban home as part of the natural world, and thus as a place where she can practice her craft.

She uses the American crow, a bird she relates to with a sort of grudging respect and fascination, as an easy to observe metaphor for urban nature as a whole. The ultra-common crow serves as a starting point for the budding urban naturalist (frequently symbolized by her nine year old daughter), a gateway animal to a deeper understanding of the fact that urban environments are also natural environments, full of species and habitats that urbanites simply overlook or take for granted.

This does not mean one should expect to learn a large amount of esoteric information about crows from reading this book. Haupt presents a fair amount of information about crows, particularly their nesting and social habitats, and interesting—and frequently amusing—crow anecdotes dot the text. There is no novel research material here, but Haupt does an excellent job presenting a fair amount of information about crows in a way that should be readily accessible to any reader.

The titular crow frequently takes a backseat to discussions on the literary works of Thoreau, E.O. Wilson, and unexpectedly, St. Benedict, who according to legend, was saved from being poisoned by a jealous rival when a crow Benedict befriended detects poison in a loaf of bread (one of the few positive stories about a crow in Western culture). The chapters on the importance of walking, preparedness, and observing your surroundings, for instance, frequently have only the most tenuous and cursory connection with crows. They do contain a significant amount of good advice for would be urban naturalists, however. In other sections, the crow exists more as metaphoric device for Haupt’s musings on the state of the world, wrestling with despair, and how to find hope when the world seems to be on the verge of impending catastrophe.

Even though Haupt’s emotional insights on how difficult it is to be connected to nature in a world badly disrupted by human activity sometimes border on the poetic and are at times quite moving, it is these areas where the book is at its weakest. These passages sometimes veer into the realm of the melodramatic, the condescending, or simply do not reach the poetic heights for which they are aiming. She also wears her liberal politics on her sleeve—there is an exceptionally scornful passage about people who own Hummers, whom she suggests are best laughed at and ignored for their ignorant, resource-consuming ways, rather than letting them fill your heart with anger— and this may make the book unpalatable for some. Fortunately, a sly, self-deprecating wit and self awareness make appearances in the latter half of the book. These combined with some very keen insights into how people can learn to see the natural world in their neighborhood (and how this can enrich their lives), makes her moments of literary self-indulgence forgivable, at least if your do not outright reject her politics.

Crow Planet can serve as an excellent introduction for conservation minded, liberal people to the idea that nature is not something far-away and “out there”, but rather something right outside the door, something that can be viewed through the darkly feathered lens of the crow.

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