I recently read Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s excellent Crow Planet. The book is several things at once. It’s a celebration of crows and all thing corvid, a recognition of the family’s abilities to live alongside us, the human destroyers. But it is, too, a lament of crow’s dominance, an elegy of all that’s been the displaced in the human destroyers’ making of the urban and suburban habitats in which corvids thrive. And it’s a manifesto for the amateur, urban naturalist, a recognition that we are not only destroyers. We are also able to relocate the wild amid our tamed habitats, taking joy in doing so, finding ourselves transformed by doing so, and perhaps developing new worldviews, politics, and ecologies in the living we discover at the edge of pavement.
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 urban landscape, this is particularly challenging. … Without the hope of a megafaunal sighting to keep us on our toes, our watching must delve one layer, or several, deeper. This is one of the blessing 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
– Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Crow Planet (2009)
Haupt’s Manifesto for Urban Naturalism
adapted from Crow Planet, pages 48-61
- Study & Name ThingsDevelop the ability to encounter & see nature. This no longer comes naturally to most of us, if it ever did. Instead, by encountering wildlife first in field guides, we learn where we might find urban animals and how to know what we’ve indeed found. (I recall, six years on now, that it took my partner and me almost an hour to put a name to starlings when we first encountered a flock as birders.) And while the birds may not know when we call them by their names, those labels help us distinguish ducks from geese, crows from blackbirds, bees from wasps from their mimics (and the stinging from the harmless). This helps us collect our sightings, for sure, contributing to our life lists. But it also helps us discover what is where — that is, which ecological niches local wildlife fills. The cattails are full of red-wings; the waterless parks with crows.
- Practice and Have Patience. Then, Cultivate an Obsession.Few animals want to be found. Around the beginner, whose eyes are unfocused and ears unlearned, they’re especially furtive. When I first began birding in 2012, a Cloquet, Minnesota trail along the St. Louis River withheld all but a dozen or so birds from me. I told myself the birds were few because Cloquet had been heavily logged and the air still smells of the paper mill. Instead, it was because I was an absolute beginner. I couldn’t identify birds by their distant songs, didn’t know what time of day to look for them, and didn’t understand migration. I’m better now, though no expert and, since my first summer birding, I’ve found another 60 or 70 birds along this modest path.Through patient practicing, we transform what we’ve studied into knowledge in the field. We learn how a bird song, described in a field guide, actually sounds to our ears, sung from the distance and arriving to us through ambient noise. At first, we’ll need to see the bird as it calls to identify it. Later, the call is enough. “Flicker, House Finch, Blue Jay, White-breasted Nuthatch,” we list, never seeing the birds.
When the unfamiliar natural world becomes familiar, it yields questions to us. We take to these for reasons that we cannot understand. (For me, it’s this not especially technical question: do Common Nighthawks nest in my local circle?) Those questions begin to guide our observations, changing how we study nature. Enter obsession. Study more, Haupt suggests, of the creatures and their behaviors that most interest you. Turn from the field guides, which are necessarily generic, to more specialized texts. Observe more, noting not just the presence of an animal (as the lister does) but what those animals do. Let obsession lead you to discover the extraordinary amid the ordinary.
- Respect the Wildness of AnimalsSpend enough time with wildlife and one can be fooled into thinking they want you there. At dawn, the local Great Horned Owl start shifting on perches and watching you back, as if welcoming you into its home. The magpies and crows do the same as you sidle up to a tree in which they nest. All seem to greet you with recognition, as friends, you alone among your neighbors, by virtue of your careful observations. But this is an illusion. Just as the birds don’t know the names we call them, they don’t attach any special relationship to the people who attach special relationships to them, the people who “bird” them. Though study and obsession offer insights, it is a human knowledge overlayed on non-human things, whose lives always exceed what we know of them. Respect that and “watch where we step,” Haupt writes.
- Carry a Notebook, but Mind the GadgetryHaupt carries binoculars for seeing far, a magnifying class for seeing small, and a notebook for carrying home accounts of what she’s seen. She notes that this can sometimes lead to awkward encounters with people, who are suspicious of those who seem ready to surveil. And yet not only are these necessary to the urban naturalist, but they do indeed change us into “open” persons who, by virtue of appearing open to the natural world, are open to the social. Others will ask us what we’re seeing, giving us a chance to help another see what they usually don’t in their local habitats.
It’s tempting to go further still. Today, eBird and iNaturalist come with us on our phones. I use both. But they can also distract us, taking us away from our encounters with wildlife, even as they’re right there. They can do so directly, as when we report what’s present without observing it. They can also do indirectly. Unlock your phone to get to eBird and find yourself lost in texts or work emails, the very thing you sought time in nature to leave behind. (I recently heard that it takes twice as long to recover from a distraction as the distraction itself. I believe it.)
- Maintain a “Field Trip” Mentality, but Make Time for SolitudeFor Haupt, the “field trip” mentality is the sense of wonder and discovery that birders share when they arrive in a parking lot to begin carpooling for a much-anticipated trip to a refuge, a grassland, a reservoir. Even in the lot, the listing starts. “Pigeon,” someone says. “Rock dove,” another jokes. “Magpie, crow, Ring-billed Gull, Brewer’s Blackbird,” another rattles off. Birders among birders are birders, listing everything, pursuing some ambitious goal for the day, usually a round number: 30, 40, 50, 100 species. The parking lot helps, so the parking lot counts.Taking the “field trip” mentality on an urban nature walk means observing from the beginning. Everything is meaningful. Every species counts. We don’t put off our observations until we arrive at our destination, the most “natural” of our local nature. (It’s usually not so natural. Around me, it’s century-old cottonwoods along a man-made canal.) Instead, start observing as you step out the door.
But the “field trip” mentality also means something more social, the sharing of knowledge and observations. I’ve hinted at this elsewhere: one of the joys of local birding is that it offers the opportunity to enrich others’ experiences of our home habitats, if we generously, joyfully, and with care share our observations with others. Care, for not everyone appreciates local wildlife and would rather see racoons, foxes, and coyotes removed from neighborhoods. But even those who appreciate the animals can be trouble, as they may not yet know how to respectfully interact with that wildlife. We must be responsible with den, nest, and resting sites.
So taking the “field trip” mentality, we share nature with others. Time out there, however, also offers the opportunity for solitude, an increasingly difficult thing to obtain in our urban, suburban, networked, and always-on society. It’s often found in the less “attractive” areas of our urban and suburban natural areas, away from the lawns and fields and kept grounds and blooming, landscaped things.
The rancid, standing water is calling and I must go!
Happily, these unkempt areas are where the other, living things gather. So it is solitude, but of a certain type. Not the solitude of the lonely, those who call out to the human world only and who find no call back. It is, instead, the solitude of coexistence, the solitude of teeming soil, of scratching in the underbrush, of life dashing cross the periphery of our human things.