In April 2007, perhaps lured by the smell of sizzling meat, a coyote strolled through the propped-open door of a Quizno’s in the heart of downtown Chicago. He strolled past the cashier and a few startled patrons and lay down on a case of Pepsi.
The appearance of a “wild” animal in the middle of a bustling city made national news, but in recent years such events have become common. The reason? The construction of subdivisions, huge box-stores, and golf courses, which have sprawled into the animals’ natural habitats in the “country.”
It is this convergence of city and country, of the wild and the “civilized,” that Lyanda Haupt explores in her new book, “The Urban Bestiary.’’ The subtitle is more descriptive than the title: “Encountering the Everyday Wild.’’ The book is an eloquent natural history of urban wildlife, and an insightful rumination on how the human animal has/should/might relate to what Haupt calls the “new nature.” “[T]he romantic vision of nature as separate from human activity,” she writes, “must be replaced by the realistic sense that all of nature, no matter how remote, is affected by what we do and how we live.”
While this perspective is a recent shift in nature writing, it is not new. Many writers (David Gessner, Bill McKibben, Sandra Steingraber, etc.) and many journals (Orion, Environment, High Country News, etc.) have been defining this new nature for at least a decade. And Haupt makes a significant contribution to that conversation.
Rather than attempting to discover pockets of “pure” wilderness in remote locales, she instead recovers the wilderness in her own backyard. This is evident in the species of mammals that she writes about: raccoons, moles, squirrels, rats, opossums, and coyotes. The birds are equally ordinary: starlings, sparrows, pigeons, hawks, owls, crows, and the species that she raises — chickens.
Self-described as an “urban naturalist,” Haupt shares her observations from her Seattle home in a personal and engaging voice that moves seamlessly between backyard anecdotes and analysis of their ecological implications. After describing encounters with chickadees in her yard she moves from her experience to current research, which shows “an astonishing depth to the chickadee’s alarm calls, which use a recombinant note system to encode specific information about the predator, including the kind of animal that it is, its size and location, and the perceived level of peril.”
Haupt divides her book into sections (“The Furred,’’ “The Feathered,’’ “The Branching and the Rooted’’), which further subdivide into chapters in which she discusses specific flora and fauna — “Coyote,’’ “Mole,’’ “Opossum,’’ “Crow,’’ “Hawk and Owl,’’ “Tree,’’ “Human.’’
Interspersed amid this narrative weave of anecdote and analysis are at least a dozen separate sidebars dedicated to everything from hawk identification to learning bird calls to “reading” raccoon scat. These hands-on asides are entertaining and invite readers to give them a try.
And such opportunities are affirmed in the final chapter, where Haupt explains how to become a backyard naturalist yourself. She advocates finding a “still spot” from which to observe, and keeping a nature journal and phenology notebook.
Here she also suggests the larger purpose of such a practice: “In stillness, outdoors, we are dislodged from the human economy and dropped into the natural wild economy.” This act, she hopes, will allow us to rediscover “our original instructions, our evolved, innate aptitude for awareness and delight in nature. Our wildness.”Tom Montgomery Fate is a professor of English at College of DuPage in Chicago and author of “Cabin Fever: A Suburban Father’s Search for the Wild.’’