The urban wild’s most resilient creature shows us what’s beautiful, what’s ugly, and what’s missing
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 past 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.
I heard of a crow that accompanied a mail carrier on his daily route every day for more than two years, walking behind him like a golden retriever before inexplicably disappearing. I heard from a Benedictine nun that a crow in the woods surrounding her monastery befriended a large black, green-eyed cat named Ashford, and that the two shared in feasting on the birds that Ashford caught and killed. I heard from a friend that she was watching a crow work for some time to balance a medium-size stone atop a larger stone. “Was it making art?” she wanted to know. I heard from a pilot friend that his friend (for many crow stories spiral compellingly through some kind of lineage in this way), also a pilot, watched the Snowbirds (the Canadian Forces’ equivalent of the Blue Angels) practicing for an air show, and afterward, a crow in the trees near the airfield practiced flying upside down. Am I incredulous? Certainly, somewhat. But can I deny it? Who hasn’t seen a crow do something we do not expect of “simple” birds, or any animal, for that matter? Who doesn’t have a crow story? And the more attention we offer, the more the crow stories spring up around us, like grass.
For the majority of people on the face of the earth, the crow is the single most often encountered native wild animal in their lives. Surely this is an unproven, and probably even an unprovable, claim. But I’ve presented it to an array of biological scientists, and no one can think of another wild animal that is likely to be more familiar, or more regularly encountered. Humans gather in villages, suburbs, and urban landscapes, and crows follow them there. The denser and more removed from wild places our dwellings become, the less likely we are to see any wild animals other than crows.
The spread of crowness 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, make us realize that as humans generate the conditions that allow crow populations to grow, many other wild animal species are present in far fewer numbers and others are gone completely.
“So you’re saying crows are the bird we deserve,” friends have suggested, as if crows—bulky and black, stalking about—might be present as a punitive reminder of our ecological missteps. It might sound as if that’s what I’m saying. Certainly it is ironic, at best, that we remove forests, replace them with concrete and shrubbery, line the sidewalks with plastic cans full of food scraps and topped with ill-fitting lids, and then lament the presence and noise of so many crows.
But no, if it were about deserving, we would have no bird at all. As it is, we have a shiny, black, intelligent, native, wild bird. Crows may not be the bird we deserve, but they are the bird we’ve been given.
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 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 the consequences of our actions 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.
Even though I’d always imagined myself to be a good urban ecologist—I recycled, walked and biked, gathered eggs from my backyard chicken coop, knew the names of birds and trees, collected signatures for environmental initiatives, and even taught classes in local natural history—I had resisted the idea of becoming a truly knowledgeable urban naturalist, feeling that this was just an impoverished version of a “real” naturalist. I’d saved my best thinking, my best watching, my best presence, and my bravest intimacy for true nature. But what exactly did I mean by true nature? And was this not a snobbish attitude? Am I really so much better than the place where I live? I, who am as much an introduced race as any Norway rat?
In his essay “Home Economics,” agrarian writer Wendell Berry defines nature this way: “What we call nature is, in a sense, the sum of the changes made by all the various creatures and natural forces in their intricate actions and influences upon each other and their places.” In other words, for humans, how we live where we live is what makes us part of a natural ecosystem. It is also the source of our most profound impact on the more-than-human world.
We love our vision of untouched nature and cling tightly to images of pristine wilderness or desert or ocean as solace for our souls, as places of peace and transcendent beauty to which we can turn as a diversion from our cluttered, material lives. We believe ourselves to be intimately connected to wild places, as indeed we are. Too often, though, nature is romanticized as the place out there, the place with all the sparkly trees in the Sierra Club calendar, the place we visit with a knapsack and a Clif Bar, where we stand in awe of the beauty and refresh our spirits. But it is a kind of hubris to pretend that we come to such places unencumbered, that we can leave behind the snares, entanglements, and activities of our everyday lives and return to a kind of purity when we drive our SUVs (or even our hybrids) up to the hills for a subalpine-meadow hike.
Such sojourns are nourishing and necessary, but it remains our daily lives, in the places we live, that make us ecosystemic creatures; these are the seat of our most meaningful interactions with, and impact upon, the wider, wilder earth. We are connected by the ways that we choose, consume, and share water, food, shelter, and air—just like all the other animals. We cherish the few, sweet days we manage to escape to places we consider true wilderness, but the most essential things we can do for the deeply wild earth have to do with how we eat, how we drive, where we walk, and how we choose every moment of our quotidian urban lives.
When we allow ourselves to think of nature as something out there, we become prey to complacency. If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here doesn’t really matter. Jennifer Price writes in Flight Maps, her eloquent critique of romanticized nature, that modern Americans use an idea of Nature Out There to ignore our ravenous uses of natural resources: “If I don’t think of a Volvo as nature, then can’t I buy and drive it to Nature without thinking very hard about how I use, alter, destroy, and consume nature?”
In my urban ecosystem, I drive around a corner and a crow leaps into flight from the grassy parking strip. We startle each other. If nature is Out There, Price asks, then what am I?
To suggest that urban nature holds profound lessons is not to suggest that our concrete-laced wilds are, in any sense, adequate. Urban sprawl—and the degraded, chopped-up habitat it leaves in its wake—is the single greatest threat to species diversity in the current millennium. If we wish to have a positive impact on the places we consider to be most profoundly wild, then we must begin by inhabiting our home ecosystems with some semblance of knowledge and grace.
Put on your walking shoes, the crows suggested. And I did. I took my daughter’s hand and set out to drop the barriers I’d erected between my heart and my urban home. I would learn my place deeply and well, give the wild things that live here their due credit, and try to grasp how we might dwell together with intelligence, artistry, and joy. I would take my binoculars and sketchbook out of the field bag I carry when I visit nature out there, and I would drop them into the bag I carry every day, the one with my cell phone and my laptop and my bus pass. I would live as much in the presence of the wild as the urban landscape allows. I would learn, quickly, that this would be a creative challenge but not an impossible one. There are, after all, always crows.
Developing as a naturalist, a knower of nature, is arguably one of the most critical tasks for modern humans on the planet Earth, yet naturalist is a word and a role that has, in the past century, lost its core meaning. Not that the term isn’t used. After about half a millennium during which the title was deemed archaic and dropped out of common parlance, naturalist is suddenly the word of the moment. It seems everyone calls herself a naturalist these days.
The counselors who watch over my daughter at day camp? Naturalists. “Why are they called naturalists?” I inquired of the camp director. Well, because of all the nature activities. And it’s true that my daughter did bring home a mosaic fashioned of leaves and sticks glued onto a paper plate. Claire and the other 50 children also pillaged the native plants around a nearby pond and stuffed them into ill-fated mayonnaise-jar terrariums that sat on kitchen counters for two weeks, all fogged up, before dying. It seems that anyone connected with any sort of job that can be construed as having something to do with nature becomes, on her or his résumé, a naturalist. But knowing a little something about nature, while it is good, does not make someone a naturalist. This is a beautiful title, worth reclaiming.
I want to cocreate and inhabit a nation of watchers, of naturalists-in-progress, none of us perfect, all sharing in the effort of watching, knowing, understanding, protecting, and living well alongside the wild life with which we share our cities, our neighborhoods, our households, our yards, our ecosystems, our earth. All of us in cafés, pulling out our laptops and beside them our binoculars, just in case we want to see how that crow outside the window is doing with his bit of garbage, how his feet work to hold down the paper bag while his nimble bill extracts the french fries. Just in case we want to see, above the crows, the swooping swallows that only days ago arrived all the way from Mexico, violet feathers shimmering. From the swallows we can turn to the person at the table across the way and say, “Did you ever see a more beautiful color of blue?”
Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a Seattle-based speaker, writer, and naturalist. This essay is excerpted from her book Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, published by Little, Brown, and Company. © 2009 Lyanda Lynn Haupt.