A New Natural History

Pondering the life of a swan. Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Lycurgo Vidalakis
Pondering the life of a swan. Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY. Photo: Lycurgo Vidalakis

Here in New York City I’m looking harder than I’ve had to in other places and contexts for wildness, for ideas and conversation about biophilia and inter-being. Often I land at the Mid-Manhattan Library, where a bit of mindful browsing usually drops me into the right books, or vice versa. (I have always believed that books, wild and willed as they are, can find the right readers, at the right moments.)

Recently, I found three which sank me deep into my beloved field of environmental humanities: the study of how we feel, interpret, celebrate, relate to, and talk about our more-than-human surroundings.

This week in books...
This week in books…

The first I peeled into was Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild. It appealed to me for so many reasons. First, Haupt describes herself as a reluctant city-dweller, a label and experience to which I relate, and to which I ascribe no small amount of melancholy. Second, it offers practical tips on spotting, tracking, connecting with, and appreciating species found in many an urban setting: pigeons, squirrels, house sparrows, raccoons, opossums, crows, and increasingly, coyotes and bears.

In title a “bestiary,” it brought to mind visions of illuminated pages, crackling vellum, pictures of creatures both actual and imagined. Medieval bestiaries, Haupt reminds us, allowed for the possibility of unicorns, griffins, wood nymphs, and fairies, while weaving in moral stories, myth, and early scientific observation. She appreciates, as do I, how old-school bestiaries laid out both what was known and what was thought to be known, each presented with equal weight and veracity. The genre, she explains, honored multiple ways of knowing.

Haupt argues that we’re once again in need of bestiaries, of wild books filled with wild stories, which re-couple human experience with observations of the more-than-human. She believes that validating both natural observation [from the Latin “ob,” meaning “to watch,” but also “servare,” “to attend” or “to be with”] and human story allows the writer, reader and naturalist to better challenge, or at least acknowledge the harm and fallacy in any nature-vs.-culture or urban-vs.-wildland binary. This exercise, she argues, is of the utmost importance, in an age of increasing (and many would argue–I’m not so sure I’m one of them–ecologically necessary) urbanization.

She notes the danger in isolating wild “nature” as an object to be studied by an outsider, or in using it as a tool, “a kind of cipher against which the writer/thinker could, through his [or her] own longings, desires, studies, and raptures, create a meaningful sense of self” (11). Instead she invokes a newer brand of nature writing, a school which already boasts a hearty following, which embraces the feelings, histories, and intellectual processes of the human observer, skillfully woven in alongside the pulses and rhythms of the more-than-human. She writes that “humans are not observers of untouched beauty; we are present, involved, touched and touching, in a journey of reconnection between daily life and wilder earth” (13).

She doesn’t shy away from the messiness of these interactions: how wrong can it be to feed bread crumbs to a pigeon, or to “tame” a few backyard squirrels, she wonders, acknowledging that doing so both diminishes the animals’ wildness, and builds what at least feels like genuine connection?

One of my beloved backyard pigeons.
One of my neighborhood pigeons.

She wonders out loud: what to do, or not do, about introduced exotics, like house sparrows? (Her bold and not unsqueamish answer: take steps to limit reproduction of these species, through acts such as egg addling– yet, don’t shy away from loving, appreciating, and sketching that one sparrow who regularly visits your feeder or sidewalk.) What, she asks, governs negative human reactions to certain species, like rats and raccoons? Can these negative reactions, media portrayals, and word choices be re-crafted? And how do we “deal” with wild predators in our backyards (answer: with awe, respect, and presence, and by the simple act of moving our pets and small children indoors at night), or with hungry critters in our gardens? (Answer: either drive ourselves crazy with deterrent contraptions and smoke bombs, or give in a little and plant a row or two extra for the nibblers.)

She wrestles with the idea of anthropomorphization, landing where I do on the subject: that to some degree, to wonder about or ascribe human emotions to the wild critters we observe is inevitable, both helpful and damaging, in quantities we must constantly balance. She is both skeptical of, and excited about keeping lists: she argues that it is far more important to be present with a tree, weed or animal than to know its name or taxonomy, and she notes the tendency for birding or other animal tracking to become an ego-driven sport. Still, she sees tenderness and even basic courtesy in the naming and keeping track-of:

“When I see a glimpse of yellow-edged fawn-brown tail feathers, and cedar waxwing comes involuntarily to my lips, I feel a peaceful intimacy,” she writes. “I believe it is an act of neighborliness, of politeness, of basic goodwill, of intellectual hospitality to learn about the birds around us, beginning with their names… [Their] presence (or absence) on the electrical wire above my sidewalk speaks to many things: evolution, habitat, communication, migration” (165). Listing can help a person “cultivate an attunement to place–a seasoned sense of what to look for, and when, and where; to be expectant, and sometimes surprised,” she adds (170-171).

I found helpful all of her practical instructions: how to distinguish canine from feline footprints, what coyote scat looks like, how to get a sense of the shape of an underground mole tunnel based on the placement of aboveground mounds. She also offers a basic introduction to birding, which I compounded with concurrent reading of Leslie Day’s Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City.

In the end, the human story Haupt introduces into her modern urban bestiary is her own, and in closing she invites her readers to do the same. Meet your wildness where you find it, she advises, and deepen your understanding thereof through every method at your disposal: books, expert testimony, natural histories and taxonomic keys, but also observation, sketching, myth, sitting-with, breathing-with. Laughing-with.

Another of this week’s books─The Fly Trap, a natural history and memoir by Swedish entomologist Fredrik Sjöberg─spoke to this idea, this need to imbue natural history with human story. Sjöberg writes side-by-side about his own lifelong infatuation with hymenoptera, or hover flies, and about the life of pioneering naturalist René Malaise, and about the life cycle of the flies themselves.

He laments a particular trend in entomological archiving: that most naturalists’ collections, after the naturalists have died, upon acquisition by natural history museums are parcelled out into their respective species and taxa, rather than being left whole, as sequential and developed collections, influenced and narrated by the naturalists’ thoughts, procedural notes, and chronicles of the hunt. Without this knowledge, this personal and very human “meta-data,” Sjöberg argues that much is lost (142).

Sjöberg ends, as will I, by citing naturalist Sten Selander’s essay, “The Drawer Where Summer Dwells”:

…”But the hymenoptera have one quality I understand, almost the only comprehensible aspect of these insects’ peculiar world– they love warmth and sunshine as much as I do. Maybe that’s the reason I was drawn to them in the first place…Thanks to this characteristic of the hymenoptera, my collection includes thousands of small labels with the date and place of capture, and these comprise a diary of clear and beautiful days, days of warmth, soft breezes and no other clouds than small, puffy cirri, and above this chest of drawers, where twenty bygone summers sleep, there might be inscribed the same words written on innumerable sundials: I count only the happy hours” (143-144).

Gulls, City Island, Bronx. Photo: Lycurgo Vidalakis
Gulls, City Island, Bronx. Photo: Lycurgo Vidalakis

Books of the week: 

Day, Leslie. Field Guide to the Neighborhood Birds of New York City. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 2014; Haupt, Lyanda Lynn. The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild. NY: Little, Brown and Co., 2014; Sjöberg, Fredrik. The Fly Trap. NY: Pantheon, 2014.


2 thoughts on “A New Natural History

  1. J

    This is lovely. You’ve nicely integrated a helpful sampling of topics and ideas from the book and your own perspective. I’ve signed up to follow your blog and requested a copy of Haupt’s book from our local library. There is an Oregon essayist, Kathleen Dean Moore, whose essays might interest you.


  2. I have found myself lost in the jungles of the Amazon with Theodore Roosevelt and crossing the Antarctic with Robert Falcon Scott through books I’ve read. These are places I may never go in person, but my mind can take me anywhere.


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