Nature Writing as a Part of Urban Life

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Nature writing as a genre will change as our ideas of nature evolve along with our sprawling urban habitat.
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“The Urban Bestiary,” by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, blends science, myth, story, and memoir to encourage us to be active participants in the world of our wild neighbors.

As our urban sprawl expands and encounters with wildlife become a more regular occurrence, The Urban Bestiary (Little, Brown and Company, 2013) encourages us to be active participants in the world of our wild neighbors, and explorers of our own wilder edges. Lyanda Lynn Haupt, naturalist and author of Crow Planet, ask fascinating new questions: Whose “home” is this new landscape, not entirely urban or wild, and what difference will it make to us humans living our daily lives? This excerpt from “A New Nature, a New Bestiary” wonders what future generations of nature writers will have to reflect upon.

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Like many urban chicken keepers, I find that a good part of me longs for a rural existence. I never meant to live in a city. I always imagined growing my family and garden on a remote expanse of rural land at the end of a tree-lined dirt road. I would keep a cow, write nature books, send my daughter to some hippie Waldorf school, make goat cheese, bake bread. Mornings, I would watch the deer gather at the edge of our meadow; evenings, I would be on the lookout for rangy-limbed coyotes disappearing into the woods. Instead, I took a job with an urban environmental organization and married a man who works in global health for the University of Washington, and we’re raising our daughter in a Seattle neighborhood, where we will be for the foreseeable future. And as much as a corner of my mind still dreams of a farmy, rural life at the forest’s edge, I realize more each day that modern times have thrown us into a curious paradox: For those who love nature and hope to conserve wild places, urban homes are in many ways the most appropriate places to live.

City dwellers often cite the cultural advantages of urban life. Cities are where the people are. They are where we gather to live, raise our families, build our schools and libraries, make music, produce theater. If cities are places where we incite one another to heightened material desires and rampant consumerism, where we are blinded to the needs, rhythms, and even existence of nature, they are also places that invite collaboration in the highest arts and the richest community endeavors. But there is also an unexpectedly profound ecological element to the human density that characterizes urban sites. Cities, ill-planned messes as they might currently be, are the places that the bulk of us will have to live if earthly life — both human and wild — is going to have any chance of flourishing. As inviting as the notion of a rural existence might be for many of us, the remaining open spaces in our country and beyond simply cannot accommodate a modern back?to?the-land movement, no matter how well intentioned. Well-planned urban density is the most ecologically promising mode of human habitation, allowing our homes to cluster, to be built alongside and on top of one another. This clustering encourages a sharing of resources, tools, energy, ingenuity, transport, and pavement that keep humans in one walkable/bikeable/busable place instead of sprawling out and further fragmenting the open spaces, wetlands, and woodlands that support wild creatures and systems. No matter how much I might yearn for a sweet Jersey cow on the back forty (and at this point, I’d settle for a pair of dwarf Nigerian goats on a shy half acre), I have come to realize that the most ecological life I can live begins with a new understanding of my urban home.

We are in the midst of a vital thrust toward urban and earthen sustainability, changes in food practices, and conservation imperatives. We inhabit what I call a new nature, where the romantic vision of nature as separate from human activity 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. But at the same time, while enthusiasm and good intentions run high, as urban dwellers, we find ourselves unmoored — bereft of the folklore; naturalist practices; knowledge of local creatures, plants, and soil that were a necessity of life just a couple of generations ago. In this decade, for the first time in the history of the earth, more humans live in urban places than rural. Simultaneously, there is more popular interest in nature, wildlife, conservation, and natural living than there has ever been. As a new urban culture emerges, we are seeking to reclaim, and in many ways create anew, a body of knowledge that ties us to the natural world and that engages all dimensions of human knowing — intellectual, spiritual, philosophical, and deeply practical — informing a connection to the natural world that is creative, intelligent, earthy, wild, and beautiful.

This unfolding vision of a new urban ecology has everything to do with rethinking nature more broadly. The concept of a new nature solidified for me while I was reading a recent essay by Jason Cowley, editor of the Cambridge-based journal Granta, about the changing face of nature writing. Gone are the days when “man” — typically a bearded, poorly dressed, lone semi-misanthrope in the shape of a Thoreau, or an Emerson, or a Muir — wanders into the woods in search of meaning and purpose through a romantic communing with nature. Nature was, in the history of the genre, a kind of cipher against which the writer/thinker could, through his own longings, desires, studies, and raptures, create a meaningful sense of self. The perceived inauthenticity of conventional society was renounced for something real, true, and — always — separate from the everyday life in town that the writer left behind. New nature writing, Cowley argues, is different. The “lyrical pastoral tradition of the romantic wanderer” and even the descriptive natural history essay are being replaced by first-person narratives in which the writer places herself, along with nature, in a vital, urgent, and highly practical exploration of the human place in an ecological world. Humans are not observers of an untouched beauty; we are present, involved, touched and touching, in a journey of reconnection between daily life and wilder earth.

But this notion of a new nature writing invites a question: Are writers changing, or is nature? Nature has never been securely defined. Our use of the word in an everyday sense is extremely broad. “I need some time in nature,” a friend might say colloquially, and we nod, knowing what is meant. A camping trip, a walk in the park, something to do with trees, perhaps just a foray into the backyard garden. This is a perfectly good and useful interpretation of the word, but beyond this colloquial meaning, it serves us now to be more specific. In the past, nature has been romanticized into an untouched place beyond human civilization. We love this vision and long, at times, to find ourselves immersed in wild, pristine nature. But finding untouched nature is almost impossible. Not only are the wilderness areas and parks carved with roads, trails, noise pollution, and car exhaust, but the ramifications of human-caused climate change for wild places and animals are unrelentingly global. We know that the human footprint covers the entire planet, with no place left unaltered. I would reluctantly argue that there is indeed a new nature, a sense of the earth in which we understand that humans are entangled with all of wild life, what we see and what we don’t, whether we wish this to be so or not. (Wildlife, one word, refers to wild animals, but I like to use wild life, two words, to refer to the expansive sense of biological life that throws humans into the mix alongside all things animal, botanical, geological, and atmospheric.)

This understanding is both disheartening and inviting. I for one would rather hold fast to the notion of a remote wild earth. I want wild nature to have nothing to do with my little human plans and wants and travails and foibles. I want there to be a “big wild” that inspires my days and my writing and my home life. But coming to terms with the fact that even the wildest places are now tied to the way we create our human lives, I try to find the poetry in this view — to know that how I live and how I focus my attention, even (especially) in my urban home, can be of benefit to wild places that I will never see but for which I have a deep passion and with which I am constantly, intimately connected. The earth is small. My life and wild life twine together. I come to this understanding by exploring wilderness with a pack on my back and with my ear to the wind, yes, but also by observing a migratory warbler in my backyard and by joining my daughter in watching a nonnative house sparrow gather nest material in the backyard garden while allowing myself to recognize fully that these activities are all of a piece.

On our living room table lies a nest made, literally, out of our household — chicken feathers, bark from the front yard, moss from the garden stones, string from a woven rice bag that was in the garbage, bits of yarn from a scrap of carpet. It was woven by house sparrows, birds whose ancestors, like mine, came from Europe, and its loose form tells a perfect story of what I’ve come to think of as the lost boundary: the walls of our homes, our urban planning and map drawing, our workday distractions do not, and cannot, separate us from the lives and needs of a more-than-human world. We are part of a great conversation. As we pay attention, we’ll find the tracks, the script of our wild neighbors, to tell us so; we’ll begin to answer the essential question of how to live on a changing earth, where humans and nature are tangled so messily and so wondrously.

Excerpted from THE URBAN BESTIARY Copyright © 2013 by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher. Reprinted by arrangement with Little, Brown and Company. Buy this book from our store: The Urban Bestiary.