Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Lyanda Lynn Haupt created and directed educational programs for Seattle Audubon, worked in raptor rehabilitation in Vermont, and was a seabird researcher for the Fish and Wildlife Service in the remote tropical Pacific. Her first book, Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, was a winner of the 2002 Washington State Book Award. Her second book, Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent: The importance of Everything and Other Lessons from Darwin's Lost Notebooks, got great national reviews. Her writing has appeared in Image, Open Spaces, Wild Earth, Conservation Biology Journal, Birdwatcher's Digest, and The Prairie Naturalist. She lives in Seattle, Washington, with her husband, daughter, one cat and all the other species of a flourishing urban neighborhood. Visit her website.
Read Susan Tweit's review of Crow Planet for StoryCircleBookReviews.org.
Interviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 04/28/2010
You have studied seabirds in remote places—what turned you toward writing for a popular audience about "ordinary" nature in urban places?
My degrees are in philosophy, focusing on ecophilosophy, philosophy of science, and environmental ethics. In graduate school I took as many seminars in ornithology and conservation biology as I could, but stuck with humanities as the environment in which I could best express my own ideas about the natural world. Between college and graduate school I worked as a naturalist at various environmental learning centers, and through luck and perseverance, managed to parlay that experience into research jobs, working with birds, a lifelong focus for me. I considered going back to graduate school for a science degree, but when I sat down to evaluate my way in the world, and my strengths, I decided that writing for a general audience would be the best way to have an impact, my form of activism. I also knew that I wanted to be a mother, to cultivate a harmonious household, and be present to my family. I felt that the flexibility of a writing career would allow me to fulfill these dreams, while keeping a foot in both philosophy and science through my subject matter. As I began to actually create a household, eventually with a husband and little girl, I realized that although my experiences in the remote wild were incredibly meaningful to me, it was from my home that I connected most powerfully to the earth as an ecosystemic creature—growing food, sharing habitat, water, and other resources with the organisms around me, both human and nonhuman. More and more my writing began to spiral into a sense of the necessity of knowing nature from the places that we live—in the everyday continuity between our lives, our homes, and wild nature—as an antidote to the idea that nature is somehow "out there," something we have to drive to, and return from.
In Crow Planet, you open the first chapter, "Getting Up," by saying that crows are not your favorite birds, and in fact, you began studying them only after the editor for your first book suggested it. Why crows?
Crows are a native, wild, intelligent, easily observable bird living in our midst, even in the most urban of areas. They are also, like us, ecologically complicated. They remind us of both the nature that is present in urban places, and the nature that is missing. Crows became, for me, the perfect window into exploring the beautiful, but complicated human relationship with the natural world from our home places.
"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 whom we share our cities, our neighborhoods, our households, our yards our ecosystems, our earth." This quote from the chapter "Preparing" reads like a rousing and passionate manifesto. How have readers responded? Does it seem that you are inspiring a movement of citizen-naturalists?
That's interesting—several reviewers used the word "manifesto" in referring to Crow Planet. I have been astonished at the response to this dimension of the book. I've received so many letters and emails from people telling me that they are now keeping a naturalist notebook on the kitchen table, choosing some natural science topic to study in depth, or just walking around their neighborhoods with new eyes. I'm thrilled. In so many ways humans have, in recent history, been cut off from the natural world—leaving our food, our births, our deaths, our knowledge of nature in the hands of academia, "experts," and industry. The longing for reconnection is surfacing dramatically, and I see my "manifesto" as standing alongside other current parts of the sustainability movement—growing food from home, simplifying our material wants, rethinking modern home economics—all of which deepen our sense of constant continuity with wild nature from the center of our lives. I think we're on a roll.
Crow Planet includes some poignant—and sometimes funny—glimpses into your personal life, including the story of the crow "getting you out of bed" during the dark days when you were struggling to adjust to being a city person and a stay-at-home mom. When you began the book, were those personal stories included, or did they work their way in later?
Yes, I had the covers over my head, and that crow was cawing incessantly. It was interrupting my depression! And it did indeed get me out of bed, both literally and metaphorically. I pretty much always write with a blend of science, philosophy, story, and memoir, so I knew all of these elements would be in the book. But I didn't know that the personal stories would, in part, grow out of a time of such struggle. After writing it all down in a draft of the first chapter, I re-wrote that chapter, eliminating the more deeply personal parts having to do with that depressive time. But I came to see how essential that was to my changing relationship with both crows, and my urban household, and so my editor and I decided that the book was much stronger and authentic with those stories included. But I tried to use a light touch with all of that, and balance truth with good humor.
In the last chapter, you leave for a stay at the Benedictine Monastery you visit several times a year for a week of "time away" from family and daily life. How do you manage to "find" time for those retreats in what sounds like a busy life as writer, naturalist, mother, spouse?
My daughter is now eleven. I absolutely believe in teaching our daughters that women can take time for their personal, spiritual, and creative pursuits, and that this is a necessary, strong, and "normal" thing to do. It's not just for me—we all realize that life at home is better for everyone when each of us does what we need to cultivate our interior lives, and we support one another (including my daughter) in finding ways to make that happen. I happen to be very solitary, so while renewal for some might be more social, for me it means occasional times of deep solitude.
Where does writing come in your day? Do you have a particular writing spot?
I write in the morning, when my brain is most active. I get up an hour or two before my family, so that I have time to do yoga, read, maybe write in my diary, and have a beautiful cup of coffee before the day gets going. After Tom and Claire are off to work and school, I check in on our backyard chickens, then sit down and work for about three hours. I try to keep to this schedule, but I'm not super hardcore about it—if the vagaries of life interfere, I try to stay flexible, changing my writing time, or letting myself off the hook now and then. And if a writing project starts to feel really stressful, while writing through it is usually the best approach, sometimes if I get overwhelmed I'll give myself a mental health break, and focus on other creative pursuits for awhile—the garden, a new bread recipe, writing poetry for fun—and return to my project refreshed. I love to work in my study, upstairs in our 1920s home. There is a big tree by the window, always visited by some manner of birdlife—chickadees, Steller's Jays, flickers, both kinds of kinglets, bushtits. And crows, of course! But I also bring my laptop to a local coffee shop quite regularly—sometimes it's mind-clearing to get out of the house, or sometimes I just need to remove myself so that I don't keep thinking about how the house is a mess and the laundry is stacked a mile high.
If you could add any species to your backyard ecosystem, what would it be? Why?
Well, I have to admit my first thought was "wolves." Fantasy. Moving on to the practical and possible for an urban backyard: Tree frogs! I love their vocalizations, and also want to support amphibians in general as their numbers decline. We try to create good "tree frog conditions" in our yard, and are keeping our fingers crossed.
What is your favorite walk?
My favorite "everyday" walk is out my door and down to Lincoln Park, 137 wooded acres with trails to the Puget Sound shoreline. That's where I'm headed as soon as we're done with this interview!