I recently read Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness, Lyanda Haupt’s memoir of coming to terms with life in an urban place, and what she’s learned from those species that share our built environment, including crows, ubiquitous urban dwellers the world around. I was so struck with the book that I reviewed it for Story Circle Book Reviews, writing in part,
I love it when an author lays her cards on the table, showing who she is without pretensions. It’s especially appropriate in books like Crow Planet, a personal look at one of the most common birds of human habitation and what Haupt has learned from these avian neighbors about her life, the life our our species—and our future on this planet. (Read the full review here.)
I asked Haupt if she’d agree to be interviewed for Story Circle Book Reviews’ series of author interviews, and she graciously agreed. The full interview is up on Story Circle Book Reviews; I’m posting my favorite parts below. Here’s what Haupt has to say about why she writes about urban nature, how a crow quite literally got her out of bed when she was depressed, and the role of writing in her life.
SJT: You have studied seabirds in remote places—what turned you toward writing for a popular audience about “ordinary” nature in urban places?
LH: 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.
SJT: 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?
LH: 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.
SJT: Where does writing come in your day? Do you have a particular writing spot?
LH: 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.
SJT: What is your favorite walk?
LH: 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!
Thanks, Lyanda Haupt, for the interview, and for the inspiring and thought-provoking read that is Crow Planet: Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness.
On the brain cancer front, Richard just finished his third cycle of intensive chemotherapy, and he’s recovering well. In fact, he’s determined to drive me to Boulder tomorrow, and then on to Cheyenne, Wyoming, on Friday, where I’ll give the opening talk for the Wyoming Master Gardener’s Annual Meeting. (Here’s the opening slide for my talk, “Reclaim Your Yard.”)
When we get home, I’ll go back to work on a book proposal I’ve been working on now and again for the past several months. Then it’ll be time to get the kitchen garden and the yard in shape. Our place is one of six gardens in Colorado featured during the annual meeting of the North American Rock Garden Society in July. Five of those gardens are in the Denver metro area; one is in Salida. Time to get some projects finished!
Here’s the material for one of the projects. Recognize these? Know what we’ll be doing with them? More to come as the project unfolds.
One more thing: Remember that indoor tomato farm I planted in March? We planted those tomato plants in the garden last Sunday, on a gloriously warm late April day. So of course the weather turned cold and windy, with two nights below freezing so far. The photo below shows the tomato plants, out in their insulating, water-filled teepees (the reddish things under the white sheet of row cover), blanketed snugly yesterday morning, when the thermometer read a chilly 24 degrees F. And yes, they stayed cozy warm, and are growing apace. What a wonder life is!