The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild
by Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Little, Brown, 2013. ISBN 978-0-316-17852-5.
Reviewed by Susan J. Tweit
Posted on 11/22/2013

Nonfiction: Nature/Place/Environment; Nonfiction: Animal Companions; Nonfiction: Science

"It is time for a new bestiary," writes Lyanda Haupt in the opening chapter of this beautifully engaging and reflective book on coming to know the lives that make up everyday nature: "one that engages our desire to understand the creatures surrounding our urban homes, helps us locate ourselves in nature, and suggests a response to this knowledge that will benefit both ourselves and the more-than-human world."

Why in this digital age (where we presume every bit of information is but a click or two away on the Internet) would any respectable naturalist write a bestiary, a medieval-style compendium that includes all knowledge without discriminating observation and fact from speculation and myth?

Precisely because that compendium sans judgment has much to teach us, says Haupt.

"...Entering a bestiary, we cross the threshold into a world in which our imaginations, our art, our bodies, our science, our mythology, all have an exuberant place. Mythology... has become suspect, synonymous with the primitive, the irrational, the unscientific, or simply the untrue. But myths have always given our meaning-seeking species a way to find the thread of pattern, significance, and timelessness underlying our chaotic and unpredictable daily lives... In this bestiary, as in its medieval precursors, mythology is among the many lovely paths toward human knowing: science, natural history, personal observation, everyday storytelling."

Haupt's Bestiary appears in four parts, after a delightful and brief chapter on the creative process. She confesses that writing much of the book outdoors-in order to foster her connection with the lives she was writing about-allowed her in cold months to kindle a fire in the backyard firepit and "fortify myself with the perfect lunch: s'mores."

Part One, "Entering the Bestiary" includes the chapter on what a bestiary is and why anyone sane would write one, plus a chapter on urban tracking. Part Two, "The Furred," profiles Coyote, Mole, Raccoon, Squirrel (and Rat), and Black Bear and Cougar. "The Feathered" considers Bird (the avian kind in general): Starling, House Sparrow, Pigeon, Chickadee, Crow, Hawk, Owl, and Chicken (including a section on chickenomics). Part Four, "The Branching and The Rooted," examines Tree and Human.

Each chapter is its own story, weaving together a knowledge of natural history, personal vignettes, and thoughtful reflections on psychology, myth, biology, art, and literature. Haupt is a lucid and innovative thinker and a fluid and beautiful writer.

This passage from "Bird" shows Haupt's depth and her passionate but clear prose:

"Birders are criticized, mimicked and belittled for their monomaniacal focus. But surely there is far more useless knowledge to be had. There is much to be said for knowing a bird, its name, something of its life, at a glance... I like to think that such knowing is a kind of gracious hosting, one that enriches not only our own lives, but also the lives of birds. What is it that we know? The mingled spiral of our lives, human and non-human, flesh and feather."

The mingled spiral of our lives. In that phrase, Haupt reveals the essence of writing, whether about humans or nature: We are twined with all the other lives on this earth. We and those others have much to teach each other. Haupt's Bestiary is a wonderful way to begin the exploration and learning.

Lyanda Haupt is a naturalist, eco-philosopher, and speaker whose writing is at the forefront of the movement to connect people with nature in their everyday lives. She is the author of Crow Planet, winner of the 2010 Sigurd F. Olson Nature Writing Award; Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent; and Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds, winner of the 2002 Washington State Book Award. She lives in West Seattle with her family. Visit her website.

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