Book Review: The Urban Bestiary

  • In the new book, Urban Bestiary, nature writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt gives a modern version of a bestiary. It mixes scientific knowledge and myth in a more transparent way than the 12th century version. Photo: Courtesy

December 6, 2013

The closest I've ever come to a coyote—almost close enough to touch her—was in a suburban construction site. I'd been hiding for a search-and-rescue exercise, hunkered down in a ditch. Because the coyote had very dark fur, I mistook her for the German shepherd I knew was looking for me. But then I noticed that the tail was way too fluffy. That shifted my frame of reference; she was much smaller, and closer, than I’d thought. For a moment, our eyes met. Then she vanished.

The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild is about moments like these—in all their complexity. The encounter with nature, in the last place you'd expect. The preconception, leading us to all the wrong conclusions. And that last moment, when the illusion fails and for an instant you're in a communion that escapes words precisely because the "other" in that communion has no words.

Lyanda Lynn Haupt has written The Urban Bestiary from her own back yard, cataloging and describing the birds, beasts, and trees that inhabit her Seattle neighborhood. Many are familiar denizens across the country, in many different climates and environments. This is because they are species that we either introduced or which flourish in our company, and have thus spread nearly nationwide.

For the purposes of the book, Haupt baits for starlings and house sparrows, and finds herself charmed by the creatures, by their bold success. She works hard not to judge these introduced and expanded species. And she dips into the rather complicated science behind it all. The common wisdom is that introduced species displace native species, and often that's the case. But in some specific instances it isn't that clear. Starlings, for example, were introduced from Britain in a hare-brained attempt to bring every bird referenced in Shakespeare to the New World. Native species of birds have disappeared in their wake—but often the data on these species' populations don't exactly support the idea that they're actually gone. In some cases, we may not be seeing the shy natives because they aren't letting us. Our presence affects the environment around us in subtle ways, in turn skewing our perception of what is there. And that, I think, is one of the most valuable perspectives Haupt offers.

Not that the entire book worked for me. Haupt’s way of moving between natural history and mythology grew on me, slowly. The myths she shares are as interesting as the science, adding something far more meaningful than mere charm. The penultimate chapter, on trees, fell flat for me. Here, the author pushed the idea, put forward by some of her sources, that plants are somehow sentient.  She admits that she doesn’t really believe it herself, and winds up watering down the concept enough that I’m not sure what it adds. Also, and I realize I'm picking nits here, I'd have liked to see her talk more about a current, controversial school of thought in environmental science. Some researchers believe we should protect some disturbed environments that offer benefits to native species, even when those environments are dominated by introduced species.

On the whole, The Urban Bestiary pays off nicely, offering a valuable frame shift on what we define as “natural” and “man-made.” And a new perspective on a wild world that refuses to retreat, even in our least "natural" locales.