Book Review: The Urban Bestiary

bestiary

Humans in our culture operate under a rather crazed delusion that we are not a part of nature. We fight nature. We defend nature. We pack up our tents and visit nature. I am as susceptible to this delusion as anyone else, but I do try to remember that I am a creature of nature, living in a vast human habitat which exists as part of a web with the entire ecosystem. Remembering that I am not apart from nature sometimes requires a little mental judo–and some well chosen bedside reading.

Thus my recent reading has included books like Being Animal and What the Robin Knows (reviewed here) and most recently The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of the excellent Crow PlanetThe Urban Bestiary is an exploration of the intimate intersection of humans and other urban animals, such as coyotes and raccoons and opossums and squirrels.

In The Urban Bestiary, Haupt introduces us to our close neighbors, the animals which share our land, and sometimes even our homes. She gives us a naturalist’s overview of their behaviors, physiology and life cycles, interspersed with personal anecdotes and interviews with wildlife experts. The resulting animal portraits are as fresh and delicately drawn as watercolors.

The chapters cover:

Coyote • Mole • Raccoon • Opossum • Squirrel (and Rat) • Black Bear • Cougar • Birds  • Starling, House Sparrow, Pigeon • Chickadee • Crow • Hawk and Owl • Chicken • Tree • Human
The truth is we think we know all we need to know about these animals–these pests which overturn our garbage cans, scare off the native birds, eat our cats or scare the bejeezus out of us on the porch late at night–but we don’t, not really. We see what we want to see and understand very little.
This book goes a long way toward filling in that knowledge gap. And with knowledge comes understanding–and maybe even peace. With some understanding, we can appreciate  for the bits of wildness our animal neighbors bring into our lives. Haupt is not saying we should romanticize them–and am I- but rather that we can see them with a naturalist’s eye, enjoy encounters for what they teach us, and using our knowledge of an animal’s behavior, mitigate the conflicts that arise when our needs clash with theirs.

If there is anything controversial to be found in such a lovely book, it will be in this idea, which runs like a thread through the chapters. Haupt shows how common “solutions” to our backyard clashes are short sighted, and don’t even work, and offers alternate suggestions and strategies.

You see, if we kill or relocate an animal from our yard, a new one will simply move in to fill that niche. It’s a losing game. (And trapping and relocating is no kindness at all, believe you me.) Unless we plan to embark on a mass eradication program on a bison-like scale, the solutions lie with us, and our own behavior and attitudes.

Most of this is commonsensical, and not scientifically controversial. It is basically the practice of IPM (integrated pest management).  We can bring in our cats and small dogs at night. We can seal up our attics and basements. We can stop leaving pet food and garbage outdoors. We can build sturdy chicken coops. Name your pest, and there’s something we can change about our environment to make it less attractive to them. As they say, the best offense is a good defense. Beyond that, we can accept occasional messes, losses or frights as part of what it means for us to be alive, to be animals interacting with other animals in the world.

I’m writing this with a particular passion right now, because recently someone in our neighborhood (not our near neighbors, but our general area) hired a company to set snares for coyotes, and a video of a coyote thus strangled surfaced on a local news blog. I don’t doubt that those neighbors were driven by fear, or grief, to hire this trapper, but the death was so cruel and ultimately so pointless and stupid, given the number of coyotes in the area, and the incontrovertible forces which are driving them here, it made me very sad.

To be clear, The Urban Bestiary is not an no-kill polemic. I’ve perhaps put too much emphasis on the aspects of the book which focus on management and co-existence. The great majority of the book is about the animals themselves. Imagine you had a friend who was a naturalist who could explain the mysteries of the familiar yet unfamiliar wildlife which flit and shuffle through your backyard over a nice cup of coffee.  Someone who could offer you an introduction to their world, and a chance to see your own world in a new light. This would be that book.

Radical Apiculturalist Michael Thiele

Micheal Thiele approaches a hive.

Micheal Thiele approaches a hive.

Could the huge loss of bees in recent years be because we treat them, like so may other farm animals, as cogs in a big industrial ag machine?  This is just one of the questions posed by apiculturalist (he rejects the term “beekeeper” – more on that below) Michael Thiele at a workshop Kelly and I attended which was sponsored by Honey Love.

The language of bees
Thiele began his lecture with a critique of the language we use for bees–first off the term “beekeeper.” “Keeping” bees suggests the constant interference bees get in our industrial system: being dosed with insecticides to treat mites, moving them thousands of miles a year, feeding them high fructose corn syrup, artificially breeding queens, etc. Thiele proposed the term “apiculture” as a word that suggests living with bees rather than keeping them. Feral honeybees as well as the bees of natural apiculturalists, after all, keep themselves and seem to be doing better without all the intervention.

The same goes for the word “worker.” Thiele suggested that when we use this kind of 19th century industrial language we’re thinking more of our own desires than the true nature and health of the bees.

The bien
Thiele wants us to think of a hive holistically, as a superorganism he calls (as did Rudolf Steiner) the bien. As Thiele puts it, the bien is “one being . . . permeated with life based on love.” In Thiele’s inclusive view the bien is much more than just a few thousand individual bees. The bien also includes all the symbiotic and parasitic relationships bees have with microorganisms, flowers, honey, gravity–even wax moth larvae and mites. When we take a whole systems approach, Thiele suggests, we’re more likely to admit our ignorance and approach the hive with humility. Thiele’s description of the bien reminded me of Martin Buber’s  I-Thou as opposed to I-It relationship, i.e. subject to subject rather than subject to object. In fact, several hundreds of years of materialism in the west has, sadly, degenerated most of our relationships into I-it relationships (think separateness and detachment).

Intuition
Due to the sheer complexity of the a hive, Thiele suggests our relationship with the bien should rely, for the most part, on intuition. When we deal with other humans–or a dog or a horse–we have a face to look at. With bees there is no face. Bees also have an otherness about them that makes a connection with them a very different experience than dealing with our fellow mammals. Unfortunately, the intuitive senses we need to relate to a bien that lacks a recognizable face have atrophied in our culture, another victim of I-it.

At the end of the workshop, when we visited some hives in a backyard in Santa Monica, we had a chance to see Thiele demonstrate his intuitive approach to bees. He approached the bees, without a veil, with a quiet reverence. Kneeling, he placed a hand on top of one of the boxes. A guard bee came out to fly around his face. Thiele told us what to do when this happens: relax and try to connect with the bien. After buzzing around for a minute or so, the guard bee left.

I’ve had three encounters with guard bees since I’ve seen Thiele demonstrate this. Two times I followed Thiele’s advice and the guard bee flew off. Once I did the opposite, freaked out and promptly got stung. It’s yet another of the odd metaphysical experiences I’ve had with bees. To the skeptics I’d suggest that this non-verbal communication is no different than what you’d do with a frightened horse: relax, try to establish a contact with the horse brain and you’ll be fine. Freak out, and things could go badly for both you and the horse.

A machine for living
Along with the industrial language that we use to describe bees, Thiele suggests that it’s well past time to rethink the industrial hardware we use to “keep” bees. The 19th century Langstroth hive still dominates, and this form of hive could be likened to a 19th century factory design: a honey factory. Thiele thinks that Langstroth hives are for our convenience rather than the health of the bees. Thiele says we need to look at how bees live in nature to find clues for the types of housing we should provide. Thiele has been experimenting for years with various designs, some as simple as just a hollowed out log, others more elaborate such as the sun hive, a beautiful woven object:

sun hive The sun hive has movable frames, a feature that is mandated by law in the US. Provocatively, Thiele noted the difference between a legal obligation and a moral obligation. In our hive designs we may have to transcend the law. And we’re also going to need to get creative. Thiele’s sun hive, by his own admission, is by no means the last word on the subject. Thiele hopes that we can begin the process of experimentation, always asking the bien what it wants rather than being focused on our own interests. I’ll take a look at some alternate hive designs in-depth in future blog posts.

The alchemy of bee-ing
As the late apiculturalist Charles Martin Simon said, “it’s not about the honey. It’s not about the money.” Focus on those two things and we’ll destroy ourselves along with the bees. Apiculture, according to Thiele is “an art of the soul.” Bees, he says, are messengers for different levels of consciousness. They link the realms of heaven and earth in their daily journeys. They may also be the key to integrating our disjointed souls.

To see more of Thiele’s work including some videos visit Gaia Bees.

Fabulous Postcards from HenCam

HenCam-ChickenPostcardBook-6

From Vintage Chicken Photographs. Terry says this picture reminds her of Erik. It reminds me of our friend Craig at Winnetka Farms. Whichever! Let’s hear it for tall handsome gentlemen holding poultry!

Our friend Terry over at the great chicken site HenCam has produced three lovely sets of postcard books based on antique photos of people with animals. One set is people and chickens, the second is people with other livestock, and the third in people and their dogs. (She promises she’s trying for a cat collection, but it seems kitties were a little too sly for early cameras, making good pictures (as opposed to cat-shaped blurs) hard to find.)

She tells us she spent two years collecting pictures for these collections, searching everywhere, from flea markets to eBay, parsing through thousands of photos. Her favorites are collected in books of 30. She picked good ones. Every card tells the story, and most of them leave me with questions, too.

Also, I really like how the pictures show the intimacy of people with their pets and smallstock, and their pride in these animals. Though few of us are farmers now, most of us come from farm people if you go far enough back. The land is in our blood, and as those of us who have rediscovered the joy of keeping smallstock, whether those be bees or hens or goats, our connection with animals comes right back, too.

And of course, we love our dogs, whether we’re farmers or townfolk. That goes without saying!

So we thought we’d give a shout out to Terry for her great books. They are heavy, 5″ x 7″ cards bound into books, but bound so that the postcards can be lifted out cleanly and used, in any order. They have a photo on the front and the back has the classic postcard layout. If you’re looking for easy presents for the holidays, or a set of nice postcards, so you can treat your friends to an actual handwritten note, go check them out at her store. They cost twenty bucks for a book of thirty cards–that’s about 66 cents per card.

A couple of more pics after the break:

Continue reading…

Michael Thiele and the Love of Bees

On Saturday, September 21st, Erik and I will be attending a day-long Biodynamic Apiculture Workshop with Michael Thiele, sponsored by the fine folks at Honey Love. We hear there are still some open spaces, so please join us if you can. Erik has seen Michael Thiele speak, and says he is mesmerizing.

Michael Thiele is the founder of Gaia Bees, and co-founder of The Melissa Garden (a honey bee sanctuary and resource center). His approach toward bees is deeply respectful and non-exploitative. He views honey as a gift and a medicine, not as a crop.

In the video above he is demonstrating a hive of his own design, the Sun Hive or Haengekorb, the shape of which reflects the nature, needs and processes of the bees–not us. He describes the hive as an “offering to the bees” to support their welfare. As you will see in the video, he and the bees share a remarkable understanding.

Book Review: What the Robin Knows

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Jon Young is a well-known naturalist, tracker, author and teacher based in Santa Cruz, California. I’ve heard many people praising his bird language classes, , but didn’t think I would ever be able to take one of his classes, because they’re too far away.  S0 the moment I heard about his new book, What the Robin Knows: How Birds Reveal the Secrets of the Natural World, I scampered to my email, contacted his publisher and begged for a review copy. They kindly obliged. And that is my full disclosure. But if they hadn’t been so obliging, I would have scraped my pennies together for this one.

Studying bird language is different from bird watching. It is a nature awareness practice which uses the observation of commonplace birds, like robins and sparrows, to teach you about the larger workings of the nature and yourself.

In a nutshell, Young asks you to choose a place to sit outdoors and commit to sitting in this place regularly, for about 40 minutes per session, watching the birds, watching all that happens around you. This sit spot might be your yard, a public park, or the wilderness. It doesn’t matter where–all that matters is that the location is easy to access, and you go there regularly. Over time, you’ll learn what he calls the baseline environment looks, sounds, feels like. The baseline being the ordinary sets of bird sounds and bird motion you see and hear in that place, at that time or day, at that time of year. To facilitate this recognition, he teaches you the five basic types of calls birds make (alarm calls, companion calls, etc.), using online audio files to help with the most common birds.  He goes on to teach about behavior, predators, etc.

Once you understand the baseline you will be able to tell when the baseline is disturbed, and eventually, you will be able to tell why. Knowing this allows you insight into the workings of nature. With study, what once seemed generic bird noise to you (if you heard it at all) becomes pinpoint-specific information. If the birds alert on something, for instance, with practice you can not only tell where that something is coming from, but you can distinguish whether that intruder is a person, a house cat or a hawk.

Indoors, we are all networked and interconnected by our electronic devices. (Twitter indeed!!) Outside, there’s just as much communication going on–and that communication is interspecies communication. Different types of birds listen to each other.  They both help and trick each other. The coyote and the raccoon and the fox listen to all of them. It’s an intense world out there around the bird feeder or up in those maples in the park. And with a little study, you can plug into this world, and regain your place in it.

Why should you want to plug in? Lots of reasons. First, sitting in nature heals our frazzled brains and eases our souls. I don’t think it goes too far to think of this practice as meditation. Most of all, studying bird language gives you a reason or an excuse to spend time in nature–and that alone is enough.

Another reason is animal watching. If you like to take walks and hope to see a deer or a fox once in a while, you need to listen to the birds. Birds are the first alert system of the forest. Their alarm calls can show you where predators are moving. They also tip off all and sundry that you’re coming, clearing an empty path in front of you as efficiently as Hollywood bodyguards plow through paparazzi. Young says if you ever want to see other wildlife when you’re out walking, you need to ask the birds’ permission first.

Perhaps he says it all best:

Eons ago, Homo sapiens were just as alert and aware as all other creatures…our sensory equipment and our brains are still designed for this awareness. These instincts are still in each of us, just buried, maybe deeply buried. Connecting with bird language begins the process of unearthing them. It changes the whole dynamic of our lives immediately. We now recognize the robin. We recognize the sparrow. These birds lift us from our troubled minds. They give us a reason to move and see and listen respectfully. They unlock the outdoors. They reflect our knowledge and our attitude, and ultimately yield the first rite of passage when we’re allowed a close encounter with an animal that would otherwise have fled our presence long before.

Most of all I like this book because he asks a lot of you. At one point in the book he’s talking about how there’s no formula for this stuff, just lots of dedication and time, and notes, “The lifelong learning curve is the ultimate appeal of what we do.”

This made me laugh out loud. Appeal? The notion of working on one skill all your life (especially one as unglamorous as robin-watching)  is not a popular notion it contemporary culture, when everything is the “20 Minute This” and the “4 Hour That.”  But I understand the appeal of a lifelong practice myself, and I have the deepest respect of long term practitioners of any art.

I just finished the book and spent 40 minutes this morning in the backyard, utterly puzzled.  It’s a beginning.

A note on the text:

The book is not structured like a “how-to” manual. It’s full of anecdotes and has a relaxed, meandering tone which is actually quite nice. It’s easy to imagine you’re just hanging outwith Jon Young in some nice green place, listening to his bird stories. The key concepts are woven in along the way.  You don’t need to take notes as you read, or worry you’ll miss some important step. At the end of the book he gives a summary and set of instructions on how to actually begin your practice. And again, he provides audio files online to illustrate all the basic calls of the common birds, and references those audio files throughout the text.

Cat Litter Compost, Installment #3

troutsitting

No, our cats aren’t privileged or anything.

A gentle reader reminds us that it’s been too long since we updated you all on the cat litter compost.

For background, see Installment One and Installment Two

Long story short, cat litter composting can work (under the care of an experienced composter, mind), especially in conjunction with a worm bin–but I’ve found a method I like better.

On the composting experiment:

In our last episode of Cat Box Madness, I discovered my kitty litter wasn’t breaking down very quickly, so I added nitrogen to the mix. That seemed to work well. All except the first 7 inches or so is really nicely broken down all the way through. I still wouldn’t put it as it is anywhere near food crops, even though it is two years old, just to be safe.

To make it extra safe — and useful — I’ve been letting the worms have at it. I’m using it as part of the mix that forms the worm bedding, so cat poo will become worm poo and the garden will be delighted.

That’s how I plan to dispose of all of it, bit by bit. If I didn’t have the worm bin, I’d call it done and spread it under fruit trees or ornamental plantings.

Lessons Learned:

1) Make sure your pile is accessible and easy to turn. Due to lack of yard space, I put my litter in a 50 gallon drum in a narrow, hard-to-access–and hot!–side yard. This meant I never wanted to tend it, and when I forced myself out there, I was pretty unhappy. There wasn’t even enough room to wield a shovel comfortably.

2) A big pile is a good pile. While I made this work in a 50 gallon drum, the best compost comes from a bin which is about 1 cubic meter/yard in size. Smaller bins just don’t heat up sufficiently, and are invariably pokey and hard to work with. If you want to do this, do it big.

3) Careful with the litter you choose. Not many litters make the grade. You can’t use clay litter, or any litter made with deodorants or coloring or “magic crystals” or tiny unicorns. It must be made of 100% plant based material. I approve of both World’s Best and S’wheat Scoop. Pine pellet litter, like Feline Pine, is much less expensive than the clumping brands, and suitably plant based, but under ordinary circumstances, since its not scoopable, you have to dump the whole tray rather often, which leads to a fast build up of material. If you have room for it, this might be okay.  (I’ll have more to say about pine litter further down, though.)

4) You have to add extra nitrogen to your pile to make it work. Even though it’s plenty stinky, the nitrogen present in cat waste can’t balance the heavy carbon loads of the litter by itself.

(Note: You should be an experienced composter before you try composting cat litter, as I’ve warned before, and so you will of course know what I mean by all this talk of carbon and nitrogen–but for those of you who are incorrigible, or simply curious, nitrogen sources you might add to your pile include urine, natural seed meal fertilizers, dried alfalfa, fresh grass clippings and other plant material, fresh chicken, horse, or cow manure, and vegetable trimmings.)

Other than those caveats, cat litter composting works pretty much like regular composting. Keep the pile moist. Keep an eye on it, fix it as necessary. Let it sit for two years at least before you spread it. And then spread it around non-edible plants, or under fruit trees. The fruit trees won’t uptake anything nasty.

It’s totally do-able and I’d do it again. But I’d rather do it again in a larger yard, where I could have a big, accessible compost bin. So now I’m doing something new.

Continue reading…

Alektyomancy: Divination by Rooster

We’ve blogged before about the Roman practice of using chickens to tell fortunes. It turns out the Greeks had their own chicken oracle method:

The Pythagoreans inquired about the posthumous fate of their recently dead by using an uncommon method of divination called alektyomancy. On a table were traced squares containing the letters of the alphabet, and in each square seeds were placed. After proper incantations, a white rooster was released, and the letters were read in the order in which the rooster pecked the seeds. The interpretation of the oracle is unknown.(1)

Thankfully you don’t need to own a chicken to practice alektyomancy. There’s an online version.

1) From I.P. Couliano’s book Out of this World: Otherworldly Journeys from Gilgamesh to Albert Einstein. Couliano was, incidentally, a gifted scholar whose life was tragically cut short by an assassin’s bullet. His book Eros and Magic in the Renaissance completely changed my view of Western history.

What is Killing the Bees?

bees and poppies

What’s the cause of colony collapse disorder (CCD)? We may be getting closer with the release of a study from the University of Maryland about fungicides and other chemicals used in agriculture.

This study is more interesting than many others I’ve seen. It looked at how pesticides interfere with honeybee’s resistance to a common parasite Nosema ceranae. Bees exposed to a widely used agricultural fungicide, chlorothonatil, were more likely to succumb to nosema. The most provocative result for me was that bees exposed to fluvalinate, a miticide used by beekeepers on their own bees, were also likely to get nosema.

Perhaps the villain in CCD is the beekepers themselves. Don’t get me wrong, pesticides probably play a role in CCD. But we must also remember that commercial beekeepers:

  • Treat their bees with pesticides to control mites and these chemicals, as the study points out, harm the bee’s immune systems.
  • Move hives thousands of miles every year to provide pollination services.
  • Place their hives in monocropped areas where their bees can forage on only one kind of nectar/pollen such as almonds in California and citrus in Florida.
  • Use foundation (sometimes made of plastic sometimes made of wax that may be contaminated with pesticides) that does not allow the bees to build their own comb.
  • Regulate (through the use of foundation) the amount of drones the queen can make. Drones may be a sacrificial first defense against mites.
  • Use queen excluders to prevent the queen from moving freely through the hive.
  • Kill the queen and re-queen every year, often using artificially inseminated queens.
  • Import hives from other climates.
  • Feed hives high fructose corn syrup.

Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s new book Antifragile: Things That Gain from Disorder warns about what happens when we prop up and interfere with complex systems like beehives or the economy. When we don’t allow failure (such as trying to prevent mites with chemicals) we set ourselves up for bigger disasters down the road. It’s very convenient to be able to point the finger at the pesticides farmers use. But just like Ben Bernanke, the big beekeepers can’t see the foolishness of their own practices. Point this out at most local beekeeping association meetings and you’ll be shown the door.

This cluelessness is why I recommend new beekeepers avoid most state beekeeping organizations. For a practical and wholistic approach to beekeeping see Michael Bush’s website, The Practical Beekeeper and look at the videos at the Backwards Beekeepers.

Are you part of a natural, no-treatment beekeeping group? Or is your local beekeeping club open to alternative methods? If so, leave a comment . . .

An Overdue Update on Phoebe

Phoebe

This is her cute face. Her surprised by the camera face. Her usual expression is more calculating. Even frightening.

I realized that it’s been a long time since we updated you all on how our cat Phoebe is doing–well over a year, actually. And at that time, we told you we didn’t expect her to live more than 9 more months.

Surprise! She’s been doing really well.

(For those of you new to the blog, Phoebe has a malformed heart. It’s missing important parts. Here’s the original post from 10/25/11)

Thank goodness for drugs and really smart kitty cardiologists. Thank you, Dr. Zimmerman! The first vet to diagnose her sent her home to die. Our lesson: seek out the good vets. The meds that keep Phoebe alive are not even expensive.

Her quality of life has really improved since diagnosis. It’s even improved since our last post about her. When she first began treatment, she was sick, breathing hard and moving slow. But ever since we got her meds adjusted correctly, she’s been spry and happy, not at all acting like an old cat anymore.

True, she’s not quite as hyperactive as our other two cats, but she beats up Buck, the youngest of our cats, every morning like clockwork, loves to savage the fishing pole toy, and is diligently destroying the underside of our sofa. The sofa is her great work, an evolving art piece about the nature of entropy.

She will have a short lifespan, though. The drugs just buy her a little time.  Dr. Zimmerman told us the oldest cat she knew with Phoebe’s rare condition made it to four years old. Phoebe has already passed her second birthday. I’ve noticed her breathing sounds a bit wet lately, so we’re going to the vet this week and we hope an adjustment of her diuretics will clear that up.

Knowing her time is short just makes her all the more precious. I’ve come to appreciate her as a real “cat’s cat.” The other two cats, Buck and Trout, known collectively as “The Boys”, are too friendly and simpleminded to do credit to the cat kingdom.

Meanwhile, Phoebe is a real cat, a stone cold killer, a witch’s familiar, a walking riddle, an evil genius, an Egyptian statue with scornful golden eyes. Erik is her devoted slave. Me, she doesn’t like that much–but I’m still in love with her.

Hens in the Orchard for Pest Control

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Photo: hencam.com

Author Terry Golson, who blogs at HenCam.com, sent along a great pest control tip in response to our thrip post–chickens, of course!

Chickens and orchards go together like gin and tonic. The hens take care of pests, clean up rotten fruit, add nitrogen to the soil and the canopy of the orchard protects the hens from hawks and heat. Plus you get eggs and meat. Permaculture in action.

The 1920s era photo you see above comes from one of Terry’s posts, Chickens in Orchards.