Book Review: The Urban Bestiary

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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.

Fabulous Postcards from HenCam

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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…

Kevin West’s Saving the Season

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I’m thinking of throwing out all my picking and preserving books. Why? Kevin West’s new book Saving the Season: A Cook’s Guide to Home Canning, Pickling, and Preserving blows all those other books out of the water bath.

Full disclosure here: I’ve tasted a lot of West’s jams. I teach a bread making class at the Institute of Domestic Technology. After my bread demo West does a jam making session and I stick around to watch and, hopefully, filtch an extra jar. Those West jams are coveted items around the Root Simple household.

What makes Saving the Season different from other preserving books is West’s masterful use of aromatics and alcohols. As he explains in the introduction, “My goal is for the supplemental flavor to be a faint suggestion–an extra something that you can’t quite put your finger on.” His quince jelly (that I just made) is flavored with a subtle hint of rose geranium. One of the strawberry jam recipes gets a splash of pinot noir. The pickled eggs (that I also made) is mixed with Sriracha. These additions enhance the essential qualities of the main ingredients rather than simply add flavor. It’s an approach that’s masterful and never gimmicky.

There’s also a few surprises. Did you know that you can pickle unripe stone fruit? West’s recipe for pickled green almonds doubles as a way to deal with fruit that needs to be thinned in the spring. And I now know what I can do with all that cardoon I have growing. Yes, you can pickle that.

If that weren’t enough, West has weaved together his recipes with erudite musings. Plato’s theory of forms is contrasted with Buddhism in an essay on kitchen prep that introduces a peach recipe. The grape jelly section is preceded by an analysis of a Nicolas Poussin’s painting. This is the only preservation book I’ve found myself reading for fun.

My threat to get rid of all my preserving books is not hyperbole. Saving the Season really is the definitive book on the subject of pickling and preserving.

West has a website, www.savingtheseason.com, where you can find recipes as well as info about speaking appearances (he’s also great speaker).

Review: Quaker Lower Sugar Instant Oatmeal

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I prefer long cooked oatmeal when I’m at home, but we’ve always packed instant oatmeal with us when camping. I think the habit goes back to when Erik and I took epic backpacking trips, and food weight was a prime consideration. Now, camping is a more gentle endeavor–but the instant oatmeal has become a tradition, an easy no-brainer for sleepy grey mornings in the woods, even though its nutritional qualities are highly suspect.

While doing a quick shop for a recent camping trip, I was reaching for the usual box of oatmeal when I saw one next to it marked “lower sugar.”  In my extreme naivete, I said to myself, “That’s fantastic! They finally cut down the sugar! They could easily reduce the sugar by half and lose none of the flavor.”

Well, Quaker did reduce the sugar significantly (from 12 g. per serving to 4 g.), but they did so by adding sucralose, the artificial sweetener known as Splenda (and kicking up the sodium significantly).

The front of the box says nothing about artificial sweeteners. Diet foods will have a jaunty “With Splenda!” label, but this cereal apparently isn’t being marketed that way. The only indication that you’re dealing with a fake sugar product is in the list of ingredients, which I hadn’t checked. And that was a mistake, I know. When treading the dangerous waters of industrial foodstuffs, you really do have to bring your magnifying glass–and a chemical reference–and read the ingredients.

So I proceeded merrily to the woods, and to  breakfast the first morning, where my camping buddy and I discovered that our oatmeal tasted dreadfully synthetic and sweet, like Diet Coke, or toothpaste. There are few flavors in the world I dislike more than the taste of artificial sweeteners. The worst of it was that the sweetness persisted in the back of my mouth for hours. Fortunately, it was only a two day trip, and we were able to scrounge together random snack foods to eat for breakfast the second morning.

Soon after, I attended a nature class where we camped and the food was provided for us. The instructors had picked up a box of this stuff unwittingly, not even noticing the “lower sugar” label. They were horrified when I told them it had sucralose in it, and took it off the table.

This is why I’m blogging about this. I have a sneaking suspicion (call me crazy!) that most Root Simple readers don’t buy many processed foods, but if I can save any of you from being stuck in the woods with nothing to eat for breakfast but a box full of yuck, my job is done.

Incidentally, I checked the Amazon reviews of this product, and they are quite good. There was only one outraged fellow, who said basically what I’ve said here. Everyone else thought the product was just fantastic. I suspect that folks who consume fake sugars on a regular basis would find nothing objectionable in the flavor.

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.