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.

DIY Solar Space Heating

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Photo: Build It Solar.

Mrs. Homegrown, who spent her formative years in the mountains of Colorado, made fun of me this morning as I noted the “cold” temperature . . . 60°F. It was the first ironic “brrrrrr” out of her mouth, letting me know that we’ve transitioned from the hot smoggy season to the the less hot smoggy season here in Los Angeles.

In the northern hemisphere it’s time to consider heating. The always useful Build-It Solar blog has a detailed link to a DIY solar space heating system in Virginia (pdf).

Collector panels mounted on the roof heat a reservoir which is circulated through a floor-based radiant heating system. It even has an Arduino based data acquisition component that tracks performance. There should be a DIY Nobel Prize for this project!

If you live in a place that’s both cold and sunny in the winter, solar heating has a lot of potential. In fact, I’m much more intrigued with solar space and water heating then I am with photo-voltaic panels.

Asking the Right Questions

Golden Tree and The Achievement of the Grail

Sir Galahad Discovering the Grail by Edwin Austin Abbe (1895)

The legend of Percival’s search for the holy grail is an odd one. Spoiler alert! Percival finds the holy grail not through solving a riddle or answering a question. Rather, he asks the right question. In his first trip to the grail castle and the wounded Fisher King who oversees it, Percival doesn’t know what to do or say. It takes him years to find the grail castle again. On his second encounter (depending on the version) he either asks simply, “What ails thee?” or “Whom does the grail serve?” In this way, he finds the grail.

I was thinking about this myth this weekend in Larry Santoyo’s Permaculture Design Course when Larry stressed the importance of asking the right questions. It got me thinking about the kind of questions we need to ask about the many subjects covered on this blog.

Take for instance bees. Mainstream beekeepers ask, “How can I get more honey?” when they should be asking the same question Parsifal asks, “What ails thee?” That is, “What is in the long term interest of the bee’s health?” This is the question Michael Thiele and Kirk Anderson both ask. It’s a wise one to ask, since our health is inextricably entwined with that of the bees.

Or think about aisles of poisons and traps at all those big box stores. What if instead of asking, “How do I kill this pest?”, we asked, “How do I create conditions inhospitable rats/possums/raccoons/coyotes?” Maybe instead of buying poison (or worse, setting snares) we’d, for instance, stop leaving pet food out at night.

What questions do we ask in our neighborhoods? We often, myself included, ask questions such as, “What number do I call to anonymously report my neighbor for having a car up on blocks in the front yard?” A better question might be, “How do we foster the sort of community where neighbors aren’t strangers?” Communities where, if I have a problem with a neighbor I can simply have a civil chat because I know them and we’re friends. A short answer to this question, by the way: throw a party and invite the neighbors.

Like most legends there are many layers to the Percival story. Carl Jung considered it to be central to understanding ‘what ails’ Western civilization. Percival, according to Jung, embodies the reconciliation of the masculine and feminine, the logical and intuitive. But Percival’s quest begins and ends, not through some grand gesture, but through humility, through asking a simple question.

Monday Linkages: The Blob, Urine Soaked Acorns

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Oops. Forgot to post our usual Saturday link dump. Here it is:

Design
Blob – An Unusual Micro-Home Encased in Storage http://humble-homes.com/blob-unusual-micro-home-encased-storage/

The Labyrinth Project, the beginning http://jeffreygardens.blogspot.com/2013/09/the-labyrinth-project-beginning.html …

Homesteading weirdness
1859: A native delicacy – acorns pickled in human urine http://shar.es/Kkb0q 

How Japanese honeybees switch to ‘hot defensive bee ball’ mode when threatened http://www.globalpost.com/dispatches/globalpost-blogs/weird-wide-web/japanese-honeybee-hot-defensive-bee-ball-asian-hornet …

The “Queen of Green”? You be the Judge by Susan Harris http://gardenrant.com/2013/09/the-queen-of-green-you-be-the-judge.html?utm_source=feedly …

Threat of Death Makes People Go Shopping http://inkfish.fieldofscience.com/2013/09/threat-of-death-makes-people-go-shopping.html?spref=tw …

Listen to the warm
Insurance industry pricing climate risk as a dead certainty – Boing Boing http://boingboing.net/2013/09/27/insurance-industry-pricing-cli.html …

Burning the Bones of the Earth: Lime Kilns http://www.lowtechmagazine.com/2013/09/lime-kilns.html …

9 charts that explain why the farmers behind just about everything we eat can’t hit pay dirt: http://mojo.ly/1bHpha0 

Sailing
Rowing a boat across the Atlantic: http://lloydkahn-ongoing.blogspot.com/2013/09/real-adventures-alastair-humphreys.html …

Sailboats Made of Corrugated Metal in Australia http://lloydkahn-ongoing.blogspot.com/2013/09/sailboats-made-of-corrugated-metal-in.html …

Bikes
New issue of Urban Velo: http://www.urbanvelo.org/issue39/urbanvelo39.pdf …

What To Do After an Accident When the Police Fail to Respond? http://la.streetsblog.org/2013/09/04/what-to-do-after-an-accident-when-the-police-fail-to-respond/ …

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