PERHAPS THE MOST familiar native animal humans are likely to encounter, corvids (a group that includes crows, ravens, rooks, magpies, and jays) are widely distributed throughout six continents. But history and mythology have used a vilifying pen to describe these dark birds, and they are often regarded with a suspicious and unsettled eye. Two authors across the world from one another, Lyanda Lynn Haupt (Seattle) and Esther Woolfson (Scotland) have dedicated their lives to questioning this “vague uneasiness” as Haupt calls it. As human and wildlife habitats continue to overlap in a struggle for resources, Haupt’s Crow Planet and Woolfson’s Corvus both question, then show us, how to coexist with what Haupt calls “this slight discomfort.” And even how to “rejoice in its meaning.”
After moving to Seattle, Haupt loses her bearings and falls into a depression. Stuck in the city, she must train herself how to value urban nature, and does this chiefly through observing the crows in her neighborhood, even if it means bringing binoculars on trips to the supermarket. Woolfson, on the other hand, shares not just a neighborhood, but her very home with a procession of birds. There are doves, parrots, and canaries, as well as a wild rescued magpie, starling, and crow; and at the heart of them all, Chicken, a timid but peaceful rook, rescued as a nestling (and named after a New York drag queen, of all things). In the long literary tradition of human-animal relationships, Chicken is Woolfson’s Elsa, her Rascal, her Mijbil.
Haupt and Woolfson weave their narratives as if they were nest-building, collecting scattershot stories, studies, observations, and anecdotes, and flitting between natural history, evolution, ethology, and folklore. Both women are consummate naturalists; and both are raising daughters with a naturalist’s urgent sensitivity. Curious and convivial, ever humble, they are true appreciators. Actually, they are nothing short of wonderstruck, though it took some practice. “Wonder is not a given,” Haupt writes. “It is contingent on the habit of being that allows it to arise.” As she sees it, wonder “is an attitude of mind and heart, a graced completion of a circle between observer and observed.” Woolfson echoes this sentiment, writing, “Familiarity doesn’t dull me to the wonder of birds. . . . [They] become more mysterious, more miraculous the more I learn, the more I observe.”
And Woolfson is familiar enough, having spent years living with and fiercely loving these birds as true family members. She delights in and frets over Chicken’s wilder behavior, what the bird holds on to, though that pleasure is colored by the knowledge that the rook is no longer truly wild because of her own intervention. Haupt also rescues wild birds, but she resists the temptation to keep them clipped, instead returning them immediately to their natural environment. She surrenders her worry by putting faith back into the fold of a universe that deals in constant, unsentimental death. Haupt watches her birds from window seat, backyard, and curbside; Woolfson watches hers in kitchen and study, under tables, perching on her knee. Both view these animals as important companions, and it isn’t hard to suspend most judgments on the particulars of how each shows her affection.
Yes, both are a little eccentric — Haupt was certifiably in love with the ghost of Thoreau in college and spends twenty-one hours examining a single dead crow. And, well, Woolfson shares a house with a host of free-ranging birds who cache bits of brie and raw squid in jean cuffs and under rugs, who excavate holes in the kitchen wall, and who, ahem, are decidedly not housebroken. But are these lifestyles really so peculiar? Should we not applaud them? As we shift from the world we live in to creating the world we want, perhaps someday paying attention to community crows will be as common as keeping score during baseball season.
And isn’t that the ultimate question — how to live? “And not just as a decent human,” as Haupt writes, “but as an inhabitant — an elegant and perfect word — an inhabitant of an earthly community that has never been more troubled.” In answering this question, these women offer: joyfully.