‘The Urban Bestiary’: City wildlife explained, appreciated
Seattle nature writer Lyanda Lynn Haupt’s new book, “The Urban Bestiary,” chronicles the wild critters most city dwellers spend their lives with. Haupt will discuss her book Sept. 25 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.
Special to The Seattle Times
Lyanda Lynn Haupt
The author of “The Urban Bestiary” will discuss her book at 7 p.m. Sept. 25 at Seattle’s Elliott Bay Book Co.; free (206-624-6600 or elliottbaybook.com).
‘The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild’
by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little, Brown, 336 pp., $26
Bestiaries were popular in the Middle Ages. Such books contained descriptions of animals and birds, but sometimes also rocks or trees, a natural history for each entry, illustrations and a moral lesson. West Seattle urban naturalist Lyanda Lynn Haupt, author of the best-selling “Crow Planet,” updates this form with her fourth book, “The Urban Bestiary.” There be neither unicorns nor dragons here, but rather the creatures now common to cities, if not to all citizens. Her book, Haupt explains, is “an invitation to wild intimacy” because “the more we understand the wild animals that share our home places, the better we can coexist in safety, wisdom, conviviality and delight.”
Bestiaries are also lists, which means Haupt presents her version — the furred, the feathered, the branching (trees) and the rooted (humans) — following the general formula outlined above. Lovely illustrations by Tracie Noles-Ross accompany each animal. Tracks — the paw prints that can help us identify who’s who — are provided for coyotes and raccoons, deer, opossums, squirrels, bears and cougars, and some birds.
Along with her commentary, text boxes highlight special features. For example, one sketch shows how to recognize coyote scat, another box explains why flickers “drum” every spring, and a third explores relationships between birds and trees. Often, the boxes contain advice. Haupt suggests increasing the number of urban trees, which would not only provide greener environments for us, but also homes, nesting sites and food sources for animals.
While many of this bestiary’s animals are considered pests, Haupt reveals their good qualities, too. Coyotes kill cats, for instance, but also prey on rats, whose presence would be far more onerous otherwise. The same goes for moles: They destroy our lawns, but gobble insects, slugs, cutworms and other garden marauders. “Overall,” Haupt states, “a mole ... is far more beneficial than harmful.”
Her main message is that by becoming familiar with urban beasts and what they add to the city, our own lives will be enriched. Even those who don’t consider themselves bird-watchers, for example, can find paying more attention to our avian companions “a constant source of connection to the ever-present wild.” We might feed them, encouraging their nearness. But we must also take care not to leave pet food or garbage easily accessible, causing unwanted problems.
“The Urban Bestiary” is Haupt’s least adventurous book. It dwells a long time on three widely hated birds — a chapter on starlings, house sparrows and pigeons — as well as one on chickens. Neither chapter stirs much interest. But one on trees encourages us to consider how they raise or calm our spirits. It’s a book of many lists and commonplace facts, a bit disappointing, but whose encouragement to encounter the everyday wild is admirable.