Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The Suburban Naturalist

Artist pal, Andrea gave me a book for my birthday called Crow Planet by Lyanda Lynn Haupt. I know, I know, more bird/crow talk. But this book is more than just about crows. It's also a contemplation of how we view nature in man made places. Haupt writes, "Too often, nature is romanticized as the place out there, the place with all the sparkly trees in the Sierra Club calendar, the place we visit with a knapsack and a Clif Bar, where we stand in awe of the beauty and refresh our spirits..... In my urban ecosystem, I drive around a corner and a crow leaps into flight from the grassy parking strip. We startle each other. If nature is Out There, she asks, what am I?".

This book resonates with me because much of what she writes reflects how I feel. In the early days of this blog when only one person was reading, (Andrea, a stranger then, one of my real life best friends now), I wrote about parking my minivan and reluctantly exploring my surroundings that were walking distance from my house. In the bowels of same and more same suburbia, I soon noticed crows were the most interesting things to watch on these quiet streets. The more I observed them, the more I became aware of how intelligent they were and became interested in learning more about them. Wanting to paint crows (and other birds), is a natural progression (bugs may actually be next).

Being open to our surroundings, even if they appear mundane or we'd rather be somewhere else (like New York, Paris or walking in the Alaskan wilderness) tends to give us a greater appreciation of our place. I don't grumble about living here as I once did. Adopting the curiosity of a naturalist has made the tiny details of my world interesting.

Having said that, I don't hold a romantic view of nature either. I used to, back in my 20's, with a desire to drop out of society, live off the land, connect with nature and be free man. I was always disappointed to discover the majority of people I met like that smoked pot all day, wore goaty smelling Ecuadorian sweaters (no offense to the people of Ecuador and their knitwear) and were generally kind of....lazy? militant conformist for the clique of nonconformity? The back to nature attitude is nice in theory and all but of course, truly back to nature also means incredible hardship and labour, possible starvation, illness and no escape back to mom and dad's comfortable house when things get hard. Even Thoreau didn't REALLY rough it, modern historian Richard Zacks wrote,

"Thoreau's 'Walden, or Life in the Woods' deserves its status as a great American book but let it be known that Nature Boy went home on weekends to raid the family cookie jar. While living the simple life in the woods, Thoreau walked into nearby Concord, Mass., almost every day. And his mom, who lived less than two miles away, delivered goodie baskets filled with meals, pies and doughnuts every Saturday. The more one reads in Thoreau's unpolished journal of his stay in the woods, the more his sojourn resembles suburban boys going to their tree-house in the backyard and pretending they're camping in the heart of the jungle."


paula said...

i like your crows so i hope this book inspires more of them. BIG ONES.
its funny what we romanticize. new york skylines, paris...weddings...families, you name it. i am always amazed how much nature is in most cities and towns let alone a back yard. good point, just be open to your surroundings.
yeah...Thoreau always struck me as an impostor.

andrea said...

I'm very glad to read that Thoreau was just another guy with a mostly-unfulfilled dream. Like me. And apparently I haven't changed since Sept 2007/ Was that the first time I saw your blog I wonder?

One thing I read about crows once and has really stuck with me (and I've probably told you 10 times) is that crows are supposedly the only species of wild animal that has actually thrived and increased its numbers rather than being harmed by the presence of man. What I particularly like about that factoid is that they manage to do it without us having any obvious benefit. The benefit is all theirs. No wonder I like them so much. They actually are smarter than us!

Ellen said...

Paula- I have a crow painting planned, but staring at the canvas, it hit me that a 4 feet crow looks really ominous. BC is a magnate for people with the hippy, Thoreau mentality. If you ever get a chance, watch this documentary about the squatters on Sombrio beach on Vancouver Island, it's kind of fascinating. I tried to keep an open mind, but in the end these people just annoyed me.

Andrea- There's a talk on TED about crows that ends with ideas how we can make crows useful to us, cleaning up garbage in parks with a peanut vending type machine that reward them when they dispose of trash. They figured how the machine worked pretty quickly as opposed to squirrels who tried to get peanuts, and gave up, (being stupid squirrels and all:). I can see them being indiscriminate though, picking up purses and baseball caps and dropping it in for the free goods. After all, what do they care that it's not garbage. You gotta read "In the Company of Crows and Ravens", fascinating and the source of many of the quoted facts.

Rebecca S. said...

Great post. I keep meaning to read Thoreau's book - it's on my shelf - but I just haven't go around to it yet. Ravens are my favourite big black bird. When I was surrounded by them on the Island I could imitate their call pretty well, too. But now I've lost it. I like watching the crows hurl a walnut from our tree onto the road to crack it, and then swoop down to carry it off to eat.

I heard this story about Ravens up north, too. They cover up the sensors on the street lights to trick them into turning on and thus providing warmth!

When my parents' back to the lander friends would lecture them about joining them, my parents would say, "But if we moved back to the land, where would you do your laundry?"

I saw that Sombrio doc. It depressed the heck out of me.

Kathy Hodge said...

I like this post. I spent part of my youth in new 'burbs, and now live in old 'burbs (old is better). I've long had an idea to find the little slivers of wildness that were too difficult to develop, or were reclaimed by nature, and do a series of paintings of them.

For example, I just recently spotted a bunch of huge heron nests in the trees just to the side of a Home Depot on the busy commercial strip. Hundreds of people walk by them every day and most never see them. I may have to frame this series in asphalt.

I got a kick out of your back to nature fantasy. When I was younger I wanted to live like the Indians, respecting the land. Then I went west to a reservation and road was clogged with trash and junk cars. Arriving at the tribe's museum, I saw how they used to live. A sad contrast.

It's tough for any community to live close to nature now that we've lost the old traditions or had them ripped away. But we can, like you say, be open to glimpses of it around us.

And do that 4ft. crow! They ARE ominous! And cool.

Kim Hambric said...

Ha Ha Ha. Great post! I might just go live out in the woods if someone would bring me meals & I could wear nice-smelling cashmere sweaters.

I'm going to head outside and make friends with my crows. I wish they would let me get just a little closer.

I can't believe that crows would pick up trash for treats. In my neighborhood, they rip open garbage bags and scatter trash everywhere. Perhaps I should train them to clean up after themselves.

Ellen said...

Rebecca:Great story with the ravens and the light. I love hearing about their intelligence. I was at Harrison Beach last weekend and of the dozens and dozens of times I've been there, this is the first time I've noticed there are ravens there. I thought they were all crows before. It really pays to pay attention. And that one family after Sombrio? - oh so,so sad, I really cried at that part.

Kathy- herons nests beside Home Depot? fascinating, you should absolutely do a series (I love your paintings, hey, you can paint ON asphalt). It would be interesting to take inventory of what little bits of wildlife exist in something like a weeded lot in the city, surprising maybe just how much life really does call it home. Andrea and I (yes, Andrea I'm telling:) have been throwing around similar ideas for a joint show but relating it to corvids.

Kim:Crows will get closer, but only with food bribes like peanuts. I do admit I used to discreetly feed a crow pair who lives by my house just so I could get closer to observe and get photos. I live across the street from an elementary school and when one crow from the pair (the male I think) saw me he would imitate the sound of the school bell. It amazed me. Pure speculation but the crows around here know that sound well, it calls the kids in after lunch and recess, which means snack time on the playground for the crows. I noticed the crow I fed would only make that sound when he noticed me and not to other crows, so I wonder if it meant, "hey, feed me human!". I stopped feeding them, word got around in the crow community, (it was Hitchockian) I thought the neighbours would freak and those birds have NO boundaries. Plus they're certainly one species that doesn't need our help.