As a writer it’s a rare and unexpected delight to encounter a book you identify so completely with or admire so much that you wish you had written it. The wickedly funny How Animals Have Sex is one such book for me. Carl Safina’s gorgeous The View from Lazy Point is another. Annie Dillard’s A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is so good I had to stop reading it, if you can believe that. I feared I would devour it too quickly, and in my greed forget to savor each perfect line and verse. As a writer at the beginning of her career, these books fill me with giddy inspiration, and anticipation for what I may someday be able to produce, if I am lucky, if I am tenacious, if I work as hard as I can.
One of the benefits, and perhaps curses of small town living is that everyone thinks they know everyone else’s business, so when my local librarian mentioned that she had heard about a book that she thought I would like, and had ordered it for me I was a tad taken aback. I am used to making my own decisions about what I read, and value immensely the pleasure of the discovery of a book that piques my interest, so I was more than a little skeptical about my librarian’s presumption. But I figured, so what, its just a book. I don’t have to read it.
It turns out that in my heart, I owe that librarian an apology and a huge debt of gratitude. The book she took it upon herself to request for me, The Urban Bestiary by Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a gift, and is getting placed on that sparsely populated top shelf among the books I desperately wish I had written myself. Her premise is simple; she takes the medieval concept of the bestiary, a written compendium of animal lore, and applies it to modern urban living. Each chapter chronicles an organism increasingly encountered in urban or near urban settings, habitats humans have appropriated for themselves. The mammals and birds she describes, are, with an exception or two, common everywhere in North America; most of us encounter squirrels and chickadees on a daily basis. While this may sound like a mundane book about the animals one might encounter on a trip to the city park, it is so much more than that. Personal accounts of animals (and even a tree) are interwoven with natural history, human and wild life interactions and ecological philosophy in an impeccable balance that never strays into the esoteric. Haupt’s pitch is perfect when it comes to blending the details of the specific life histories of this species or that with the philosophical context for why we feel the way we do about these animals. In the introduction Haupt confesses that she made an effort to literally write most of the book outside, as readers we reap the rewards of this endeavor. This is a thoughtful, mindful book that has its feet planted firmly on the ground.
I have made it my life’s work to pursue that which makes me feel more grounded, more attuned, more connected to the natural world. This book made me feel all of that, but even more, The Urban Bestiary made me feel connected to another human being, some one who feels the same way I do, who thinks the same thoughts and holds the same values. Some one who has read all the books I want to read, and has devoted deep and careful time to all the ideas I’ve tried to think, someone living perhaps a parallel universe version of my life. What I found in this book was not just beautiful words about our relationship with nature, but in fact, an easing of my loneliness. Somewhere out there, there’s some one just like me, and I found her, she wrote this book.
So read this book, read it sitting outside in the spring sunlight, read it by the window where you watch your bird feeder, read it lying beneath your favorite tree. Read it and prepare to be cracked open just a little bit, I can assure you it feels good, it feels really good. Read it and you will remember all the things you used to know without knowing about how your body is made of the same earth as trees and chickadees and squirrels and stars. I guarantee you will feel less alone as a result.