Essential Reads

Crow Planet
Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness
by Lyanda Lynn Haupt
Little Brown and Company (2009), $23.99

Lyanda Lynn Haupt never meant to write a book about crows, but an editor insisted, and Crow Planet was born. Crows are not Haupt’s favorite bird but, as she puts it, we can’t all sit
around painting yellow warblers. Crows, possibly as many as one per every five to ten humans, remain the subject of fear (one of Haupt’s neighbors “brooms” a young crow to death merely for being too close to her child) and fascination (most people she queries about crows respond cautiously: “I know they are smart… I can’t say I like them. I don’t wish them harm or anything. I’m actually a little afraid of them.”). Crow Planet includes plenty of examples of crow play, mischief, and even grief, but Haupt also uses crows as a metaphor and a reality check: Crow numbers have grown exponentially, paralleling human population growth and urbanization. Yet crows can connect us with the natural world. With our concrete and suburbs, garbage cans and food scraps, suggests a friend of Haupt’s, maybe crows are the bird we “deserve.” But, Haupt writes, if it were a matter of deserving, we’d have no birds at all—“As it is, we have a shiny, black, intelligent, native, wild bird.”

Trained as a wildlife biologist, Haupt began observing crows in her neighborhood after she moved to Seattle from its less urban outskirts. She walked her new urban ‘hood with binoculars and notepad, watching, listening, and paying attention not only to crows, but also to the other—sometimes
surprising—wildlife around her. The book becomes a call for us to become urban naturalists as a way to reconnect with nature. It’s not that we don’t need those places with “all the sparkly trees in the Sierra Club calendar, the place we visit with a knapsack and a Clif Bar,” where we refresh our souls,
writes Haupt. But it is our daily lives—the way we consume food and water, and clean or pollute the air around us—that are the most meaningful interactions we have with wider earth and that impact the wilder earth. When we think of nature as something “out there,” writes Haupt, we become
complacent: “If nature is somewhere else, then what we do here really doesn’t matter.” So put on your walking shoes, open your eyes and ears, say hello to a crow, and save the planet while you’re at it. —Lisa Owens Viani

Radical Homemakers
Reclaiming Domesticity From a Consumer Culture
by Shannon Hayes
Left to Write Press (2010), $23.95

In the glut of books about the collapse of nearly everything in sight, we’re usually left at a loss as to what we might do to make a positive difference. Shannon Hayes has answers, and they’re right here at home. She invites us—actually, her style runs more to exhortation—to consider shifting our
personal centers of gravity from work to home. The timing of the message is perfect, as thousands of newly jobless people are having that shift made for them. Here’s how to experience change as an opportunity that leads not only to survival but to real satisfaction. Or, depending upon your outlook, you can get a jump on the future by choosing this shift proactively.

Hayes herself had the decided advantage of growing up on a small farm and loving it. Still, when she finished high school she went away to college and prepared for a career that would march her off to work for forty years. After she married, the newlyweds bought a cabin near her family’s farm, hoping for careers within commuting distance. When her husband’s layoff and her own lack of prospects forced them to consider relocation, they paused to do the math: Two cars to get to two jobs, appropriate wardrobes, childcare versus staying at home with those kids-to-be, enjoying a big garden while helping out with Hayes’ parents’ farm. Their calculations showed the two career
lifestyle putting them $10,000 ahead in actual discretionary income, which seemed not nearly enough
to offset the considerable losses in their time. As a bonus, the environmental payoff weighed greatly in favor of staying home. So began the story of a couple of radical homemakers.

The book is divided into two parts: Why and How. The Why is a fascinating history of industrialization’s worldwide wrecking ball course, full of surprising details. Why has dinner become
the big meal of the day? I’d never considered this recent development as a necessary side effect of industrialization, or given thought to the increase in the length of the day’s labor for those
who prepare the meal, who previously made a large midday “dinner” and kept “supper” a simple leftover affair. Hayes traces the peculiarly American acceptance of tasteless food back to its origins as a marketing tool (a “food scientist” in 1899: “The test of good food is to have no reminder of it after eating”), paving the way for the industrialization of food itself.

For the How of Radical Homemakers, Hayes interviewed twenty of the over 200 people who responded to her call for men and women who “have learned to live on less in order to take the time to nourish your family and the planet through home cooking, engaged citizenship, responsible consumption and creative living.” Rather than tell each person’s story, Hayes organized the feedback in broad categories, like Reclaiming Domestic Skills. The resulting hodgepodge of voices is less than entertaining but remains useful for those fired up by the book’s first half and looking for how to proceed.

Be warned that How does not translate to How-to. Rather, it’s a philosophy, a grand vision for all us jobless stay-at-homes and wannabes, translated through the down-to-earth feedback of the twenty correspondents on parsing through such issues as health insurance, mortgages, food, child-raising, and community. All are examined through the lens of economies, community, and individual responsibility. As Hayes puts it: “When women and men choose to center their lives on their homes, creating strong family units and living in a way that honors our natural resources and local communities, they are doing more than dismantling the extractive economy and taking power away from the corporate plutocrats. They are laying the foundation to re-democratize our society and heal our planet.” —Gina Covina

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