By Tracy Record
West Seattle Blog editor
It’s a book about your back yard. And your front yard. And the greenbelt down the street.
Coyotes are in there too, she says, as are many of the other wild things who are mixing it up with us mere humans, in West Seattle and elsewhere.
Chatting with Lyanda in the garden behind the 1920s-vintage home she shares with her husband and daughter, you might spot some of the wildness – a hummingbird hovering over a hedge, pondering whether to investigate the small bouquet of salvia that the author placed in a glass as a sort of feeder. (She wrote about the makeshift feeder last weekend on her website “The Tangled Nest: Cultivating an Urban-Earthen Household.”) Or you might hear her stories, like the one about the raccoon that woke her up during a backyard family campout:
She explains that the raccoon made its presence known one night from the tree over the backyard tent, eating cherries and dropping pits — noisily — onto the tent’s top. (While her book’s subtitle is “Essential Wisdom from the Urban Wilderness,” this sort of story seems more a source of essential laughter for the urban-wilderness lifestyle.)
“Crow Planet” is her third book (read about the other two here – her first won the Washington State Book Award), but while the distinctive black birds are the title characters, she points out, “Crows are not my favorite bird, as I say in the first line of the book.” Nor are they idolized: “The presence of so many crows is an indicator of ecological imbalance. Yet they are a native, wild bird in our midst, and we can learn a lot from them.” The news release for her book says that, through her studies of them, the book “documents (her) journey to becoming an ‘urban naturalist’.”
She has watched them around West Seattle, including “Leucy,” her nickname for the leucistic crow – light-colored – that has lived in Gatewood/Upper Fauntleroy for a few years and was featured on WSB when we wrote about Lyanda last year, after “Crow Planet” became a finalist for a work-in-progress prize:
But “Leucy” didn’t wind up in “Crow Planet” after all, she says now, having been left “on the cutting-room floor,” a casualty of the writing process, in which her book took on a shape and form where “Leucy” (which she believes is male) just didn’t seem to fit.
Crows might not even have become the star of her current literary show if not for the editor with whom she worked on her award-winning first book “Rare Encounters with Ordinary Birds.” She says, “He insisted I add a chapter about crows, which I didn’t want to do … But I was in awe of him,” so she took his advice, then discovered during readings that the crow story resonated the most with reading attendees, who in turn wanted to tell her their stories: “Everybody has a crow story.” (Like the one about “Leucy,” and another one she tells about how experts disagree whether the “Northwest crow” is still a distinct species, or has become so hybridized with the American crow that it’s been assimilated.)
That same editor then suggested she write a book centered on crows, which Lyanda says she again resisted, instead launching into her second book, “Pilgrim on the Great Bird Continent.” While the book was about Darwin, “crows kept insinuating themselves. The seed was planted, and it became inevitable.”
Other birds are present in its pages, as is science, which is a major part of her writing (her science credentials include a master’s degree in environmental ethics) – and doesn’t stay out of her conversations, either. Somehow we wind up on the topic of myths, and she mentions that “you can touch a baby bird without it (subsequently) being abandoned by its parent” — unlike some animals whose babies do need to be left alone (notably seals), birds, she says, don’t have an acute sense of smell, so they’re not going to “smell human” all over that baby bird. (This, too, has been a topic on “The Tangled Nest” – read more here.)
While “Crow Planet” might serve as a cautionary tale to some degree, first and foremost, it is a tale, as well as encouragement for finding the “delight and intimacy” in, and with, the nature that’s in “the places where we live, with windows and pathways into how to accomplish that.”
You can see and hear her in person tomorrow night (7:30 pm Friday) at Elliott Bay Books in Pioneer Square. Also on her schedule of upcoming readings is a West Seattle appearance in two months — 6:30 pm September 24 — to be held at High Point Library, presented by Square One Books (WSB sponsor).
In the meantime, you can both read her book and observe West Seattle’s crows – which, like us all, live lives that veer between wild and adapted: “You can see crows (at Alki or Lincoln Park) eating their native diet, picking up snails, dropping them on rocks to get the meat … Then the same crows look at you like you’re going to toss them a Cheez-It.”