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August 2005
Listening for the Hopes of Snakes: A Celebration of Urban Wildlife
The Satya Interview with Lisa Couturier

 

Photo by Sterling Cecil Hoffman
Drawing by Ethan Young

The city may not seem like the ideal place to fall in love with wildlife, yet Lisa Couturier did just that. For an East Coast native, Couturier has an extremely vast repertoire of wildlife experiences. And amidst the concrete and automobiles, Couturier is able to find passion and healing in the hidden furry, scaly, and feathered ones. Living most of her life in the Washington, DC suburbs, then Manhattan and the outskirts of Boston, Couturier writes to encourage compassion for the critters with whom we share our cities. She has published many articles that celebrate urban wildlife, culminating in her book, The Hopes of Snakes and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape (Beacon Press), a collection of essays released early this year.

Because intense urban expansion continues to push all wildlife to the margins, Couturier’s The Hopes of Snakes seeks to provide a means for urban humans to find compassion for our fellow urban critters. Snakes is a collection of essays calling on us to develop a relationship with our lesser-known neighbors. Couturier sees all wildlife as sacred, they are “deserving of reverence” especially “amidst the untold millions of human demands made on the landscape each day” and most importantly, “through territories that, though stolen from them now, once were theirs.” By acknowledging the hopes of snakes, Couturier hopes that her stories of urban wildlife touch us in an inspiring and empathetic way.

Intrigued by this beautiful collection of essays, Sangamithra Iyer spoke to Lisa Couturier about our relationships with city critters and the hope we should all have for the future of urban wildlife.

In the introduction to The Hopes of Snakes and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape, you describe Manhattan as your forest and refer to the creatures of NYC as healers. Can you tell us what you mean by that?
Essentially, the idea is that when you realize it is time for you to leave the landscape of your childhood, you—metaphorically speaking—begin a search for a new forest, for new trees to climb. In other words, new challenges. Manhattan became my forest, a place that would challenge me, both physically and psychologically. One thing that seemed to be missing [for me] in Manhattan—at the outset at least—was a sense of wildness, a connection to wild animals. I spent a large part of my childhood running in the woods near my home or watching flocks of crows. These experiences weren’t happening in Manhattan. The problem was that I had thought I’d prepared myself for this disconnection from the wild when I moved to the city. I thought I’d be able to survive it, that I was past all that longing for animals. As it turned out, I missed the animals enormously. I felt fractured and lost. When I discovered there were red-tailed hawks in the city, peregrine falcons, egrets in Central Park, I began to feel less fractured, less lost. I suppose this is how they became healers. Just the sight of them and knowing they were here made me feel more complete, which to me means more wild.

Do you feel having this connection with our fellow urban creatures is important to us city dwellers?
I do. One of the responses I’ve gotten from the book is people coming up to me and sharing their own stories about wildlife. Everyone has a connection to animals—whether it be an experience from their childhood or something that just happened yesterday—but they don’t always share these experiences. I think that sometimes we, as adults, think that animals are for children and that only children have a connection to them. The Hopes of Snakes, I think, has resonated with people and has validated their experiences. Urbanites have memories of and longings for a connection to animals; they just don’t have as many opportunities to be with animals once they move to the city.

Some city folks definitely long for that connection with animals, which seems absent in urban life. But there is also a preconception that urban critters are dirty, dangerous and disease-ridden, and urbanites develop a sort of fear of them.

I think when we think of “urban critters” what comes to mind most immediately are the rats, mice, pigeons, and roaches. These are the most readily seen creatures, the ones we have the most interaction with. And let’s be truthful, I don’t know anyone, really, who wants to have wild rats and roaches in their living quarters. So, sure, those animals get a bad rap. You are right, there is a huge divide between these species and the others, such as peregrine falcons and red-tailed hawks, who are treasured in the city.

The essay “The City’s Laughter” is my attempt to address our fears and preconceptions about the animals thought of as dirty, dangerous, and disease-ridden. They are the strongest survivors in the landscapes over which we’ve poured concrete and asphalt. Let’s face it, they are in the city, in large part, because of our trash. Nonetheless, such animals have their stories. By telling a few stories of these perhaps most unsavory conditions and the creatures who live in them, I felt that the reader might realize a new perspective on our most degraded landscapes. My intent is to show that the stories of mice, pigeons and roaches are, in a way, stories of us urban people. For example, in “The City’s Laughter,” there is a section about a very old woman and the roaches that essentially cover the walls of her apartment. It is about the persistence of life, as well as a story about death. Another section is about a woman who feeds pigeons but cannot speak to people, a woman who, when society had failed her, was in need of nurturance from the birds she fed.

I hope people who read that essay might be prompted to think: Where have we gone wrong in the choices we have made for our environments? What might it take from each one of us, personally, even spiritually, to think more deeply about our relationships with even pigeons and mice? Like I said, we don’t want them living in our apartments, but that in no way means we must exclude them from our circle of empathy.

What do you think the hopes of snakes and other animals are?
This phrase is taken from a longer sentence in the book that says, “…perhaps my world is nuanced with the hopes of snakes…” By the time you get to this point in the essay, it is rather clear that such hopes just might have something to do with surviving in a world that is hostile to snakes—something to do with having habitat, having food and warmth, having a life. I suppose this is the most basic level or interpretation. Of course, there is the literary, philosophical or psychological subtext or connection, that animals, in their need for food and warmth, might therefore be considered as living beings deserving of empathy from us. The literary implication is that maybe you let the green snake glide through the tree enjoying its morning rather than killing it, which is what happens to one particular green snake in the essay.

Let me phrase it another way. If I believe, as I do, that snakes, or any nonhuman animal for that matter, search out food and warmth, then their movement toward those things, their desire to have those things, is something like a hope, a hope to find those things in order to survive. This need is something we can empathize with because it is something we know for ourselves. It’s actually quite simple. We show this empathy—we take this leap of faith in animal consciousness and animal hope—all the time when it comes to our companion animals. We believe our dogs have the hope, for example, to go out in the yard and play at some point in the day. I don’t think it is at all a stretch to consider that wild animals have similar desires based on their needs. The truth is, we truly don’t know what is going on in the mind of an animal, just as we never can be sure what’s going on in the mind of another person. A relationship, whether it be with a wild animal, a companion animal, or a person, is, in large part, about imagination and empathy.

In your essay, “Reversing the Tides,” you talk about your love for both the polluted East River and Staten Island’s Arthur Kill, “I love it for the same reason I love the Arthur Kill: for it’s magic. In all their woundedness, these resilient waterways are managing to give life. I can’t accept the injuries New Yorkers have caused this estuary, but I feel there is a need to cherish what is left.” In addition to cherishing what is left, do you feel there is also enormous responsibility?
Yes, tremendous responsibility—not only to cherish what is left, but to try and not destroy anything else struggling to hang on. One thing I’m concerned with about urban nature writing is that it doesn’t cause complacency in people. I don’t want people to think that if peregrines, hawks and egrets can live in the city, or if raccoons, beavers, and coyotes can live in the suburbs, that we have permission to keep sprawling out because some animals are going to survive. We have a tremendous responsibility to save the wild areas that are left. We have stolen so much; and I’m as much responsible for this as is anyone. We are all a part of it. Nonetheless, it’s time to recognize that we have plenty of paved boundaries in which we can live. Of course, this is exceedingly simple for a person to declare, especially a person such as myself, who has benefited enormously from urbanization. I carry a deep sadness about this. But I try to work from a sense of hopefulness of what still can be. I think it’s a matter of being aware of what’s happened before and of what could happen in the future. There are so many needs in the world—the needs of children, of animals, of the land. The needs of the voiceless. I try to work from that standpoint and walk through the world with that in mind.

And how can we convince people to respect and appreciate these animals and their land?
That’s what I’m often asked. People are bombarded with negative news all the time; and it is vitally important that we know the reality of situations. But at the same time we, as activists, writers and artists, need to respond to the news, incorporate it into our work and transform it somehow in a way that has the potential to move a person; hopefully change the way a person will think of an issue.

People have a core in them that is hopeful. I have a literary responsibility to tell the stories of animals in a way that gives readers a dose of reality with also a dose of hopefulness. For example, maybe through the story of one vulture, a reader might come to respect and love other vultures. Or through the story of pigeons, a reader can have a new sense of what life is like for a pigeon. Stories, I think, have a way of reaching people that runs a little deeper than all the facts and figures they get in the newspapers.

So do you have hope for snakes and the other animals as this country and the world moves more toward urbanization?
I do, but I’m not blind to the fact that it is a big struggle. Part of the reason for writing the book was to help animals. Most of the animals in my book are what you might call outcasts—vultures, crows, coyotes, snakes, mice, pigeons, and roaches. They are the animals we often cast out of our sphere of acceptable creatures—never mind that they are the creatures we are living with—the animals most readily accessible in our urban landscapes. I want people to have a new appreciation and a new sense of them. For example, at my readings, people have said to me: “I always saw crows and thought they were so dirty and filthy, but since reading your essay, now I know how intelligent they are and that they have families, societies.” I am thrilled to hear this and I find hope in it.

For us New Yorkers, where do you recommend we go to commune with wildlife?
To your windowsill! [Laughs.] I always loved when pigeons used to come into the air shaft, sit at the window, and coo these beautiful songs. And my cat, who used to sit on the other side of the screen in the summer time, started sounding like a pigeon. When she was a baby, she would sit and talk to the pigeons through the screen, and eventually she would get up there and coo like a pigeon.

Truly, for New Yorkers, nature is in different hidden places, as well as the parks, of course. There are wonderful urban park rangers you can take field trips with. They know so much and have great stories. Finding nature in the city is, in large part, being alert for it—for instance, the mice in the subway tracks. It’s just a matter of taking a little longer to look at what is around and above you. In the city, there are many birds you wouldn’t necessarily think are there. Central Park’s birders can lead you down that path. Then, too, many animals are nocturnal, so you won’t have the easiest time seeing the owls in Central Park. Many encounters are just at a glance—a peregrine flying down Park Avenue or over the East River.

One of my favorite spots was Carl Schurz Park, along the East River by the Mayor’s mansion, where the river splits near the Tri-Borough Bridge. There I found cormorants, egrets, snapping turtles, and flocks of starlings and sparrows. Part of having an urban nature experience is shifting your expectations, opening yourself up to the idea that wildness comes in many different forms, that wildness is as much in the blood of a robin building her nest as it is in Pale Male and Lola, the famous Fifth Avenue hawks building their nest. It’s a matter of taking some time to watch and see what happens.

Is there anything else you wanted to share?
I believe that urban wildlife just might save us from ourselves. If we can come to respect and feel awe for urban animals in the way we do the animals we only rarely see—such as bears or wolves or eagles—we might more fully inhabit our landscapes and feel more connected with what is both beyond and a part of the densely developed human world. It’s been said that we save what we love, and I would agree with that. It would follow, then, that what we need to do is to love more, open our hearts just a little more. It sounds simple, but I don’t think it is, really. Because it’s not always easy to embrace the unfamiliar. Nonetheless, our inherent goodness or hopefulness causes us to wake up each day desiring to live authentically, wanting to feel connected. The struggles of the heart are often our biggest. My sense of this struggle, of its enormity, really, is what led me to say in my introduction that I hope my essays speak to the heart.

For more information go to www.lisacouturier.com. Couturier will be reading at the Eco-Metropolis Conference in Manhattan, November 12, 2005 (see www.ecometropolis.org).

 


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