Book City: Writing the religion of red cedars

Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a Seattle nature writer with a talent for blending naturalism and spirituality. Which books are her most faithful muses?
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Lyanda Lynn Haupt

Lyanda Lynn Haupt is a Seattle nature writer with a talent for blending naturalism and spirituality. Which books are her most faithful muses?

Lyanda Lynn Haupt is an author, speaker and naturalist who has created and directed educational programs for Seattle Audubon, worked in raptor rehabilitation in Vermont and as a seabird researcher for the Fish and Wildlife Service in the tropical Pacific. Her writing has appeared in Orion and the LA Times, and her latest book, “The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild” is a blend of science, memoir and myth. Lyanda lives in Seattle with her husband and daughter, and their mixed backyard chicken flock.

Val Easton: What books are lying open on your nightstand right now?

Lyanda Lynn Haupt: “Persuasion” by Jane Austen and “The Provence Cookbook” by Patricia Wells. I read cookbooks at bedtime as if they are novels. And — this is so trite for a nature writer, but it’s true — I’m re-reading Thoreau’s “Walden.” 

Have you read a truly great book lately? One you’d unhesitatingly recommend to friends and colleagues?

“Elwha: A River Reborn,” by Lynda V. Mapes. As Pacific Northwesterners, this is our story — our long, beautiful, tangled, wild story. No one could tell it better than Lynda. 

Your book subjects are intriguing … from crows to Darwin … where do your ideas come from?

On the surface, crows and Darwin sound like very different topics, but to me they are of a piece. Crows are everywhere, an invitation to notice the wild things among us. Darwin had such wild curiosity, and I love how he involved his family in his obsessions. He set bins of earthworms on the grand piano and had his longsuffering wife play for them so he could discern which composer the worms prefer!

You have a new book coming out late this summer that sounds like it might be your most personal book yet?

At its heart, “The Urban Bestiary:  Encountering the Everyday Wild” is my conviction that daily connection with the natural world matters. It makes us more creative, responsive, responsible, imaginative, wild and happy inhabitants of our home communities. I wrote this book outdoors as much as possible, in conversation with my subject. The shaggy cast of characters includes coyotes, hawks, raccoons, moles, rats, robins, chickadees and chickens.

Have any of your books been sparked by something you’ve read?

I’m a firm believer in the “you are what you read” maxim, so I’m very careful about what I put into my head, especially when I’m writing. I can think of many times that an obscure footnote led me into some avenue of research that appeared in a book.

How does living in the Northwest influence your writing? Did you grow up here?

The mosses and shade and moisture and thick soils and high trees and drab brown forest birds that blend into the bark of the Douglas firs influence everything I write. I have been nurtured in this church of nature since childhood, and though I write for a national audience, I do so with my feet planted on soil formed by a decaying western red cedar. 

Why do birds fascinate you so? Tell us a bit about how you became a nature worshipper.

Nature worshipper! Ha. I’m not sure I’ve ever been called that, at least not since college. But I did just mention nature as church, so I suppose it’s apt.

Looking back, I can’t think of a time in my life when I did not seek — and find — solace in nature. Behind my childhood home there was a vacant lot, then a canyon with a stream at the bottom. I loved to spend time alone there — I’d climb down to the stream bed, catch frogs, then try to sit so calmly that the frogs would stay crouched on my arms and legs and the birds I’d scared off on my way down would return. I’d bring notebooks, and fill them with drawings of leaves and trees and insects, and those frogs, as well as my thoughts about them. I’d stay for hours and pretend not to hear my mom calling me for dinner.

As for a particular delight in birds, that developed a little later. My mom always kept the old “Golden Guide to Birds of North America” (a very nice guide, undervalued these days) on the kitchen table, and we’d identify our backyard birds together.

Do you have a couple of favorite nature, bird or animal books you’d recommend?

Anna Botsford Comstock’s 1911 “Handbook of Nature Study is a book I’d love to see in every home library. It’s a compendium of lore and a guide to exploration, and her writing is laced with poetry and a great sense of humor. A sort of modern take on the same topic is “Coyote’s Guide to Connecting With Nature,” by Jon Young, Ellen Haas and Evan McGown of the Wilderness Awareness School.  I absolutely love this book, a rare blending of good science and natural history with an intelligent sense of spirit and mystery.

Can you name a childhood favorite that influenced you?

The Secret Garden” By Frances Hodgson Burnett. When I was reading that book for the first time in third grade, I asked my dad, “Might I have a bit of earth?” And he gave me one! I am quite sure that the answers to most of life’s questions can be found within its pages. I also read the entire Little House series by Laura Ingalls Wilder at least seven times. 

Do you have a book or two that you’ve re-read over the years and will no doubt read again?

There is a big epistolary collection called “Always, Rachel” — the decade-long correspondence between Rachel Carson and her beloved friend Dorothy Freeman, gathered and edited by Freeman’s granddaughter. The simplicity of the letters is very powerful. I love how Carson mingles the messy details of domestic life around her passion for nature, and the challenge of creative effort. I read that book every other year. 

Do you have any favorite genres?

As an escape I enjoy upscale historical chick-lit. My favorites are by Sarah Dunant — “Sacred Hearts” and “The Birth of Venus.” I feel a re-reading of “The Mists of Avalon” is in my near future.

Any book you’ve read lately that really caught your imagination, inspired you, or changed how you look at the world?

Right now I’m totally obsessed with the scrapbook-like works of Lloyd Kahn, the builder and promoter of creative alternative dwellings who published the iconic “Shelter” in the early 1970s. It’s his “Builders of the Pacific Coast” that has really captured my imagination lately — the attunement to local materials, and the sense that our homes can reflect intimate continuity with the places we live.

Can you think of a particularly powerful passage from a book that’s stuck with you? That you return to?

Do you remember the chapter, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn” from “Wind in the Willows”? The whole chapter is one of my favorites in all of literature. Mole and Rat are out all night, searching the wooded riverbank for Portly, the lost baby otter. At the liminal turning of night-into-dawn, and without quite understanding what is happening, they hear Pan’s flute. Rat cries:

“O Mole! The beauty of it! The merry bubble and joy, the thin, clear, happy call of the distant piping! Such music I never dreamed of, and the call in it is stronger even than the music is sweet! Row on Mole, row! For the music and the call must be for us.”

Their sense of mystical oneness with the forest dims as the sun brightens, and everyday life intrudes.  Portly, of course, is safe with the faun. But I agree with Rat — the music and the call is for us.

What Val’s Reading This Week: “Life After Life” by Kate Atkinson is a literary “Groundhog’s Day,” a virtuoso fictional take on fate. Set in a pastoral England disrupted by two world wars, it’s a rich family drama forever looping back to the main character’s multiple lives, each of which unfolds quite differently depending on the smallest choice or incident influencing all that follows. 


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About the Authors & Contributors

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Valerie Easton

Valerie Easton started her career as a librarian shelving books at Lake City Library when she was in high school. Now she writes full time, and has authored five books, includingThe New Low Maintenance Garden and her newest title Petal & Twig. She writes a weekly column and feature stories for Pacific Northwest magazine in the Seattle Times.