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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

City Nature

Air Date: Week of

Snakes, crows and vultures might not be the most charismatic animal specimens, but writer Lisa Couturier says there's much value to be found in these otherwise overlooked creatures. Host Steve Curwood talks with her about her new book, "The Hopes of Snakes and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape."


CURWOOD: Bears in suburban backyards may generate headlines, but there are plenty of other wild species quietly trying to make a living in the various corners of the sprawling megalopolis along the eastern seaboard. Lisa Couturier is out to capture them with her pen. She loves to write about animals sharing real estate with people, from backyard foxes to hi-rise pigeons.

Ms. Couturier grew up in the Washington, D.C. suburbs and spent much of her post-college years in New York City. The creatures have adapted to these populated areas, she says. It's humans who have yet to adapt to the wildlife. Lisa Couturier's collection of essays is called "The Hopes of Snakes, and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape." And she joins me from Washington, D.C. Lisa, hello.


CURWOOD: You write about many different urban animals; in fact, many that we would consider pests. Which of these do you identify with most?

COUTURIER: (laughs) I'll say crows. I mean, they're very smart, they're playful, I find them incredibly fun to watch. They have a very high brain to body size ratio similar to that of dolphins and somewhat similar to that of humans.

CURWOOD: I'm wondering if you could read to us a portion of your essay about crows.

COUTUREIR: Yeah, sure. In this essay, "Banishment of Crows," this particular part I'm outside with my daughter and we're going to feed some of the crows.

READING: Outside in the mornings, Madeleine and I hear the cawing of crows, at first far away, echoing through the woods along the river. Slowly they close in, spot us throwing corn, bread, and sunflower seeds into the grass, and land in the tall trees around our cottage. Once, a high mound of turned earth two houses away drew hundreds of crows searching for garbage. The birds covered the roofs of several homes and lined the tree branches. Squinting at the crows through sunlight transformed them into blowsy black scarves of silk, a fabric of crow society Madeleine and I wished to enter. We walked toward them along our stone path and suddenly they fell silent as we moved below what now felt like a mountain of scrupulous black eyes. It was one of those moments when suddenly you feel you've crossed over the edge of your civilized world and into quite another. The tables turn, then, and you are not doing the turning. If you surrender to it – to the moment when perhaps the wild and tame are one – there's a light in all that black, an openness there at the edge of the question, as you wait to see what answer the world will serve you.

CURWOOD: So you like the crows, and you go on in your book to talk about the big relative of the crow–the vulture. And I come away feeling that these vultures are cultured. And, of course, that's not my perception of the vulture at all. The popular perception is that, hey, the vulture is bad news. How are people's perceptions of animals like the vulture different from how you perceive them?

COUTURIER: Well, you know, I want to tell one little story, too, about the vulture. I was outside my neighborhood, I live right along the Potomac River, and people often mistake the flying vulture for the flying eagle. And every once in a while someone will ask me. And if they're really high up in the air sometimes it's hard to tell. But this woman said, "Oh, what's that flying over us?" And I looked at it, and said "It's a vulture, most likely." And she said, "Oh, it's not an eagle?" And I said, "No, that's a vulture." And she said, "Oh, well I don't care about that then."

You know, how do you unwrap that answer, "Oh, well I don't care about that then." What does it mean that you don't care about a vulture but you care about an eagle? You know, and I guess from the looks of it, from what they do, if you're just driving along the road and you see a vulture dipping its head into a carcass, what they do does look, on the surface, dirty and ugly, and maybe it is. But they're essentially the trash people or the trash men of the natural world in a sense that they clear the land for us of the rotting carcasses.

CURWOOD: Lisa, one of your essays, you tell a story of encountering a snake at a fairground. Could we hear that now?

COUTURIER: Okay, so I was in an agricultural farm park. It was October, which is the time when snakes start migrating toward their winter dens. And during all the festivities, this huge six-foot black rat snake starts crossing the landscape, coming through all the people and around the tables and food…

CURWOOD: Six feet is a big snake.

COUTURIER: Yeah, well, the black rat snakes are one of the giants of the U.S., and they can get up to six feet, and this was a really long, large snake. People didn't even see that it was there at first, and then slowly word spread that this snake was moving under the tables, and they got really nervous. And somebody went to run for the park naturalist and to say, what are we gonna do, what are we gonna do? And the naturalist took her stick and started poking the stick in front of it, which just served to make the snake more and more upset.

CURWOOD: What did the snake do?

COUTURIER: Started to rise up a little bit, and it was biting back at the stick, because she kept poking the stick in front of it. And the children, the little boys especially, started shaping their hands into the shape of a gun and pretending to shoot it. And I didn't even, I partly thought about it and partly didn't think about it. I knew that it was in trouble, in some sense. So I walked up to it and picked it up, slung it over my arm sort of near my waist.

And the greatest thing, and this part isn't in the story, actually, is that suddenly, when I picked it up and started carrying it back to the woods, all the children, their whole demeanor changed. They thought it was wonderful, and they followed me all the way to the woods and they wanted to touch it and be next to it, they wanted to know about it. It's just interesting when an adult moves in one way versus another. Their parents were, "Stay away from it. It's going to hurt you," And they saw another adult pick it up and take it away to safety. I think that their whole experience of a snake changed on that day. So we took it back to the woods and we put it down by the woods, and it slithered into the woods and everybody was happy.

CURWOOD: Lisa Couturier, you call your book "The Hopes of Snakes." What do you mean by this title? What do you mean when you say that your life is nuanced by the hopes of snakes?

COUTURIER: Well, I'm glad that you said that. When I believe that non-humans have hopes or have emotions or feelings, that I, therefore, walk through the world differently, because I sense in them something similar that would be in my life. In other words, if they need to find warmth or food, they, in a sense, have a hope or a movement towards those things in the same way that I do. So, I think it changes our relationship with non-humans when we give them at least some sense of the same sorts of feelings and emotions that we have.

CURWOOD: Of course you get some static about this because it seems that anthropomorphism is a necessity in the literary world, but scientists tend to view it as a crime. What do you suppose accounts for that difference?

COUTURIER: I think that scientists and the scientific world, their education, their background is all some sort of mechanistic world; the world of Descartes. Whereas the literary world, as you said, is a little different. So I think the book somewhat blends those two worlds: the literary or the artistic with the scientific, to sort of give insights into both worlds about the animals. So, basically, taking what is real life – the scientific, rational side and the other side – and blended them, because that's what life is. We have both of those in our lives every day.

CURWOOD: Lisa Couturier is an environmental journalist and author of "The Hopes of Snakes and Other Tales from the Urban Landscape." Thanks so much for taking this time with me today.

COUTURIER: Oh, thanks for having me.

[MUSIC: "Feed the Birds" Julie Andrews]

CURWOOD: Just ahead: the truth about gas mileage. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

ANNOUNCER: Support for NPR comes from NPR stations, and the Argosy Foundation Contemporary Music Fund, supporting the creation, performance and recording of new music; the Kresge Foundation, building the capacity of nonprofit organizations through challenge grants since 1924. On the web at kresge.org; the Annenberg Fund for excellence in communications and education; and the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, from vision to innovative impact, 75 years of philanthropy. This is NPR, National Public Radio.

[MUSIC: "Move" Miles Davis: Birth of the Cool (Capitol Jazz) 1957]



Lisa Couturier's website

"The Hopes of Snakes"


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