> AR Interviews
Listening for the Hopes of Snakes: A Celebration of
The Satya Interview with
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
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
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
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
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.
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
http://www.lisacouturier.com/. Couturier will be reading
at the Eco-Metropolis Conference in Manhattan, November 12, 2005 (see