review: Crow Planet

(Being a review of an entire book in which the author spends the whole thing watching, taking care of, interacting with, and loving a young disabled crow, also clearly loved by its parents and loving its life in turn, and in which the author ends the book with exactly the same amount and degree of ableist beliefs from which she began it.)

As an urban/suburban environmentalist, I picked up Crow Planet (metaphorically; this is a review of the audiobook) with great enthusiasm. I love works that help people explore the nature they live among and with, rather than placing Nature as somewhere Out There that enlightened urbanites visit for a few weeks per year. Sadly I was often disappointed. I initially rated it 2.5 rounded up, but as I write this I’m revising to 2.5 rounded down.

On the good: I found the writing lovely and clear and often side-splittingly funny. The scene with the baby crows carefully and with great attention dismantling her vegetable garden as if “they were working on their knitting,” and then reacting to a hose turned on them with glee, made me literally laugh out loud. Her careful observations of the wildlife around her house and in her neighbourhood was delightful. However, it was utterly ruined by her biases on many levels.

Here I’ll focus on my personal nemesis–ableism–and how this book exemplifies my main concerns with the conflation in the environmental movement of “natural” with “abled”, and therefore casting disability and disabled persons aside as “unnatural,” their lives a modern western decadence rather than a right.

In the very first chapter she introduces us to Charlotte, a disabled crow, cared for past the typical timeframe by her parents due to her inability to use one of her legs. This was a perfect opportunity for Haupt to reconsider her bigotry, to think that maybe, just maybe, parents caring for disabled children of all species because they love them and want them to thrive undercuts her preconceptions. But no. Instead she wonders why the parents would do this when it was must be so unrewarding (I believe her assumption is that Charlotte will never be able to pass on her genes, so why not just let her die?).

There is, towards the middle of the book, an extended and entirely unreflective section on how walking is the only way humans can come to love their environment. Not “direct experience” or “close contact” or “relationships over time” with non-human nature. No. Just “walking.” On your feet, in the woods or as close as you can get to them. This, too, casts disabled people outside of the human family. I guess, since those who use mobility devices often need pavement to get around, which is in short supply in the woods, and in any case aren’t walking there, can’t form close relationships with non-human nature and therefore can’t become naturalists nor love nature the way she does. Never mind that almost everything Haupt actually does in the book could be done in a wheelchair, without feet, given that she’s observing crows in her garden or near her daughter’s school.

If you want an extended albeit indirect rebuttal to Haupt’s rhetoric, I recommend Eli Clare, a disability justice activist and environmental advocate who writes brilliantly and clearly on the overlapping terrain of these two issues. Clare isn’t alone; there are many other writers doing the same, and plenty of disabled people with an ecological consciousness and naturalist bent; but why on earth should Haupt bother to check her biases with a shred of research?

In the last chapter, there’s another extended rant, this time about the worthlessness and hopelessness of life with a disability. Since this was the audiobook, and therefore a transcription of what the narrator says, the punctuation and paragraph breaks may be different than that in the print edition; still, I think it is worth quoting at length, along with my outraged commentary:

“I recognize Charlotte right away by the way she roosts, resting her belly on the wire instead of standing up straight as Crows normally do. Her leg never healed properly, and it splays to the side when she feeds on the ground.

“I’ve been keeping an eye on her for months now, watching as she struggled along as a fledgling on the neighbourhood sidewalks, then as a fully grown if not a bit scrawny first-year bird. Miraculously dodging cats, raccoons, and migrating coopers hawks. [ed: “miraculously” is a value statement, not a fact or observation.] Injured crows very often survive where birds of other species would perish. [ed: no evidence provided for either assertion.] Their terrific intelligence and omnivorous diet allow behavioural range unavailable to most birds. Where an injured warbler would huddle and starve, [ed: no evidence provided] an injured crow can mix and scratch. In a park setting, where crows are accustomed to people, I have noticed that injured crows will more closely approach a person tossing bits of food than a healthy crow typically does.

“With a permanent injury, crumpled foot or one blind eye for example, the already difficult crow life is even harder. These birds make do. [ed: imagine if she had taken the evidence of her own senses here and revised her opinions on disability.] Whenever a person tells me he or she has been feeding a crow on the back porch, it almost always turns out that the bird is injured. Even crows with broken hanging wings, whose open wounds have healed but whose broken bones were never set, so they cannot fly, sometimes survive for a time. [ed: no evidence provided. No indication of what ‘for a time’ means.] They stake out a territory on the ground and scavenge and beg. They may not have a long life, but most avian species couldn’t pull off any semblance of such an existence. [ed: no evidence provided for either assertion.]

“Several people have called me over the years to ask me what to do about an injured bird. I’m always struck when they say something like, ‘it’s actually in pretty good shape. Very alert. It just has a broken wing.’ [ed: again, ignoring the evidence in front of her because it does not fit with her preconceptions on disability. Imagine if she had taken the opportunity to learn that yes, of course, the injury is hard, but it is not surprising or rare that living things will go on surviving and even flourishing anyway.] Most people don’t realize that a wing … is not like an arm. it is more like a heart. Birds were made for flight. Even birds that cannot fly now, ostriches … evolved from birds that could. [ed: all birds are made for flight, even birds that can’t fly and haven’t flown for millennia. Therefore: the life of a bird that can’t fly is not worth living. Ok then.]

“But how to live without a forelimb? No arm, no hand, no front paw? No other terrestrial vertebrate has managed such a life. … [ed: except every other terrestrial vertebrate that has, including an awful lot of animals that have escaped from human traps, pets that have lost limbs in accidents or due to illness or that were born without, or the very substantial number of humans that were born without limbs or lost them due to any number of reasons, and who have all gone on living–happily, even.]

“Charlotte might be thin and slumped, but she managed to learn to fly on one leg, no mean accomplishment. I wonder, what does it mean to have no hope? When there is a radiant earth-loving child singing in the bathroom, and a one-legged bird that has learned to fly in your tree?”

Inspo-porn, bird-style.

I would like to draw your attention here to the sheer overwhelming quantity of evidence Haupt has available to her that birds regularly live through and with disabling injuries, and the persistence of her belief that this is astonishingly rare and utterly debilitating. This of course does not apply just to birds, and nor is it only Haupt: you yourself, Dear Reader, have probably absorbed the idea that disability is rare and that the survival and inclusion of disabled people in modern society is a major human rights gain and triumph over historical societies where disabled people just died or were killed.

But think about this: in a prehistoric society where hunters regularly approached herbivorous mammals weighing several tonnes for their food armed only with sharp stones or sticks, or where humans were regularly hunted themselves by predators with teeth as long as their hands, does it actually make sense to think that most humans would have reached adulthood without being injured, without healing possibly imperfectly, living with the loss of fingers or limbs or breaks that didn’t heal right or whatever? How rare could this really have been? There would have been a lot of people like Charlotte: took a bad jump once and broke a leg that wasn’t splinted properly and never healed quite straight.

Not only must these kinds of disabilities have been very common, but there’s plenty of archaeological evidence of persons in adolescence or adulthood who died with genetic or medical problems, evident in their bones or teeth, that would have required assistance and care from other members of the tribe for them to have lived so long. Disability is not rare, and neither is communal care.

In the search for this section so I could transcribe it, I came across again the chapter on how sight is also essential for naturalists. A few minutes’ search on google showed me many example of naturalists and ecologists who are disabled–with vision loss, or using wheelchairs or walkers, or any number of other things. They are entirely invisible to Haupt. This is not accidental. Even when evidence is directly in front of her, she cannot perceive it . She loves Charlotte, she claims, but will not believe her when Charlotte is clearly showing that she loves her life.

I’m going to ignore all the sexist earth-mother nonsense; I imagine other reviews have taken on her contention that obviously, “primate mothers” want to care for their own young, so she became a stay at home mother. Guess I’m not a “primate mother”? News to me. (For an extended, scientific, well researched and footnoted take on these reductive stereotypes of the maternal instinct, see Sarah Blaffer Hrdy). You could take this in the direction of a classism analysis as well, but as I think I’ll have enough to criticize just focusing on disability, I’ll refrain.

So here’s the thing:

Her wailing and gnashing of teeth about the horrors of disability sounds exactly the same as her wailing and gnashing of teeth about environmental destruction. Because they are the same.

We are not killing the planet.

We are disabling it.

It is going to live through us, whatever we do (barring the possible exception of all-out nuclear war); its form and function will radically change. It will work differently and look differently. Kind of like a disabled person. And kind of like a disabled person, we’ve been enculturated to find these changes or differences in form of function very distressing, often too distressing to cope with. With disabled people, you find society often assumes that they would be better off dead (disabled people rarely agree; levels of suicidality are about the same between disabled and abled people. Yet here in Canada, for instance, where Medical Assistance In Dying legislation has recently been expanded to include disabled Canadians who are not at risk of dying otherwise, this has been embraced as a step forward for human rights by abled people while reacted to with horror by just about every disability rights organization).

With disabled planets, you find people like Musk assuming a literally dead planet (Mars) is better than a living one that works differently than it used to.

While Haupt isn’t advocating the terraforming of Mars, she does act and write as if the changes we’re making to the environment are so terrible and distressing that there is no point to living through them. I think this is nonsense. Unless you, whoever you are, reacted to your own birth with “but where were the forests that grew here x00 years ago, and what has befallen the mammoth? I can’t live here!” then it is most likely that future generations will embrace the conditions they were born into, consider them normal, and construct the best lives they can for themselves.

Ableism muddles people’s reactions to this argument, so: in case you are now wondering “but if there’s nothing wrong with disability, why try to save the planet/prevent disabling illnesses or conditions?” So analogize disability to being the victim of a crime. We’ll say sexual assault, or child abuse: it will likely change who you are and how you function in the world. In that way, it’s disabling. We wouldn’t say that the lives of the victims of these crimes are worthless or that they are better off dead, and we also wouldn’t argue that since their lives are still worth living that means it’s not worth trying to prevent rape or child abuse.

My disabled child loves nature; even though they have had periods where they can’t walk and can currently not walk much, and certainly not for long on uneven terrain. We have wildlife around our home, after all. There is a family of robins raising a brood of hatchlings on our front door lamp as I write this, and I can see mama and papa robin doing what parents of many species do: working tirelessly to feed and protect their children. You do not need to walk to love the world.

And when I go into the woods, where the terrain is too steep and uneven for them, I’m well aware that the landscapes I interact with are different in form and function than they were before colonization; they are disabled, in that sense. Yet they are green and full of living things. When I sit by my favourite pond, I do wonder what it would say, if it could speak, about the change in its circumstances. The introduced and invasive species, the loss of shade, the traffic and air pollution. What I can tell just from the evidence of my senses is that nothing there believes it would be better off dead, or that it has no value. It doesn’t bewail and moan. It embraces the life that it has.

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