Author admires all creatures great and small

Couturier to visit Baltimore to talk about urban wildlife

April 02, 2005|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

Lisa Couturier likes most of the urban wildlife she writes about in her book The Hopes of Snakes.

In the collection of essays, she reveals that she's bemused by the tumbling antics of mice at the end of the subway platform at the Astor Place stop in Manhattan.

She's intrigued by "the sensuality of pigeons" who seduce Pigeon Ladies with "the intoxicating colors of [their] flashy neck feathers - tropical garden green, cabernet red, turquoise blue."

She empathizes with crows routed from their ancient roost along Rockville Pike by firecracker blasts in high-toned suburban malls.

She's struck by the flight of the peregrine falcon in pursuit of its prey - "the brutal poetry of the air."

She rescues a long "black beauty of a rat snake" besieged by humans in a Montgomery County park.

She accepts the wild outcasts of the East Coast megalopolis.

But she draws the line at roaches. She grudgingly admires their evolutionary toughness. They've survived millions of years unchanged and will probably go on millions years after we Homo sapiens have disappeared. But when she switched on the lights in her first New York apartment and saw hundreds of cockroaches scurrying hither and thither on the ceiling, she grabbed for a can of Raid.

It didn't work. So she moved out. You just can't live with some wildlife.

Couturier will talk about her book - the full title is The Hopes of Snakes: And Other Tales From the Urban Landscape - tomorrow at Clayton Fine Books, 317 N. Charles St.

During a telephone interview this week, Couturier, visiting her parents who now live in Florida, recalls the home on the edge of Montgomery County near Sugar Loaf Mountain where she grew up with her sister and brother. They helped their father plant 900 pine trees and 100 dogwoods along the edge of the property when they moved from Rockville.

She's sort of come full circle back to Montgomery County after leaving for college, working in journalism and writing about wildlife and the urban landscape and its creatures. She's traveled to some pretty wild places along the way - Patagonia, Borneo a couple times, Belize and the Galapagos.

"I feel like this has been with me as long as I can remember," she says. "I can't remember a time I wasn't interested in animals and nature."

She says her love of animals might be genetic. Her father, Adolphe Couturier, who grew up in rural Maine, always loved wildlife.

"He just had a sense of calmness about him, when it came to animals," she says. "So we were never really taught to fear them. Of course we were always taught to be safe around them, but not to fear them. He's kind of like the guy who walks in the field and dogs come over to him. Even though he ignores them for the most part, they're attracted to him for some reason."

When they moved into the house near Sugarloaf, the pines and dogwood went into what had been barren cornfields.

"Then all of a sudden we had all kinds of different animals coming in. We had owls, hawks, possums, baby birds - we would find birds all the time - chipmunks, and my father knew what to do."

Couturier has come back to the Washington suburbs as a wife and mother of Madeleine, who was born while she was writing the book, and Lucienne, the younger sister. They live in a stone cottage in Bethesda near the Potomac River.

She thinks maybe the flock of 500,000 crows she'd tracked through the malls of Rockville has been diminished by West Nile disease.

"I decided to find the place where they were," she says. "In doing that, I sort of learned more about Rockville and my sort of relationship with the city. Because I really had grown up there. So their life there and my life there sort of coincided.

She's found a wealth of interesting wildlife in the urban landscapes where she's lived. Not to mention people.

"I was outside with a neighbor the other day. There was a bird flying overhead. She said, `Lisa, what's that bird?' People think I know what all the animals are. I told her it was a vulture. She said, `Oh, it's not an eagle?' `No, it's a vulture.' Her response was `Oh, well, then I don't care about that.'"

She thinks that's common.

"They want to see the glamorous, charismatic, the big, beautiful animals. But you know vultures do a big service for us. They eat up the carcasses along the road."

And that's mostly what her book is about.

"These are the stories of animals that pretty much live around us [that] we don't really appreciate," she says. "The point I was hoping the book would make was not only to appreciate, but to have a sense of compassion and empathy for them. They really do co-exist with us."

Book talk

What: Lisa Couturier, author of The Hopes of Snakes: And Other Tales From the Urban Landscape, reads and talks about her book and urban wildlife

Where: Clayton Fine Books, 317 N. Charles St.

When: 2 p.m. tomorrow

Call: 410-752-6800

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