Natural wonder - Local author a natural to write Seattle stories

In the photograph, David B. Williams stands with his right hand grasping a crow. His fingers gently but firmly wrap around the bird's legs. The scene gives the appearance that Williams holds a large, black Popsicle - a Crowsicle. Observers might be tempted to ask, "This is science?"

Science it is, though Williams and the crow are participating in the study for different reasons. He's there, along with University of Washington researcher John Withey, to study the birds.

As Williams explains, "Being social birds, crows gather in roosts to converse and share information. In the summer breeding season, the number may drop as low as 300 because they stay and defend their nest territory instead of socializing." The remainder of the year can find more than 10,000 birds occupying the roosts.

The bird waits patiently while Williams points out what makes crows such successful urban birds. With three forward-facing toes and one facing rearward, crows have an incredibly strong grip. Stout legs are good for walking, strutting and jumping. Their stout beaks can pry open food containers and rip up garbage bags.

Williams pauses a moment and laughingly adds, "And bite an unsuspecting writer's finger!"

It's this mix of science, natural history and humor that David Williams brings to his new book, "The Street-Smart Naturalist - Field Notes from Seattle." In 12 chapters he tells Seattleites everything important and fascinating about the natural world that infuses our urban setting.

For anybody thinking that cities are only concrete, asphalt and grassy lawns, Williams wants you to look again. For people interested in nature but unable to make it to the woods or wilderness, Williams demonstrates how to enjoy the urban environment around you.

Runs in the family

Born in Lexington, Ky., Williams relocated to Seattle at age 5 - though he adds with a smile, "My parents moved out here, and I came with them."

Writing must be a genetic predisposition. Both his parents are published authors. Between them, the Williams family could fill a library shelf.

In addition to "The Street-Smart Naturalist," Williams has written "A Naturalist's Guide to Canyon Country" and "Grand Views of Canyon Country."

His mother, Jacqueline B. Williams, is the author of a history of Capitol Hill, along with several culinary history books, including one about food on the Oregon Trail.

His father, Walter Williams, is emeritus professor at the UW Evans School and has written many books on public-policy implementation.

From Garfield High School, Williams enrolled at Colorado College in hopes of learning how to design and build bicycles. He was set to do that until he took physics and got a 16 percent on his first exam.

With typical humor he says of the experience, "I realized I wasn't really good at physics." Fortunately, he liked his introductory geology class - particularly all the field trips - and even did quite well at it.

Making the connections

After graduation he took a job in Moab, Utah, working for Canyon-lands Field Institute (CFI), a nonprofit school that works with children and adults.

During his five years with CFI, Williams remembers, "I grew out of my narrow focus of geology" as he taught natural history classes in Arches National Park and other wilderness areas. "When I'd moved to Moab, I had this deep interest in geology."

But the longer he was there, looking at plants, bugs, mammals, birds, he says, "I started trying to get a better understanding - looking at connections rather than just at rocks."

Williams took his passion for understanding how everything in the world was interconnected with him as he joined the interpretive ranger staff at Arches. This experience developed his interest in urban natural history.

He began to organize his ranger walks around the idea of the interrelationships between the biological and nonbiological facets of the environment. "I encouraged people to ask questions when they got home," Williams recalls, because he believed that National Parks didn't have a monopoly on interesting things to study.

He put this philosophy to a personal test in 1996, when he moved to Boston for two years. Williams' wife, Marjorie Kittle, wanted to pursue a graduate degree with an emphasis on nonprofit management. The move to Boston became a turning point in his life as Williams started making his living as a writer while continuing his interest in the natural world.

"I hated Boston," Williams says. "We went from a town of 6,000 where we owned our own house to this massive, intense city. What I started doing was looking for natural history stories. I started looking for nature."

He found it in a creek near his house, in birds, in building stone: "All these stories got me looking at the bigger picture of the land and people. I think humans are part of nature. As much as the ideal of wilderness is great, because there are no people in it, the reality is that in most places we are there. We need to recognize that."

Looking back on his years of study in Boston, Williams says, "It sounds corny, but it really did save my sanity."

Finding the stories

Writing "The Street-Smart Naturalist" was a direct outgrowth of his Boston experience. "When we got to Seattle, I had the idea of the book in mind." It didn't take long before "I started coming across the stories," he says.

The first involved a bald-eagle nest he discovered in a tree at Green Lake.

While working on the book, he was soon publishing articles in such prestigious publications as Sunset, Harvard Alumni Magazine, Smith-sonian, National Parks, Seattle Times Magazine and Popular Mechanics.

Choosing the book topics was easy since Williams was already interested in the subjects. He attended a lecture on Seattle's water supply, and it intrigued him.

"I wanted to dive in and know more," he says with a grin. "I'd meet someone [doing a research project], and they would tell me about it."

He wrote about Thornton Creek in North Seattle because that's where he walks his dog.

Williams wants his stories to be readable and enjoyable. "Why do we read? Why do we do anything? Do we want to be amused? Entertained? Do we want a connection? Why don't we want to be bored?" he mused.

In answering these questions, Williams finds the reason for studying the natural history of Seattle.

And he also finds the reasons for sharing his observations with others.

"Some people enjoy shopping or watching television - two excruciating, horrible things to do," he says with a big laugh.

For Williams, joy in life comes through understanding the stories about the place where he lives.


David B. Williams will read from "The Street-Smart Naturalist - Field Notes from Seattle" at Green Leaf Books, at the south end of Stone Way North, near Gas Works Park, on Aug.16.

See for more information.

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