Toronto the wild

It’s been a year since I read Toronto the Wild by Wayne Grady (and I haven’t posted on here since August 2019 — a month before my daughter was born, go figure!) but it’s a new year and I’m feeling inspired to try and revive this project, which I would still love to finish someday. In order to make that possible, I’ve decided to only review books published up until 2020. Not that I won’t ever review books published after that, but I want to at least give myself a concrete end goal, instead of chasing an always moving goalpost.

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Witness trees

Hunting for Frogs on Elston: And Other Tales from Field and Street is a collection of the best of Jerry Sullivan’s Field & Street columns, which were originally published in the Chicago Reader. The essays are short and touch on a range of topics, including prairie restoration, the changing seasons, birding, and the people who have contributed to our understanding of Chicago’s nature. But one of the essays in particular has stayed with me. Indeed, it is one phrase in that one essay that I keep repeating in my head. That phrase is: witness trees.

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Eating the city

I’ve jumped ahead again, but I just couldn’t resist reading The Fruitful City by Toronto-based author Helena Moncrieff. I’ve recently moved to Toronto, so I was really pleased to be able to add a book about nature in Toronto to my reading list. And, because I’d read The Fruitful City, it only seemed right to read The Edible City by London-based chef and urban forager John Rensten.

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Nature: garden, paradise, or wilderness?

The Cincinnati Arch: Learning from Nature in the City is John Tallmadge’s account of moving to Cincinnati and the slow process of discovering nature in his new home, and with it, a connection to a place he never thought he could like, let alone feel a deep sense of belonging to. The book begins with Tallmadge and his pregnant wife moving from Minnesota to Cincinnati. The opening line of the book states: I never wanted to live in Cincinnati, Ohio. Why move there then? Because Tallmadge has been fired from his associate professor position and with a child on the way, he is forced to take a dean position at Union Institute and University in Cincinnati.

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City wilds, urban gardening and black self-recovery

City Wilds is a collection of 35 essays and short stories that range across the US from New York to Los Angeles, and from Miami to Seattle, via Colorado. The authors also represent a wide range of ethnicities and backgrounds including African American, Native American, Mexican American and Asian American writers – something that has been sorely missing from the Small Rain series to date.

City Wilds is about urban nature, but more than that it is about the ways in which people connect with nature. One of those ways is through gardening, and gardens crop up in many of the essays and stories. The gardens range from large and suburban, right down to a flower on a fire escape.

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Rats by Robert Sullivan

Rats centres around a single New York alley way, called Edens Alley, over the course of one year. In the book, Robert Sullivan spends that year watching and getting to know the rats of Edens Alley and learns a lot about rats, humans and New York City.

Why does Sullivan set out on his year of ratting? He gives a number of answers:  because of their proximity to humans and the parallels between the story of rats and the story of humans in America; because they have typically been excluded from the pantheon of natural wonders; because of, as Sullivan puts it, the propensity that I share with rats toward areas where no cruise ships go, areas that have been deemed unenjoyable, aesthetically bankrupt, gross or vile.

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Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral by Charles Siebert

Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral is a complex series of intertwined stories. The overarching narrative takes place on a single evening in Siebert’s New York neighbourhood of Crown Heights. As he writes about the approaching night he recalls the last few months spent in a crumbling log cabin in the middle of the Canadian countryside, called Wickerby; his travels in Central and South America; the mumblers of New York; his childhood; and his father. These narratives provide the backdrop for a broader reflection on humans, nature and the city.

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Sagebrush and Cappuccino: Confessions of an LA Naturalist by David Wicinas

Sagebrush and Cappuccino is the first book in this series to focus solely on Los Angeles, a city I’m most familiar with as the home of Hollywood and traffic jams. However, David Wicinas shows that there is undoubtedly another side to LA. The book is written as a series of walk, each chapter focusing on one walk. Wicinas’s walks take on mountain passes, beaches, creeks, caves, oak trees, mountain lions, earthquakes and sand dunes.  His wanderings are interspersed with cultural and historical information about the people and events that have shaped these places.

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Pieces of Light by Susan J. Tweit

As I’ve written before, urban nature forces us to zoom in, to look at nature on a smaller scale. Nature in the city usually exists in patches and pockets, without the grand vistas of a wilderness area. A number of the writers I’ve read and discussed so far in this series exemplify this close, attentive perspective. Perhaps none more so than Leonard Dubkin, who literally sticks his face into his lawn to watch the life of the insects and creatures hidden away there. Yet unlike those other books Tweit’s book is a book of grand scales. It is a book, as the title suggests, of light, but also of air and wind, rain, snow and thunder, it is a book of mountains and great plains, of forests and rivers. It is also about the passage of time, both on a geological scale and on the scale of a single human life.

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