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.

Sullivan summarises his year of ratting and his goal for the year:

I went to the rat-filled alley to see the life of the rat in the city, to describe its habits and its habitat, to know a little about the place where it makes its home and its relationship to the very nearby people.

The reference to Thoreau is echoed throughout the book. Even the chapter titles are reminiscent of Walden e.g. Where I Lived, and What I Lived For, becomes Where I Went to See Rats and Who Sent Me There. Throughout Rats Sullivan is establishing his book and ratting in general as part of a literary heritage, following in the footsteps of Coleridge, Wordsworth, Emerson and Thoreau.  And “why not?” Sullivan seems to be asking us, why can’t a book about urban rats be the inheritor of the  romantics and the transcendentalists? Sullivan quotes Emerson: I embrace the common, I explore and sit at the feet of the familiar, the low.

At times Sullivan appears to be enraptured by rats and the ratting life, as though he were a young Romantic, seeing the Alps for the first time (and I suppose you’d have to be to spend an entire year watching rats). Rats captures his imagination in the way that vast tracts of wilderness have captivated other writers. One evening, whilst rat watching, Sullivan reflects: Some people go off into the mountains to collect themselves and look into their souls, but here I am enjoying the view at something outside my soul, in this case a rat.

However, his account of rats in the city always comes across as honest, not rose-tinted. His descriptions of rats and the places they inhabit manage to be both true to life, whilst also sometimes verging on the poetic. In one chapter Sullivan goes rat trapping with Dan and Anne from the health department, who want to measure how well their rodent control measures are working in New York’s Bushwick neighbourhood. When they arrive at their ratting site, Sullivan describes it, in a passage worthy of a nature writing luminary:

In Bushwick, our van stopped alongside an abandoned lot underneath an elevated subway train. As the train thundered overhead, the light flickered on the street below: a children’s flip-book scene of Myrtle Avenue would show the green and seemingly grayish green of a vacant lot filled with construction rubble and long-weathered paper trash, with crabgrass, dandelions, and thorny vines, with the raggedy-leaved mugwort that is a city relative of Western sagebrush.

Rats reveal a lot about the city. The rats in Sullivan’s alley live off the discarded waste from restaurants that back on to the alley. I was shocked to read that the bags of rubbish are simply left in the alley, without any protection from the rats, which easily chew their way in and drag off the contents. One night, Sullivan watches as the  rats show a preference for one particular garbage bag and carry off a white, stringy substance to their nests. He tries to figure out what it is they’re eating and goes round the corner to check the restaurant’s menu. The rats are feasting on that evening’s special: chicken potpie.

Even more shocking is the story of Rikers Island, a small island in New York’s East River. In 1884 the city started using the island as a dump for metal and cinders. Soon the island had grown from eighty-seven acres of green, to a five-hundred acre mass of garbage. Rats started hitching a ride to the island on the garbage scows and within a short time there were estimated to be a million rats living there. Not only was the island being used as a garbage dump, but it was also now home to a prison farm and the rats took advantage of this too: The rats ate the prisoner’s vegetable garden. The rats ate the pigs on the prison farm. The rats ate a dog that was supposed to kill the rats.

Sullivan comes to see the city and its rats and waste as part of a living being:

Oh, to ponder the digestive systems of the city, to consider the vast and mundane civic processes through which the city rat is nourished and the alley filled – for in the alley I can see the city as organism itself, a creature that consumes in unimaginable quantities, that excretes, eliminates, expels!

Not only do rats force Sullivan to confront waste in the city, but they also force him to delve into the underbelly of the city, to look below the surface. Rats live in nests dug into the ground, but they are also creatures of basements, subways and sewers. Towards the end of his ratting year, Sullivan notices that the alley has been cleaned up, he spots a dead rat in the alley and finds poison bate stations. He calls up the company that laid the traps – AA Federal Exterminating (the AA added to get them higher up in the phone book). He speaks to Mike Baglivo and arranges to meet him at his office. During their discussion, which is frequently interrupted by phone calls from customers, Mike who points out something quite startling:

“You know, I heard there are three layers of sewer lines.” He counted them off on his fingers. “There are the ones from the 1800s, the ones from the 1700s, and the ones they don’t have the maps for anymore. Once in a while, they use that old line, when they’re doing construction or something, and you read in the papers that there are hundreds of rats coming up. Well, those rats that are in the third line, they haven’t even seen man before…”

I found that last line (they haven’t even seen man before) quite chilling. Walking around a city, you don’t tend to think about all the parts of the city you can’t see. I think of a city as it’s buildings, roads, trees, and people, I don’t think of it’s sewer lines. But they are there, buried beneath our feet, and there are rats down there, scurrying around, not conscious of the world above, the world of buildings, roads, trees, and people that they never see.

Rats is full of fascinating insights into rats (did you know rat teeth are as strong as steel?), the plague (did you know there are more plague-infested mammals in the US today, than there were at the time of the Black Death?) and rat extermination (there were so many good stories about rat extermination in this book – the story of the guy who found a rat in his bathtub is hilarious but too long to recount here, so I’ll just mention the story of the woman who accidentally killed her husband with a rat poison laced pie). But the most interesting insight is Sullivan’s realisation that there are many similarities between rats and humans and that our history and their history and the history of New York City are all intertwined, perhaps even inseparable. In the final chapter of the book, as Sullivan’s year of ratting comes to a close, he reflects:

…I began to think more than ever that we are all a little like rats. We come and go. We are beaten down but we come back again. We live in colonies and we strike out on our own, or get forced out or starved out or are eaten up by our competition, by the biggest rats. We thrive in unlikely places, and devour. Our city was not always inhabited, and when we stand in a rat alley, we can see the ancient hills on which our ancestors stood before we infested and devoured the land. We are different and the same; we are touched by the hand of Midas and we are plague-ridden, sons and daughters of Job. We are rats in Congress, rats in a housing complex, rich rats cashing in, poor rats being kicked out.

What I loved most about this book is that Sullivan never becomes blasé about rats. The few times he ventures into the alley way (he does most of his ratting from the edge of the alley or sitting on a foldout stool across the road) he’s extremely cautious and wary of the rats.

The first time I recall seeing a rat was in Penryn, by the train station. It was a dead rat and my thoughts immediately turned to the plague. I gave it a wide berth and crossed the road, hoping the plague fleas wouldn’t be able to reach me. Since then I’ve only seen live rats. In Nottingham I often saw a rat that seemed to live by the lake at Highfield Park. I got used to seeing it and even started to look for it. It was scared of humans and always scurried towards the water when I passed. In Amsterdam I saw quite a few rats in our local park during the day, usually in the undergrowth beneath the trees. One evening, walking home along a canal, I saw a big rat climb into a bin. All of this is to say that I’ve become used to seeing rats. The site of a rat doesn’t bother me that much anymore. But, it’s all a matter of context. If I found a rat in my bathtub, I would definitely freak out.

Reading Rats hasn’t turned me into a rat lover, but it has made me feel admiration for rats. They are tough creatures. Sullivan returns to Bushwick with Dan and Anne to see if their traps have caught anything and to draw blood from any rats they have caught. In order to draw the rat’s blood they have to anesthetize thems with cotton balls dipped in halothane. They start by dropping two cotton balls into the garbage bag covering a rat trap. When that doesn’t work they add more, until the rat looks to be unconscious. But when they pull it out of the cage it is still awake. This happens again with the next two rats. The third rat even manages to escape. As Dan comments, the amount of halothane they used on one rat would kill a cat.

Rats are smart creatures and they’ve been able to capitalise on the waste that humans create for food and shelter. And like them or not, they’re probably here to stay for as long as we keep creating the perfect niche for them. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they outlast us all.

Header image: These are fancy rats. Image by S. J. Pyrotechnic. Used under a CC BY-SA 2.0 license.

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