Wild Nights: the nature of New York City is ostensibly about nature in New York City, but more than that, it is about what we have lost, what still remains, and surprising new arrivals. It is also about ways of looking at nature in the city and how we might transform the way we see urban nature.
When I started my MA in Nature Writing one of the first things the tutor asked the class to do was make a list of all the different ways you can look at a landscape. I didn’t really understand the purpose of the exercise at the time but somehow I grasped that we were being taught something important. It is only after reading so much nature writing and thinking a lot about how to write about nature that I’ve come to see the importance of this lesson. A landscape or a place is not a static, objective thing that exists out there in the world. Rather, landscapes are canvases onto which we project our own perspective.
Steven D. Garber’s The Urban Naturalist provides an introduction to nature in the urban environment, with chapters on grasses, trees, insects, fish, amphibians, reptiles, birds and mammals. Although it was published in 1987, I think Garber’s book has much to teach any species thinking about moving to the city. So, inspired by The Urban Naturalist, here’s the top 5 survival tips for would-be urbanites.
Firstly, the observant among you may have noticed I’ve skipped over a book – Wildlife in the City by Alan C. Jenkins. Wildlife in the City gives a great overview of urban nature and I’d recommended it for anyone new to the topic. Jenkins makes some interesting points, but perhaps my favourite quote from the book comes after Jenkins has quoted a passage from W.H. Hudson’s A Hind in Richmond Park. The narrator of the novel encounters a hind in the park and notes how the hind responds to inaudible sounds and how those reactions are evidence of the animal’s once wild state. Jenkins writes:
Nature remains true to herself, even in the city, and Hudson’s London hind is an example of how sometimes, albeit only tenuously, the townsman can recreate himself by contact with the wild, even the ghosts of the wild.
Birds of Town and Suburb focuses, as the name would suggest, specifically on nature in suburbia. Simms travels chapter by chapter from the inner suburbs outwards to the green belt and the edges of the countryside. Along the way he describes the bird life of various suburban habitats, such as factories, rubbish dumps, cemeteries, parks and allotments. Simms also dedicates chapters to watery habitats such as reservoirs, sewage farms and gravel pits.
However, I wanted to focus in on an issue that Simms touches on – the role of class and nature in town planning.
I bought The Public Life of the Street Pigeon long before I decided to read my way through the history of urban nature writing because the title sounded intriguing. It didn’t disappoint. It is filled with interesting stories, observations and facts about pigeons. Did you know: pigeons produce milk to feed their young; unlike other birds pigeons are able to suck up water, using their beak as a straw; and they are highly social and affectionate birds? However, the most interesting insight I gleaned from Simms’s book is just how important pigeons have been for human society and how closely linked with humans they now are.
City Critters bills itself as a fine general introduction to a natural world that is often ignored. In her general introduction Russell covers sparrows, starlings, pigeons, seagulls, mice, rats, squirrels, earthworms, and house pests. Each chapter provides an overview of the creature’s presence in the city, how it came to be there or to adapt to life in the city, as well as its habitats and mating habits. Russell also looks at the various methods used to control these “pests”. She seems to be in favour of measures to limit their numbers, but she also recognises the value they bring to the city and doesn’t want them to be eliminated completely. Not only do many of these species provide people with pleasure, but they (and we) are also interrelated:
This is the first book on my list that I have read before. In fact, it was Mabey’s book that sparked my interest in urban nature writing. It showed me what urban nature writing could be and it has been my blueprint ever since. I have already written a review of The Unoffical Countryside on my blog. I wrote that review over four years ago when I first became interested in nature writing. I can tell that I’m just starting to grapple with some of the ideas I’m still grappling with to this day.
This wonderfully titled book is a field guide to hunting for insects in the urban environment. Each chapter focuses on two or three species and the chapters have equally wonderful titles: The Tyrannosaurus Rex of the Flower Garden, Ruthless Bandit Kings and Hungry Tigers, Man-Eating Kangeroos and Music-Playing Warriors. With a keen sense of curiosity and wonder and a lot of patience Smith explores urban parks, swamps and his own back garden to uncover the often hidden and rarely seen lives of wasps, bees, ants, grasshoppers and beetles, amongst others. His adventures are beautifully illustrated by Anne Marie Jauss.
A Kestrel for a Knave tells the story of Billy Caspar, a young boy living in a South Yorkshire mining town referred to only as the the City. This unnamed City lurks at the edges of the book but Billy’s life is dominated by home, school and the fields in which he trains his kestrel, Kes. I was torn as to whether this book is in fact urban nature writing since urban nature is not really a focus of the book, however, something Hines notes in his afterword intrigued me.
In The Natural History of a Yard Leonard Dubkin provides his observations on the natural life of his yard in Chicago over the course of three summers. Dubkin describes the yard thus:
…a little plot of grass bordered by a privet hedge. A high iron fence separates the yard from Sheridan Road… Just behind the iron fence on either side of the driveway is a forsythia bush, and in the rear of the yard, before the entrance to the hotel, is a tall, stately elm tree. That is really all there is to it.
However, through Dubkin’s probing and close attention, we are shown that there is in fact much more to the yard than that. We meet a whole cast of characters – Dubkin’s daughter Pauline, Emil the gardener, Nutsy the squirrel, families of robins and screech owls, flocks of pigeons and sparrows, and a colony of carpenter ants – as well as various other insects and plants. Dubkin brings the yard to life with his stories about these animals (human and non-human) and plants. He is often ignorant (he readily admits to not being able to name most of the insects in the yard) and always curious, and his spirit of inquiry is infectious.