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.
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.
London’s Natural History charts the natural history of London from its pre-historic, geological formation, through the Romans, the medieval period (when kites were a common London bird), the expansion of the city from the fifteenth century onwards, and on to its final bursting point in the mid-nineteenth century. It then looks at the various human impacts on the city’s flora and fauna in the present day (the present day being 1945), including the influence of traffic, refuse disposal, agriculture and the recent war. Whilst the history of London is interesting, it is the snapshot of London in 1945 that I find the most fascinating. For example, Fitter mentions the abundance of sparrows in London, according to Fitter they are the only London bird considered to be a Cockney. Since then the number of sparrows in London has drastically declined – by 60% between 1994 and 2004 according to the RSPB. On the other hand, he mentions the recent increase in the number of gulls in London, a bird that is still increasing in urban areas.