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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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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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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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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The Thunder Tree by Robert Michael Pyle

The Thunder Tree: Lessons From An Urban Wildland tells the story of the High Line Canal, a diversion of the South Platte River in Colorado, which was originally intended for irrigation. It is the story of the settlement of the Great Plains. But it is also a book about connection to place and the way in which people bring their own experiences to bare on a place.

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Top survival tips for urban nature

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.

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The Granite Garden by Anne Whiston Spirn

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.

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Birds of Town and Suburb by Eric Simms (or nature, class and town planning)

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.

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The Public Life of the Street Pigeon by Eric Simms


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.

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