|Gavin and his book on city wildlife|
Feeding "nonna's birds" was a "big boy" treat for which I bundled up in navy blue woolen coat, cap and leggings. She felt a kinship with those birds, espcially for the sparrows, pigeons, blackbirds who braved the frigid, Northeastern winters instead of migrating south. "Just-a like-a we do," she smiled her big warm smile, "Dey no run away to Florida. So dey need-a little-a help-a sometime," she would add, "poverini" [poor little ones].
Once I had finished, I would go inside and observe through a back window. Soon the birds appeared, magically out of nowhere, it seemed, at first one-by-one, pecking, tweeting, hopping in flurries - summoned, I reasoned, via a special bird network. I noticed how the different birds interacted and took turns in what I'd come to understand later as their pecking orders, and how they kept watch for each other. Once in a while, one would cock an eye at me, or even perch boldly on the window sill inches from my face. Thus I began to learn about birds, their behavior and species, which led me to a lifelong fascination with all the wild creatures who live among us in the cities where I was to reside all my adult life in Boston, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago.
When I started earning my living as a writer, I got the same fish-eyes from any editor to whom I would pitch urban wildlife as a story. I found few colleagues who appreciated and knew about wildlife - especially urban wildlife - in the depth demonstrated, for example, by the esteemed members of this (Authors Electric) collective, for example.
Gavin van Horne is Director of Cultures and Conservation for one the Windy City's most respected nonprofits - the Center for Humans and Nature. founded in 2003 by the late, self-described "fly fishing philosopher, Strachan Donnelley.
Gavin has helped organize the development of Center projects, activities, blogs and books devoted to the many aspects and relationships of urban people and wildlife. Most recently, this has included his own new volume, The Way of the Coyote: Journey in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, October, 5, 2018 - Hardcover - 224 pages, out since October).
Gavin is also co-editor of the Center's two major anthologies featuring major writers and artists develing into the psychological, philosophical, aesthetic and social aspects of the cities as habitats. One (with John Hausdoeffer) is Wildness: Relations of People and Place, a compendium of work by writers and artists intimate with, and working to improve city environments as both human and animal habitats. The second (with Dave Aftandilian) is City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness, a gorgeous, highly readable, exquisite collection of essays, poetry, paintings and photographs. Personal narratives reveal a diverse wonder the city's natural matrix that embraces not only familiar urban squirrels, birds, dogs - but animals urban dwellers normally would consider exotic - hawks, turtles, frogs, snakes, herons, bison, beavers.
Gavin van Horn is also editor of the foundation's City Creatures blog, to which scores of writers and artists have contributed lively articles and art work on the nexus of people and the myraid animals who co-habitate urban spaces around the world. (I've been honored to have contributed blog posts to City Creatures myself.)
|Chicago coyotes thrive, and curb rodents|
His new book has received raves: “One part ode to animal adaptability, one part eloquent personal journal, one part scientific exploration, this book takes readers on an inspiring walk through Chicago’s skyscrapers and down its shorelines to understand how wildlife lives among us, despite the odds and obstacles—and what we can learn about ourselves in the process. With Van Horn’s approachable prose, this book feels like a long conversation with a friend, one that drifts through ecology, philosophy, mythology, and, of course, daily life on a quest to discover how to be better inhabitants of this changing planet. Engaging and uplifting, this book provides a fresh perspective about the wilderness woven throughout the urban forest," writes Jaymi Heimbuch, of Urban Coyote Initiative.
It's not the animals who are the interlopers, reasons Van Horn in his book, in which he parses the basic concepts and assumptions upon which we regard our urban environments. "A city is a cultural artifact," he writes. "The city is a human-constructed membrane, a rearrangement of organic and inorganic materials. It bears affinities with a termite mount, a beehive, or a monk parakeet's colonial nest. Railways, highway, flyways - the exchange of food, disposal of waste, transference of energy, creation of technology - where does a city actually end?..."
Van Horn's is not the traditional nature writing of grand spaces and big skies, but of the poetics of our daily urban lives and their overlooked entrainment with the earthly environment our culture tends of objectify. In so doing, he captures the specialness of Chicago, this great metropolis on the edge of vast plains that bustles and roars, yet nests in timeless natural confluence that define its community and character: "Chicago marks the spot where a soporific river meets a massive, glacier-carged lake, oak savanna blends into tallgrass prairie, shrub swamp nuzzles against flatwoods and humans encounter nonhuman otherness..."
Our awareness of cities as natural cohabitats grows, so does the environmental awareness of citizens who constitute the vast majority of people on earth. Last year, Sir David Attenborough, for example, devoted a whole episode of his widely viewed Planet Earth 2 series to city wildlife. He pointed out a supreme irony. City dwelling wild creatures - from clouds of starlings wintering in Rome to millions of monkeys occupying cities in India - by and large to better than their country cousins, embattled by human enroachment and pollution in what has become this era's massive killing off of species disappearing in droves due to enroachment and pollution. Many cities, on the other hand, have adopted habitat-friendly policies of environmental balance of coexistence. Perhaps our wild urban friends can turn this into a teaching moment. Let's pray so.
Umberto Tosi is the author of Sometimes Ridiculous, Ophelia Rising, Milagro on 34th Street and Our Own Kind. His short stories have been published in Catamaran Literary Reader and Chicago Quarterly Review where he is a contributing editor. He was contributing writer to Forbes, covering the Silicon Valley 1995-2004. Prior to that, he was an editor and staff writer for the Los Angeles Times and its Sunday magazine, West. He was also the editor of San Francisco Magazine and other regionals He has written more than 300 articles for newspapers and magazines, online and in print. He joined Authors Electric in May 2015 and has contributed to several of its anthologies, including Another Flash in the Pen and One More Flash in the Pen. He has four grown children - Alicia Sammons, Kara Towe, Cristina Sheppard and Zoë Tosi - and resides in Chicago. (He can be contacted at Umberto3000@gmail.com)