Metropolis as Matrix - Umberto Tosi

Gavin and his book on city wildlife
One of my earliest childhood memories is of scattering breadcrumbs around my grandmother's back porch on a bright, snowy, New England winter morning. It must have been a Sunday because she was rolling ravioli dough in the kitchen. The porch extended from the rear of her upper floor Victorian flat, perched on a hillside overlooking an icy Mystic River in the then mainly Irish, Italian and Portuguese, Boston suburb of Somerville, Massachusetts.

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.

As an adult, I took up jogging and hiking in parks and reserves which, besides exercise, provided me with plenty of opportunities to observe nature in the city. For the most part, however, I kept my fascination to myself among adults. Not so with my daughters, who accompanied me on regular outings as they grew up, becoming nature lovers themselves. Many adult friends and accquaintances, on the other hand, would look askance as me when I talked about urban critters - raccoon, ravens, crows, coyotes roaming the Hollywood Hills, parks and my back yards. Some even admonished me for encouraging the proliferation of creatures they regarded nuisances, at best, or - at worst - vermin and predators threatening public health and safety along with pet birds, cats and dogs.

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.

Perhaps I was too easily discouraged, but set the subject aside for many years. I tried my hand at an occasional short story and essay about coyotes and raccoons that ended up in the round file. I returned to the subject decades later with "My Dog's Name" my story about a lost boy who is taken in by a family of coyotes in the Santa Monica mountains, a surreal tale influenced by fairy tales, magical realism and Jack London. I published a kindle edition of the novella-length story a few years ago and recently included it my paperback story collection, "Sometimes Ridiculous."

It wasn't until eight years ago when I moved to Chicago that I met an editor who is not only interested in urban wildlife, but has made the subject a passionate professional pursuit. 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 diverse background gives Van Horn an ideal perspective on his subject. Before the Center, Gavin was a Brown Junior Visiting Professor in Environmental Studies at Southwestern University in Georgetown, Texas.  Gavin earned his BA from Pepperdine University, a Master of Divinity from Princeton Theological Seminary, and a doctorate from the University of Florida, focusing on Religion and Nature. His dissertation examined the religious, cultural, and ethical aspects of reintroducing wolves to the southwestern United States.

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


Sandra Horn said…
What a joy, Umberto! Southampton would be dwarfed by Chicago, but it is still an over-developed city port, yet it teems with wildlife for those who want to find it. We have a feeding station and 'Hedgehog Hilton' in our small back garden and a motion-sensitive camera (not that we're obsessed or anything...) which give us so much pleasure when the little critturs emerge - any day now, we hope! Birds galore, too. This would be a miserable dump without thwem. Thank you for the reminder!
Thank you for this heartwarming post. We live in a high-rise in Chicago and it is built in a way that doesn't allow the windows to fully open; I so miss the breeze passing through the huge gaps of a house. Now that I am in a rural residency in Malaysia, the monkeys and the mosquitoes and free-roaming bats and birds are taking some getting used to, but I am loving it. "It's not the animals who are the interlopers"...more people should keep that in mind, wherever they make a home.
Lynne Garner said…
A lovely post and one that I can related to. For as long as I can remember I've loved wildlife. As a child we helped birds, the odd bat or two and caught and treated the stickleback in our local pond, who had a fungal infection. For the last 25 years I've rescued hedgehogs and met some fabulous people along the way.
Griselda Heppel said…
Three cheers for your wonderful grandmother for instilling in you a love of wildlife,just from that early closeness to the birds at the breadcrumbs. Our 3 year-old grand-daughter loves going out to refill the bird feeder with Grandalf (a certain Tolkien mania runs through this family) and then watches through the window the bluetits, bullfinches, chaffinches and jackdaws descending on it, also the wretched grey squirrels hurling themselves at it from the corner of the roof. It’s so easy to excite young children in wildlife but sadly seems to happen less and less, to the incalculable loss of an area of knowledge and common experience we used to take for granted. For proof, theres the excellent UK quiz show, University Challenge: all questions involving the natural world have been dropped because brilliant undergraduates who can rattle off the periodic table and the length of each of France’s republics can’t tell a lark from a song thrush (or, for that matter, a buttercup from a celandine).
There has been a huge drop in garden bird species in the last couple of decades and I suppose that is partly the reason - sparrows used to be, as they say, two a penny and now are nowhere to be seen. Lamenting the decline in traditional urban wildlife, I find it hard to warm to the hordes of urban foxes screeching and defecating on our lawn as they queue up to have a go at the heavily fortified chicken run in the garden next door. But I guess you would be enlightened here, welcoming the creatures who’ve learnt so well to adapt to our artificial constructs!
Lovely post. Funnily enough, there's an article in Psychologies magazine this month about wildlife in the city... apparently there is a "fox trail" at Bankside in London? (I'm nowhere near London so can't investigate, but others might know more!)

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