Of all the conventional wisdoms about the city, one is so widely shared it would appear to be irrefutable. It is that the city stands apart from nature. Indeed, if definitions were made from what things weren’t, this absence could be one of its meanings. In The Culture of Cities, Lewis Mumford describes the movement to this condition in nearly tidal terms:
As the pavement spreads, nature is pushed farther away: the whole routine divorces itself more completely from the soil, from the visible presences of life and growth and decay, birth and death: the slaughterhouse and the cemetery are equally remote and their processes are equally hidden.
In this view, cities beget themselves by shutting out the natural world, which becomes alien, uncomfortable, unknowable, unknown.
The city, of course, is different from the countryside, and the differences are too obvious to recite. But this obviousness has resulted in a kind of mental shorthand, a false dichotomy that puts city on one side and countryside on the other, as if their only relation were in opposition. The unstated assumption here is that the countryside is consonant with the natural world while the city is willfully exempt from it. In fact they both exist within the natural world, which is persistent and encompassing. The city, with its bad air, cockroaches, pigeons, and inconvenient bouts of weather, may not offer an especially salubrious expression of the natural world, but it offers one all the same.
In Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral, Charles Siebert tries to explore the question of the nature of nature. Siebert, a confirmed Brooklynite, spent a few months in rural isolation in a run-down cottage in Canada called Wickerby, just over the Vermont border. He was on a lark, his girlfriend having recently decamped for Africa; the cabin belonged to her family. With no one to talk to except, occasionally, the phlegmatic caretaker, Siebert engaged in an interior monologue to help himself make sense of the displacement he felt at Wickerby. Set down on paper, it is by turns insightful and solipsistic, less a rational, philosophical argument than a thoughtful, shambling discourse akin to Rousseau’s Reveries of a Solitary Walker.
Siebert is a better writer than he is a thinker—which is to say that he is a very good writer. His descriptions of his Brooklyn neighborhood (Eastern Parkway, on the edge of Crown Heights), in particular, capture the vitality and weirdness of the quotidian landscape. Here people construct and inhabit virtual apartments on the sidewalk, complete with area rugs and electric lights. They fly kites from apartment building roofs. They command monstrous excavating equipment whose “huge, extended claw [pulls] up sections of street surface like a finger dragged through stale cake icing.”
They trade bullets that Siebert, lying in bed, can distinguish:
…the faint balloon bursts of the .22, the deliberate, driving pops of a .38, the rapid tappings of the nine-millimeter machine-gun pistol, or “street-sweeper,” as it’s commonly known here.
Siebert is undaunted. He is bemused. The city is teeming, overflowing, with life.
But so is the countryside he finds at Wickerby, though its life is farther down the phylum—animal life, bug life—and it gives him the creeps. Siebert’s descriptions of Wickerby, while no less lyrical than those of Brooklyn, are suffused with this sense of creepiness, and dread.
“The quiet was enormous,” he writes of his first night at the cabin.
I could almost hear the stars seething in their distant sockets. The cabin seemed to be trying to resituate itself around me—around my still-racing blood and the steady thrum in my ears. Everywhere, in scuffling increments, the mice were reclaiming their hold. Along with the woodstove’s mounting heat came the unforgettable essence of baked snake slough and cobweb. On the underside of the floorboards beneath my feet, I felt a slow, vibratory rubbing, as though of a heavy wire brush wielded by a drunk. A porcupine, I later determined, dining on the cabin’s insulation.
What seems to amaze Siebert and inform most of his thinking is that he finds the city, with its guns and crazies, less frightening a place than Wickerby, with its spiders and woodchucks. Yet the fact that Siebert, a lifelong New Yorker, feels unsettled at Wickerby (so unsettled that he keeps an axe under his bed) says more about him than it does about the place. Unpeopled, Wickerby is a tabula rasa, and blank pages always daunt writers. Still, the story he writes on it is only about himself.
“I went day after day into the deep silence of those woods only to learn why it is that we, ultimately, can’t stand a stand of trees; why we are, in fact, impelled by the woods to leave them…,” he says confidently, implicating us all. I myself happen to live in the woods, so my example alone might seem to refute this—but that is not the point. The point is that Siebert assumes that the woods exist for humans to love or despise, for them to stand or not, to choose or not. Siebert lapses into pseudo-Gaiaistic thinking—a reductive biophilosophy to the effect that anything done by man is by extension also natural—when he writes, “A skyscraper may not be the same as a tree, but one is no more natural than the other, and both are, in the end, habitable outgrowths of the same skyward longing.” It’s a convenient point of view since it sidesteps questions of human agency and morality—a field of broken beer bottles tossed from the windows of passing automobiles being no less natural, in this way of thinking, than a field of daisies. But of course it is.
“There is no such thing as nature,” Siebert also asserts in apparent self-contradiction. “There is just the earth and us, the namers, standing upon it, naming those places without us ‘nature.”‘ It is a curious declaration, given the discomfort he feels at Wickerby, with its bats and other winged creatures, and in its surrounding woods. But if nature is only a roster of names, what is it about it that unmans Siebert in its presence? Eliminate the name and there is still the thing itself—the porcupine, with its readied quills, the thirsty mosquitoes, the sticks and stones that could break his bones. Only names, one assumes, could not hurt him.
What Siebert understands intuitively is that attempts to apprehend nature through language are purely human exercises: scientists’ attempts to codify the laws of nature, for instance, are more like journalism than jurisprudence—they simply record how the physical world seems to work, apart from human consciousness. It is the independence of nature, the total disregard of him, that, more than trees, frightens Siebert. He feels vulnerable in the woods, or under the night sky at Wickerby, because he recognizes that the more he knows about the natural world the more he understands that it is not really knowable, if knowledge means mastery. Contrast this to his run-down Brooklyn neighborhood where, after a while, “you realize just how much safety, how much plain old static normalcy there is at the heart of a so-called trouble spot.”
To claim that nature doesn’t exist, or that the wild does not exist, is, to say the least, to ignore the empiricism of our own lives. When Thoreau went to live at Walden Pond it was a timed experiment—he left after two years. Siebert went to Wickerby for five months. In both cases they found, in their voluntary seclusion, the time, distance, and quiet—the solitude—to reflect on the human condition. That, historically, has been one of the uses of places apart from civilization. Coming back, returning home, is not a measure of defeat or of the triumph of one kind of habitation over another, but, rather, an acknowledgment that there is more than one kind of life, more than one kind of place. A truly civilized culture acknowledges, allows, and maintains that diversity.
Back in Brooklyn, after his sojourn in Wickerby, Siebert gets nostalgic for his idyll, and begins to think of returning. Until he does, he says, he’ll telephone the cabin, knowing no one will answer,
…and then, around each unanswered ring, I’ll begin to imagine all the twitched heads and wide-eyed stares, and the thick scatter of the rooftop crow, and the startled flight of the deer that had just then been rubbing its flank against the collapsing southeast corner, and its near-soundless hoof squeak through snow.
Call them what you will, the snow and deer. As Siebert finally discovers, listening to that ringing phone, it does not matter what they are named, so long as they exist in the world.
Like Charles Siebert, Robert Sullivan is most comfortable in wrecked urban landscapes. An easterner who moved west, Sullivan found himself longing for the thirty-two-acre swamp that sits—percolates?—just five miles from the Empire State Building, the tract of no-man’s-land called the Meadowlands. “I would walk into the woods outside of the city where I ended up living and see beautiful trees and huge mountains topped with spectacular glaciers that altogether only made me miss the world’s greatest industrial swamp,” he writes in his wry, breezy, devastating paean to the place, The Meadowlands: Wilderness Adventures at the Edge of a City.
When this happened, I began taking cross-country trips to the Meadowlands and spending more and more time there. I also began making more intensive surveys of the area, and the Meadowlands turned out to be a lot bigger than I thought. I hiked and I walked and I rented cars and in the end I figure I covered close to three thousand miles in rented cars alone…. In the process of hiking and canoeing and digging and just otherwise exploring the area, I learned a lot about what happens inside old mountains of trash, about all of the inventions that were invented in the Meadowlands, about a great mosquito trapper, about people who enjoy spending as much time in the Meadowlands as possible, about a lot of old crimes.
The Meadowlands, it turns out, was not always a place where water flowed the color of antifreeze, not always a slag heap of old cars and demolished buildings (including the old Penn Station) and household waste and heavy metals. It was a meadow, alive with blue irises and white saxifrage and spartina grass, and a dense cedar forest, and a waterway filled with carp and salmon and bass and shad. Beaver lived there, as did wolves and bears and pheasants and mountain lions. The Lenape Indians hunted the meadows, though by the mid-eighteenth century they were gone, victims of white man’s diseases brought by the early Dutch and English settlers.
Once the Europeans arrived, the future of the Meadowlands was ordained. Not only was the land privatized—Sullivan recounts that “there was so much meadow in the Meadowlands that the first landowners gave it away free to the incoming citizens who had purchased land higher up in the valley, as if the meadows were something in a Welcome Wagon kit”—it was developed to serve human interests. By 1750, the cedar forests had been logged to extinction, the wood making an excellent material for boat-building. The clay soil was dug up and fired into bricks, leaving the ground pocked and pitted and ideally suited, once filled with standing water, to breed malarial mosquitoes. A copper mine was excavated, then abandoned and plowed over. (Not long ago it reemerged, in a couple of New Jersey backyards.) Newark, which Sullivan calls the capital city of the Meadowlands, went in sixty years from what one European visitor described in 1801 as “the most beautiful village on the continent” to one of the most unhealthy cities in the world. Those sixty years brought rapid industrialization, for which the Meadowlands served, conveniently, as a giant sewer.
To his credit, Sullivan writes this history without lamenting it. He is an explorer, not a polemicist—if he’s going to get weepy it’s because he’s inadvertently inhaled some toxic fumes. This strategy works, not simply because the Meadowlands are so far gone that anything judgmental would be beside the point, but because the unadorned, unmediated facts carry their own indictment. If readers watching over Sullivan’s shoulder as he intrepidly picks his way through a Meadowlands slough called Walden Swamp in a canoe can’t figure out that they are being led across a crime scene, and not just literally (the Meadowlands being the final resting spot for an untold number of underworld figures), then no amount of preaching is going to move them. Especially when Sullivan jocularly takes the language of the natural world and applies it to the world in which he finds himself, a world of leached aquifers and brilliant polluted sunsets. But it’s not a joke, it’s a paradox, a bad pun.
The stagnant water was brown and marbleized with green and white and dotted tapioca bead-like bits of wading Styrofoam. We passed a small school of giant plastic soda bottles. At around 11 A.M., we saw ahead of us the sole of a boot, floating ominously. On closer inspection, we could see that it was attached only to a desperate bit of algae, the first sign of nonreed, photosynthetic life we’d seen. When we reached the center of Walden Swamp, I was still determined to leave the boat and commune with nature and what have you. However, this turned out to be impossible because the shore wasn’t a shore at all, but a giant mat of phragmites.
Phragmites and other marsh grasses play a large role in the topography of the Meadowlands. So do dead dogs, drums of toxic sludge, abandoned cars, and plaster pylons. At one time the Meadowlands was the largest dump in the world. Here, in the very spot where such modern fabrications as celluloid and malleable steel were invented, it’s possible to argue that that other reliquary of modern industrial life, the landfill, was also conceived. Certainly there has never been a site with the diversity and breadth of detritus as this one. And so much of it that all but two of the hills that cover the Meadowlands are made from trash.
The big difference between the garbage hills and the real hills in the Meadowlands is that the garbage hills are alive. In some completely people-less areas of the swamp, there are billions of microscopic organisms thriving underground in dark, oxygen-free communities…. Eventually there are whole suites of organisms in each hill as if each hill were a bacterial high-rise. After having ingested the tiniest portion of leftover New Jersey or New York, these cells then exhale huge underground plumes of carbon dioxide and of warm moist methane, giant stillborn tropical winds that seep through the ground to feed the Meadowlands fires, or creep up into the atmosphere, where they eat away at the Earth-protecting layer of ozone.
It is right here that Sullivan makes the leap from the specific to the general, from household trash to global destruction, and suggests just how natural the process is. What, after all, could be more natural than bacterial organisms? But calling it natural is not the same as saying that it is good, or wanted, or acceptable. Embodied in the dichotomy between countryside and city, between natural and unnatural, is the mistaken assumption that one—natural—is good and the other—unnatural—is not, when both, in fact, are neither. Charles Siebert, at Wickerby, falls prey to this: he expects that the countryside is somehow better than the city because it is natural, and then finds himself arguing against nature.
Robert Sullivan, in contrast, insists that the Meadowlands, with its explosive trash heaps, suppurating soil, and contaminated streams, is part of the natural world. He suggests that calling it unnatural is to remove it from the registry of real places, putting it in some Ripley’s Believe It or Not category of strange, exotic, and ultimately forgettable aberrations. That it already had been relegated to such a category in the public imagination before Sullivan logged his first Meadowlands mile is why, on its face, his project seems so goofy: Who would choose to spend time there? But by spending the time, by taking it seriously, the question is answered. Here the nomenclature matters. The Meadowlands is a real place, maybe too real a place, an experiment in human recklessness that proves that nature, however mutable, does not go away.
The appendices of Red-Tails in Love: A Wildlife Drama in Central Park, Marie Winn’s enchanting natural history of hawks and other bird life in New York City, inadvertently confirm this notion. Collectively called “A Wildlife Almanac,” they enumerate and describe a small portion of the flora and fauna that have been found in Central Park: blue grosbeaks, loons, yellow-bellied sapsuckers, persimmons, garlic, American snouts, painted ladies. Also resident, if only on their way to or from somewhere else, are raptors—birds of prey—sixteen species of them. These include bald eagles, golden eagles, peregrine falcons, and sharp-shinned hawks, as well as the red-tails featured in the book’s title. Raptors are big birds—the wingspan of the red-tail hawk, for instance, is four feet—so their presence in the middle of New York is especially compelling, but even the smaller, more common birds can thrill when found in unlikely urban precincts. This feeling of amazement, and the sense of disparity that feeds this amazement, are the subtext of Winn’s story. It runs through it like the news zipper in Times Square, sending out a constant stream of quiet exclamations: This should not be happening here! How can this be happening here? This is happening here.
As Winn observes:
The world of Central Park is entirely man-made and its wilderness is enclosed by a city…. This context—the “other” world of nature within, civilization and its discontents without—informs each natural event in the park and deepens its excitement. The red-eyed vireo nest where both parents are feeding three nestlings is not hanging in a wooded glen; it is suspended over a path directly beside lamppost 7106….
The park itself is the 843-acre spine of Manhattan. It is two and a half miles long and a half-mile across—not inconsiderable in a borough that is only thirteen and a half miles long and no more than two and half miles at its widest point. Still, as green as the park makes it, Manhattan is the apotheosis of the city, the perfect example of what Mumford calls “the clotted urban massing of the great metropolis.” As a consequence, the city reinforces the pastoral feeling evoked by the parks.
When it was designed by Olmsted and Vaux in the mid-nineteenth century, it was this very feeling they were after. They were interested in respite, not wilderness—respite from the city, to be sure, but from wilderness too, which was oppressive in its own way. (Wilderness posed real threats.) The park was a planned environment, a model countryside, whose plants and animals and topography were all chosen for effect. But a funny thing happened: the cultivated eventually gave way to the uncultivated; nature did as nature does. Marie Winn cites a striking example. In 1886, the year of the first Central Park bird census, 121 species were found. More than a century later, in 1996, that number had more than doubled, to 275. Meanwhile, woodchucks, raccoons, and white-footed mice had taken up residence in the park, refugees, perhaps, from the ever-contracting countryside elsewhere. That, in fact, is the irony of Central Park: As unlikely a home to wildlife as it may seem, what other place is there? (The Meadowlands?) It is a stable island of green in a region where gray and black—concrete and asphalt—predominate. No wonder it is one of the very best birding sites in the country.
Marie Winn, who writes an occasional natural history column for The Wall Street Journal, accidentally discovered this the day she was introduced to the Central Park Bird Register. The Bird Register is a log book kept mainly by a group of amateur naturalists who explore the park, especially the Ramble, its thirty-seven-acre interior wilderness, in the manner of John Burroughs, J. Henri LeFabre, and even Audubon himself. Winn calls them the Regulars, and by the time she wrote Red-Tails in Love, she was one of them.
The Regulars notice what others have long learned to ignore: the sights and sounds, smells, textures, and tastes of the world around them. Forget the self and its hungry needs. Pay attention to tiny details. One wing bar or two? Six petals or eight?…
In their human relations, too, the Regulars’ ways differ from the ways of the modern world. Neither job nor income nor family background confer a place in their hierarchy—nobody asks about these things. They don’t matter…. The regularness of the Regulars is the feature that binds them together most powerfully. It allows them to count on each other to be there, observing, noting, keeping track. The Bird Register is their communications center.
Not long after Winn became a Regular, a red-tail hawk showed up in Central Park. Though this, alone, was not that unusual, since the park has long been hospitable to migrating birds on their journeys north or south, this particular hawk was different. It was distinguishable. It had pale feathers that were nearly white about the face. The Regulars called it Pale Male.
At the time, Pale Male was an immature hawk, not yet ready to reproduce. A few months later, though, in early spring, Pale Male found a partner and they proceeded to build a nest in a tree behind a baseball backstop in Central Park’s Great Lawn. According to Winn, it was an historic event: no hawk had ever been known to nest in Central Park before. Although they were unsuccessful—the nest fell apart—and although the hawks tried again by building a nest in a different tree—also unsuccessful as well as dramatic (the female hawk was bullied by crows into crashing into an apartment building and, unable to fly, was removed from the scene by a wildlife rehabilitator), Pale Male, at least, was undeterred. He was back the following year with a new mate and a new approach; this time the nest was built on the ledge of a city apartment building, twelve stories above Fifth Avenue. It was an unprecedented, and unlikely, occurrence, an extreme example of animal adaptation. Which is why, Winn says, “When two of America’s greatest hawk experts were informed that a pair of red-tailed hawks were building a nest on the façade of an apartment house on Fifth Avenue and 74th Street, their response was identical: disbelief.”
Meanwhile, a subspecies of Regular was evolving: the Central Park hawk watchers. They claimed a bench at Seventy-fourth Street, across from the hawk building, and perched there as faithfully as Pale Male and his mate did atop their aerie. Their devotion and emotional vicissitudes as each new season brought hope and each new hope was dashed is the dramatic counterpoint to Winn’s seductive rendering of the hawk story. Just as we want the hawks to succeed, we want the hawk watchers to succeed, too. We want nature to offer them a clean and affecting narrative line.
And it does. After numerous attempts, hawks are born and fledged on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, events that are witnessed by the hawk watchers and recorded by Winn. Pale Male’s mates change, and if this is unexceptional to him, it is not to his human audience. They speculate on the identities of the females; they root for one or the other; they want the story to resemble a romance. As the title indicates, it does.
While anthropomorphism as epistemology—as a way of knowing the natural world—is flawed because it adds layers of interpretation, it works as a narrative method. It makes the story familiar and more knowable. It may be that the Central Park hawks found love in New York City, or maybe they simply found the right conditions to play out the evolutionary imperative to reproduce. Either way, they accomplished something remarkable. Winn’s own explanation for ascribing human traits to the birds she writes about—that “It’s not that animals have emotions like ours. It’s that our emotions resemble those of other animals”—while arguable, seems beside the point. Instead, her anthropomorphism and that of her fellow hawk watchers become a lexicon for nature. It is just possible that being able to identify with other creatures is itself a necessary adaptation, one that might finally inspire people not to foul our collective nest.
Nature triumphs in Winn’s account, as it does in Sullivan’s and Siebert’s. Or does it? The assertion of nature is not about winning and losing as much as our metaphors suggest that it is (battling nature; conquering nature). Nature, while seemingly obdurate, asserts itself precisely because it has no choice. It does so in Manhattan, at Wickerby, in the Meadowlands. Name the place—or don’t—and nature is there.
September 24, 1998