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The City Wild, by Larry Borowsky

by Larry Borowsky
 

Not long ago I went walking with my dog in two inches of fresh snow, greeting the dawn in the middle of Denver. We had the whole city to ourselves; no joggers or cyclists this frigid morning. The dog (we call him Fred) was sniffing like a fiend, as he always does after a snow; the cold preserves the odors, I guess. He worked his nostrils furiously to take everything in, and though I tried to be patient, let him have his whiffs, I had to keep moving so my blood wouldn't freeze.

We moved briskly along at the edge of Sloan's Lake, when Fred stopped short with such suddenness that he fairly yanked my arm out of the socket. He'd detected a rich, stirring vein of fragrances. He strained against the leash, thrusting his muzzle into the ground like a derrick bore-over here, no there, no there. It was an annoying and, frankly, not very dignified display. What the hell's so interesting? I finally asked him out loud; I don't smell a thing.

We proceeded on, passing a thicket of tall grass at the edge of the lake. My eye chanced to fall upon a row of pawprints emerging from the brush-tiny dots in the snow, like a long double-row of buttons. They came out almost to the pavement and then halted, abruptly. I halted, too-with such suddenness that I fairly yanked poor Fred's skull off his spine-and bent down for a closer look. On either side of the paw path's terminus I saw faint disturbances in the snow, wispy strokes where something had brushed against the surface-something like a pair of wings. An owl's wings, maybe? Yes, an owl... swooping down for a midnight snack. Neat, I thought; too bad for the rodent, but this very stark vignette had livened up my morning walk. I glanced down at Fred, who was staring back at me with his head cocked and an expression that said: What the hell's so interesting? I don't see a thing.

Frogs.

Isn't that usually the case-we don't see, don't smell what's right in front of our faces? Or we sense it but simply let it pass, take it for granted. In the city, what we tend to take for granted is wildness. We mistakenly equate "urban" with "synthetic;" we consider our cities 100 percent human-made, of and by and for us alone, totally under our control. Here, we think, we are walled off from the environment instead of plugged into it-as if nature has to check her baggage at the city limit, as if animals and plants read our maps and respect our municipal borders. We cling to this conceit despite lifetimes spent combating weeds in our back yards, side-stepping goose shit in the park, latching our garbage lids to keep out the raccoons, baiting mousetraps in our basements. My fiancee-civilized, gentle soul-once beaned a squirrel with an ice cube to keep the varmint from stripping her sunflowers bare. And I laud her for it-for her act as well as her accuracy.

It's a jungle out there. Far from being cut off from the wild, in the city we live with it intimately, more intimately than anywhere else. Here we coexist with nature, get tangled up in it, set down our roots beside hers; here we're part of the ecosystem. The worms and rats feed off our trash; the birds nest in our eaves. It's not as pretty or as inspiring as the wilderness we see on mountain hikes, but it's just as wild.

Swans.

A few Septembers ago Denver sustained a freak late-summer blizzard. Eight or ten or twelve inches of wet, heavy snow piled onto the boughs, which, still adorned with their summer leaves, couldn't slough the stuff off. Nobody in town slept through that night: limbs kept snapping under the weight of the snow, with a crack! crack! crack! that suggested a nearby firefight.

We rose the next morning to a litter of downed branches and crooked trunks. Yet the talk was not of nature's power; it was about reasserting human control. Who do we call to get these branches taken away? Will the sanitation department do it, or do we have to pay a hauling company? Or: Can I borrow your ladder? I've gotta saw this big limb off before it crashes through the roof of the garage. We'd lived through a remarkable natural event, something few of us had ever seen; but for all we appreciated it, it might as well have been a wave of teenage vandalism. What a mess, was all we could think, this is gonna screw up my whole weekend.

I'd rather react like my dog Fred-experiencing wildness where I find it, burying my face in it, breathing deeply of it. It makes no difference to him whether he's splashing in a pristine mountain lake or in the City Ditch, chasing a deer in the woods or a squirrel on the sidewalk. The whole world is wild to him.

When I walk in the city now, I try to see the sights and smell the smells. One day at Confluence Park right in downtown Denver, where Cherry Creek runs into the South Platte River, I spied some beaver-felled tree trunks on the bank, the tooth marks still visible. They lay not ten yards distant from the piles of beams and drywall being used to build some streamside condominiums. Another time, while making the drive out to Denver International Airport, I saw what looked like a white plastic grocery bag bobbing in a tree. I got closer, the bag got bigger, and I saw that it wasn't a bag at all but the proud head of a bald eagle, watching the traffic go by from a cottonwood branch. A friend of mine swears a coyote lives on the shores of Sloan's Lake, which to me seems about as likely as the Loch Ness Monster's living in the lake-but maybe it's true. Maybe that's the scent Fred found on our snowy walk.

Rabbit, cat, flowers.

A nother day Fred and I, on our way home, turned a corner and took a squirrel by surprise. The critter bounded halfway up the trunk of an oak, dropping a mouthful of straw in his haste. He got ten feet high and spun around-tail high, face low, talons deep in the bark-and aimed his round marble-eyes first at me, then at Fred, then at his precious fumbled cargo. All three of us stood there, each awaiting the other's next move. No ordinances ruled us, no municipal code applied. The law of the jungle had come to the corner of 31st and Stuart. The dog barked and feinted, but the squirrel wasn't budging-not without his straw. The stalemate might have lasted indefinitely, but I had an agenda, so I tugged on the leash and put an end to it. I glanced back over my shoulder as the squirrel marked our retreat, then scampered down to retrieve his bundle and carried it up to his knothole abode.

Okay, so it wasn't the kind of encounter you'd see in a PBS special or an IMAX movie. We can't all be Jane Goodall. But I'll remember that squirrel and his little dilemma. And I hope he'll remember me and Fred, and keep his cotton-picking paws off my fiancee's sunflowers.

He'd be well advised to.  Because she's got an ice cube with his name on it.

  

Larry Borowsky wrote a bi-monthly column for 5280 magazine and is the principal writer for the Colorado Historical Society's Roadside Interpretation Project. He has written about Denver neighborhoods and Colorado history for The Denver Post, Aspen Magazine, 5280, Frontier Magazine, Women.com, Trip.com, and other media outlets. He also works with the Colorado Center for Healthy Communities on its publications.
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