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Wild Nights

Ken Pirie reviews Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City by Anne Matthews

image, Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City, by Anne Matthews.A scene from a recent action movie shows a lone cross-country skier plodding across a vast snowfield which, as the camera pans out, proves to be a glacier engulfing New York City in a new Ice Age brought on by global warming. This almost biblical vision of nature reclaiming the manifest urban expression of Western civilization is an extreme representation of what is actually happening to human habitat, as Anne Matthews explores in her book Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City. The damage humans have wrought on the planet is recoiling, sometimes to harm us, often to benefit us, but always to enlighten.

Wild Nights is a field guide to cities, with an emphasis on the ‘ur-city,’ New York, what Kurt Vonnegut calls a “Skyscraper National Park.” One in 15 Americans live in Greater New York City, the most dramatic ecotone possible, a place where natural worlds overlap and collide. Covering 11 watersheds in 4 states, a quarter of the city is actually open space in a range of natural habitats: estuary, salt marsh, woodland, beach, freshwater river and prairie and even virgin forest in patches. Clearly, though, this is primarily a place of human habitat.

Matthews plumbs our species ancient dread of nature retaking such a human-claimed place. She discusses lost civilizations that disappeared after ecological collapse and catalogs the evidence of animals that are now reinhabiting parts of cities. The city can actually be less stressful for many animals, with abundant food and less predators than natural habitat. Wild turkeys, coyotes, ospreys, bears, deer, porpoises, and snapping turtles are all eking out existences on the urban margin where they increasingly confront the spread of humans.

Maybe all this nature could be deeply essential to mitigating the effects of teeming urban humanity. As Matthews states, wildness remains the ‘marrow of civilization’ and we may need it as

“…something unknowable, pressing day and night at the margins of the sanitized life, preceding and sustaining us, outwitting and outlasting.”

Urban malaise has always driven city dwellers to seek out nature and Matthews reminds us of Herman Melville introducing Moby Dick with this description of New York City:

Posted like silent sentinels all around the town, stand thousands of mortal men...some seated on the pier heads...these are all landsmen; of weekdays pent up in lath and plaster—tied to counters, nailed to benches, clinched to desks. How then is this? Have all the green fields gone?

The author, believing that one cannot really know a place, even a city, without ‘ground-truthing,’ explores urban archaeology in traces of a buried trout creek appearing in a building lobby’s fountain and in old Penn Station’s marble relics jutting from New Jersey landfills. If these “fossils” can survive to be incorporated into new structures, surely nature can also be brought back into the city?

NYC is the most forcibly simplified or disturbed American landscape but successful ecological restoration there could inform and inspire efforts across the nation. NYC is strikingly energy-efficient already through its sheer density of population and while the need is pressing for a re-greening of cities, we must also place strong limits on urban growth lest we lose more of Melville’s ‘green fields;’ 3.2 million acres of urban fringe are developed every year—anecdotally, Matthews estimates that fifty acres of forest are felled every day in the Atlanta area for 95,000 new annual residents.

Matthews presents some compelling pioneers of urban nature, such as Project X, which aims to reintroduce one vanished species to the NYC area every year.

In modern cities there are extinctions of another sort under way that affect the human ecosystem—the steady loss of urban light and air and the suppression of the life of the street. Taking an interesting digression into an exploration of badly-designed public spaces resulting from the abuse of incentive zoning, Matthews argues that humanity’s salvation may lie in livable, well-designed cities. People clearly want to be near other people, in communities that offer some daily exposure to the natural world. As Matthews notes, in the mid-1800s, the site of Central Park was a wooded marsh dotted with villages. Skeptics wondered at the wisdom of locating such a massive park far from the bustle of the city in the 1870s, but nobody now doubts the incredible value of such a vital public open space.

So where are the Olmsteds and their visions today, to take us back from the brink of terrible Hollywood-like disaster movie scenarios of natural calamity, towards a healthier symbiosis with nature and a truly sustainable human habitat?


Ken Pirie is an urban designer living on the edge of Forest Park, Portland.
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Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City

by Anne Matthews

   North Point Press
   April 2001
   ISBN 0865475601



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