Anne Matthews, "Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City"
"To Be Read" Book Review Column
March 1, 2004
Matthews's title comes from one of Emily Dickinson’s delicious little poems, a stanza of which is cited at the beginning:
Rowing in Eden –
Ah! The sea!...
Wild nights should be
The eroticism of the poem is, in this context, gone, wiped out, erased. The wild nights of this title are not luxurious. They are ominous. We may not survive them.
This is an environmental jeremiad with a difference. There is no complaining here, no direct appeal for a harmony between humankind and nature. Anne Matthews’s eye is cold and clinical. Nature, she tells us, is everywhere, in the cracks in the walls, in the sewers under the sidewalks as well as in the meadows and the stars. Moreover, nature is not at risk. We are.
From Darwin's image of the tangled bank all modern Western environmentalism descends: the concept of the food web, the belief that nature is a complex community that humans can ignore, or deny, or exploit, but never escape.
In other words, nature's going to make it. Are we?
Wild Nights is a hard book to read in large doses. You imagine an author seated before several file drawers of three by five cards filled with facts. The cards are arranged more or less systematically. She writes down the facts that her files disgorge in endless succession. The facts, unfortunately, are not footnoted, and the acknowledgment at the end is a mere listing, without specific titles, of the professional literatures of urban ecology, urban history, urban and regional development, geography, wildlife biology, environmental restoration, architecture, political science, cultural studies, environmental science and environmental history, or from multisourced reports by major news organizations (207).
She goes on to list the UN, the US Congress, and the New York Academy of Sciences. That's it. One “big” footnote. The reader, apparently, has gotta believe. I'm disposed to believe. I've read enough footnoted material to suggest that she’s right.
Nature, Matthews tells us, has returned to New York City: foxes, coyotes, wild turkeys. A black bear in Chappaqua, deer, egrets, ibis, night herons and bitterns. As she says, "Nature/culture confrontation is becoming part of urban, suburban, and periurban routine." This isn’t exactly cute. It's rather a test, a test that most urban cultures failed. "Messing too much with the natural world generally hands an urban culture one of three outcomes: a transformed life, a lesser life, a long night" (7). Rome is her example of the long night.
A big city, she shows, is "far more friendly to wildlife than small ones, because the potential habitat is both immense and varied." (25). This seems a pleasant enough fact, as she tells us about the return to New York of the peregrine falcon. But there’s little to feel good about in the next chapter called "Unleashed." Here she catalogues the destructive impact of Canada geese on watersheds, the boldness of wild turkeys on Martha’s Vineyard, the growing coyote pack in the Bronx, the "jumbo-size" bears nourished on fast-food garbage, the bloody explosion of white-tailed deer onto highways everywhere. There's more, much more. "Unleashed" is a long, dismaying chapter.
Immigrant species furnish yet more disturbing news, and I think of the woods along the Sawmill River Parkway bent over and dying from their heavy load of kudzu vines. Matthews moves on to the scattered ruins of Penn Station lost in New Jersey’s swamps. She finds in these broken columns a local symbol of the ruin of cities. Native species are returning and will take over their lost ground. The penultimate chapter, “Rising Tide,” is her apocalyptic climax: global warming will chase out native species of trees and animals. Ocean levels will rise and cover large parts of the city, backing up sewers, to the joy of New York's overwhelming population of rats. Storms will be severe. And there is always the possibility of earthquakes, even a meteor strike.
The cursory list I have made hardly does justice to the rich specifics of Anne Matthews's catalogue of disaster. It is a catalogue that gives one pause. Wild Nights is a book worth reading.