This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.
Wild Nights: the nature of New York City is ostensibly about nature in New York City, but more than that, it is about what we have lost, what still remains, and surprising new arrivals. It is also about ways of looking at nature in the city and how we might transform the way we see urban nature.
When I started my MA in Nature Writing one of the first things the tutor asked the class to do was make a list of all the different ways you can look at a landscape. I didn’t really understand the purpose of the exercise at the time but somehow I grasped that we were being taught something important. It is only after reading so much nature writing and thinking a lot about how to write about nature that I’ve come to see the importance of this lesson. A landscape or a place is not a static, objective thing that exists out there in the world. Rather, landscapes are canvases onto which we project our own perspective.
Matthews carries out the same exercise that my tutor asked my MA class to do. She lists the different ways that a person might see the city, depending on their perspective:
When historians look at New York, they see an overgrown port town that exists for just one reason: making money. When sociologists look at New York, they perceive two cities, not one, since the workaday outer boroughs have far more in common with Rust Belt capitals like Baltimore or Cleveland than with theatrical, ravenous, self-centered Manhattan. Linguists who come to New York ride the subways and stand in line at coffee shops to construct a taxonomy of urban chat…
Physical geographers studying the metropolitan area prefer to learn its watersheds, the areas of land that drain rainwater and snowmelt into the nearest marsh or lake or stream…
[W]hen political scientists look at the New York conurbation, they see one of the great unnatural wonders of the policy world…
But to an ecologist, New York is most interesting as an ecotone, a place where natural worlds collide…
Different people bring different perspectives to bear on a place. I’m intrigued by these different perspectives and slightly saddened to think of all the ways in which I will probably never see a place. When I visit a city the things that stand out to me are architecture, urban nature and public transport. But I love the idea of experiencing the city linguistically or politically. Perhaps the perspective that most intrigues me is that of the earth scientists:
The earth scientists, especially, believe you cannot know a place without ground-truthing it. One walks a piece of ground, or flies low over it, or rows the waters around it, taking time to see as well as look, rather than trusting what tradition says is there, or what theory tells you should be.
I like the idea of ground-truthing the city – of seeing, rather than looking. And if we take the time to see, what might the city reveal? We might see the peregrines that Matthews sees close-up when she joins a New York City Department of Environmental Protection biologist on his rounds, as he bands peregrine chicks; we might find a lost river, hidden beneath the city, except to those who know where to look; or we might spot some of the many dead or disorientated birds that crash into New York skyscrapers and Rebekah Creshkoff, who collects their bodies in her pockets and sends them to research labs.
I also like the environmental historian’s view of the city:
A civilian walking through Central Park may stop to admire an outcrop of dark rock the size of a city bus, watch ice skaters on the big pond at the park’s north end, then visit Strawberry Fields…
An environmental historian will walk the same route and see a different park and a different New York, forcing the view wider, deeper, longer, wilder.
That’s the view I want to have, and wish many others had, of the city – wider, deeper, longer, wilder. But as Matthews points out, the vast majority of urbanites don’t share this perspective. Matthews mentions Project X, a project of the Urban Park Service, which aims to return one animal and one plant species every year to each of the five New York boroughs. It’s a laudable project, but there is a caveat:
[T]he Project X group has discovered the hard way that low-key introductions work best… Species that are native to this place and aesthetically pleasing are the favored Project X candidates…
In re-creating the New York ecological web, you want common species with strong nerves that will take to mega-city life, given some home comforts, and not scare humans or make conspicuous messes.
Low-key, aesthetically pleasing, not scary, tidy… But what about that wilder view? Where did it go? Did it ever exist? Matthews suggests it did:
The Western tradition sets in opposition nature and culture, city and wilderness, capital and provinces, enclosed garden and unmapped forest. But until very recently… almost all people lived as intimately with other species and with wind and weather as with their own kind.
When Olmstead and Vaux constructed their grand vision for Central Park they transformed a tract of city land into groves, meadows, ponds and pleasure drives:
To [them], it translated democratic ideas into trees and dirt, providing a garden for the middle classes and a safety valve for the slums… Central Park and its Brooklyn cousin, Prospect Park, were examples of rus in urbe: nature imported and improved as theatre and therapy.
It is nature, but shaped to the needs of the city, and presumably with far less intimacy with species, wind and weather. However, Olmstead and Vaux’s vision may be being subverted by nature regardless, as animals not seen in New York for hundreds of years make a comeback. Coyotes on the Great Lawn anyone? Perhaps it is nature that will force our view wider, deeper, longer, wilder and not the environmental historians.
One of the segments of the book that most fascinated me concerned something wholly unnatural – Penn Station. Penn Station is the main intercity railroad station in New York and today it sits underground beneath Madison Square Garden. But it once stood proudly above ground, covering nine-acres and sporting more than 600 granite pillars, as well as a 138-foot vault. Built between 1906-1910, it was a monument to the Gilded Age and pictures show it to have been a thing of beauty.
Writer Thomas Wolfe referred to it as “murmurous”. And yet this grand station quickly fell into decline – during the Great Depression hundreds of homeless people slept in the station and after the Second World War it fell into disrepair as city soot dimmed the once pink granite walls. In 1963, the demolition of the station began. The remains of the once glorious Penn Station were carted off and dumped in the New Jersey Meadowlands.
The current Penn Station has reached its capacity and plans are being developed for a new iteration of the station and this third incarnation will be decorated with the spolia from the ruins of the first. Matthews meets with Alexandros Washburn and Marijke Smits who are attempting to recover pieces of the lost Penn Station, in order to incorporate them into the new station. Plans for the new Penn Station have been rumbling on for years now and its not clear whether the recovered fragments of Penn Station will ever return home, but Matthews poses an interesting question:
If some of the original Penn Station can be recalled to midtown Manhattan, why not restore some of the city’s original nature, the ultimate environmental reparation?
Why not? Because, as Matthews points out, answering the question of which nature to restore is never simple or straightforward:
Environmental historians, wildlife biologists, politicians and urban experts all begin to hyperventilate at the prospect; for different reasons. The arguments pile up, the interpretations turn ever more fluid and contrary, always with a subtext of real uncertainty and doubt: what is wild, these days? Maybe we should look for new definitions of wildness between the cracks of a Brooklyn sidewalk, in a neighbour’s affection for plastic lawn flamingos, in a swamp filled with classical columns, in our own turbulent bloodstream.
But perhaps we don’t need to answer the question of what is wild, because nature is here and it is returning. At the end of the book Matthews is commuting from New York to New Jersey and she looks back at Manhattan from the train: but the twilight is tricky today. I see only a tangled bank; a green cliff above the estuary; a glitter of minerals on a rising sea. Below the railroad tracks, among the reeds, a bittern waits.
The bittern waits, biding its time. The city will be wild.