Interview by Gavin J. Grant
In Anne Matthews latest book, Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City, she takes a close look at New York city and the different kinds of wildlife that are suddenly appearing -- or reappearing. From seeing some surprise pets (where else would those escaped kamen's in Central Park come from anyway?), to glimpsing bears and turkeys on the northern outskirts of the city, from bridge-workers protecting nests to office-workers who rescue birds from the confusing lights, Matthews shows us a whole new strata of city life. Matthews is a contributing editor for Preservation magazine, and her articles have also appeared in The New York Times and other publications. She is the author of two previous books, Where the Buffalo Roam and Bright College Years. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.
BookSense.com: Before writing Wild Nights, were you trained as a naturalist?
Anne Matthews: No, though I've always been a nature enthusiast. When I was a child, my family lived in a house in the middle of Aldo Leopold's beloved University of Wisconsin Arboretum, which is a forest in the middle of a city -- 1,200 restored acres of forest, prairie and lakeshore. So I grew up exploring the woods, watching birds and animals go about their daily lives, and following around the (extremely patient) university naturalists as they conducted botanical and biological studies.
When did you realize you wanted to write this book? Was there some incident that started you thinking about animals in the city?
Mostly, I got the idea for this book by looking out the window. I looked out my kitchen window in Princeton and saw wild turkeys standing on the back porch, and deer napping in the driveway. About four years ago, on my way in to the city to teach at NYU, I looked out the window of New Jersey Transit, as my commuter train crossed that particularly blighted landscape between Newark and the Meadowlands, and I saw a dozen egrets flying low over the dank chemical mudflats, an arrow of white headed straight for the World Trade Center. What are they doing here? I wondered. How can they live? And why are you headed toward Manhattan, you crazy birds? So I started asking questions, making calls, visiting experts, and in the process discovered an entirely other New York, above, around, beside, below -- suppressed and segregated during daylight hours, exceedingly lively from twilight to dawn.
What's the oddest experience you had when writing/researching this book?
I went to interview Alexander Brash (head of Project X, the New York City Parks Department's innovative program for restoring native species to the urban ecosystem) and when I arrived in his Fifth Avenue office I noticed a dart gun and a net gun leaning against the wall. I thought he was going on an Amazon expedition or something, but no -- his department gets a lot of calls to go capture straying New York wildlife. The wild turkeys of the Upper West Side, for instance, are getting quite out of hand.
What kinds of people go around the city rescuing animals?
Three kinds, really: the professional wildlife biologists, whose casual valor amazed me. The city's peregrine falcon expert, Christopher Nadareski, must inspect and band new chicks every spring. But he has to catch them first, and at nest sites like the New York Hospital/Cornell Medical Center, near Park Avenue, that means crawling out a 27th-floor window and sliding along a 10-inch stone ledge 300 feet above the parking lot, net in hand. Unroped.
A second kind of urban animal activist would be someone like Rebekah Creshkoff, who has graduate training in conservation biology, works in the financial district as a communications officer for the Chase Manhattan Bank, and is a devoted bird rescuer. Every morning she rises at 5:45 and bikes eight miles downtown to check in with the night watchmen of Wall Street, who tell her what they have seen in the glassy maze of city skyscrapers...dazed birds, dead birds, trapped birds. Migrating songbirds are highly vulnerable to city lights -- they steer by the stars, but the brilliant New York skyline confuses them, and often they fly off-course and are trapped among the tall buildings. Creshkoff and other volunteers rescue the living and count the dead.
The third sort of city-dweller involved in animal aid is the citizen-observer. The urban-falcon program brings out the best in many New Yorkers: tough bridge guys who rescue wailing chicks from girders, building superintendents determined to guard the peregrines' privacy, retirees with good binoculars who log falcon activity minute by minute, Wall Street office workers who hold contests to name the birds, and raffles to help them.
Where do the animals go at night?
Urban falcons sleep on skyscraper ledges and atop bridges. Small birds like finches and sparrows sometimes rest in drainpipes or chimneys. And one colony of Central American parrots -- probably escaped pets -- nest in a Bronx ballpark near Fordham University, enjoying the warmth of the arc lights. Migratory species fly over Manhattan Island nearly every night of the year, steering by the stars -- unless the bright lights of the New York skyline throw them badly off course, as often happens.
Many urban mammals are very active in the dark hours, raccoons and rats especially. Late-night city drivers have seen coyotes trotting along the New York expressways, just as the flying squirrels of Van Cortlandt Park prefer to dine and socialize in the small hours, soaring from tree to tree under the municipal moon, because that's when the city's dominant species (eight million humans) is most likely to be asleep in its expensive rented burrows.
Did writing Wild Nights change the way you think about the relationship between people and cities?
Yes, it did. New York's newly wild urban scene suggests that even a megacity is part of a larger land-use story, in which cities are as vulnerable to nature and fortune as any other life-form: some endure, some thrive, some shrink, some vanish. New York is an exceptionally energy-efficient city, mostly because it stacks and packs its residents, then forces them to use mass transit. New York is also the world's most profoundly developed urban real estate -- one American in 15 lives in New York or its suburbs -- and that's probably why the people of Greater New York say that their No. 1 worry isn't crime anymore, but rather the overcrowded life, defined and deformed by traffic and sprawl.
Have you ever met Jane Jacobs?
No, but I admire her writing and her activism.
What do you think of her theories that an urban center is the life of a city and the suburbs are almost like deadwood?
I think the extreme development of the 1990s has rewritten the story of the American city, and not for the better. During the last 10 years, development of U.S. forest and farmland has doubled, making New York our prime example of a new urban form, the galactic city (a term invented by Penn State geographer Peirce Lewis), which is a tissue of development so vast that it creates its own urban order, in a burst of edge cities and technoburbs. In the galactic city (think Atlanta, Los Angeles, Phoenix, Toronto) suburbs and exurbs no longer push out from an urban core like rings on a tree. Instead, most expeditions and interactions are suburb-to-suburb; you create your own metropolis, measuring distance in travel time, not in miles from some distinctive feature like Times Square or Chicago's Loop. Everyone's galactic-city map is different -- urbanism a la carte.
New York is unusual because it still has a lively downtown (Manhattan's lower half), making it one of very few U.S. cities with both a vital heart and an active edge. But overall the American city in the last 50 years has become more crowded and voracious at the edges, quieter and greener and wilder at the core. Yet in New York, especially, I think Jane Jacobs' plea for an active street life has never been more timely. The colorful, stimulating, satisfying interactions that draw people to city life are harder and harder to maintain in a Manhattan whose real estate is now too valuable to waste on people. Superbuildings in midtown can steal 80 percent of summer sunlight from side streets for blocks around; some New York neighborhoods unlucky enough to fall within the shadow of a skyscraper (or six) exist in permanent shadow, permanent chill. New York is largely made up of aggressively private space; it's the most regulated, subdivided, profit-driven landscape in history. What it needs is just what Jacobs called for: activity and intensity and lots of urban oases for the public. Pocket parks. Plazas with trees and fountains and food carts and shaded seating. The formula for a satisfying urban experience has not changed much since ancient Rome. In cities, people want other people. The real trick will be learning to share the changing urban scene with our newest and most determined immigrants, the ones with wings. Or scales. Or paws.
All your books seem to begin with a meditation on location...
Yes, I think that place is the least appreciated, most important factor in shaping life and prose. New York is especially vulnerable to natural and cultural amnesias, because it's so committed to creative destruction, to tearing down and remaking itself at high speed. But New Yorkers also should know that a lost river runs below Greenwich Village, that Harlem used to be farm country, that giant sloths and saber-toothed tigers once roamed the Bronx. A sense of place is also a sense of self. Readers often skip the landscape descriptions that writers labor over -- which is too bad, since place, geography, landscape, can be as essential to a story as any human that inhabits it. As Eudora Welty says in The Optimist's Daughter, "direction itself was made beautiful, momentous."
What are your favorite places in New York?
The pocket parks, especially beautiful little Paley Park on East 53rd Street, with its trees and tables and 20-foot water wall.
Do you like spending time outside? Do you go camping or hiking?
Hiking, yes; camping, no. New Jersey (contrary to rumor) has some fine natural areas to explore still, from the Pine Barrens to the Delaware Water Gap, and I try to walk in Princeton's open-space reserves almost every day.
Do you have any pets?
Two cats, both volunteers -- they showed up, they stayed, and now they run the place.
What are you reading?
Mysteries that are also novels: Sharyn McCrumb's Ballad series, Reginald Hill's Dalziel/Pascoe books, and also Thrones, Dominations, begun by Dorothy L. Sayers, completed by Jill Paton Walsh.
And I'm reading a lot of 18th-century American history to prepare for my next book, called Indivisible: An Intimate History of the American Revolution (Farrar, Straus), which braids the private and public stories of assorted Revolutionary-era couples struggling to redefine love, liberty, equality, home and marriage. I never realized that the Founders, especially, were so very hot-blooded, as well as high-minded.
Your book could introduce people to nature writing who might not otherwise have read in that field -- New Yorkers, for instance! What authors do you recommend for people who want to read more?
For nature writing in general, I'd recommend Wallace Stegner, Aldo Leopold, Edward Abbey, Mary Austin, Barry Lopez. For environmental history, Donald Worster and Richard White. For writers who value American landscape: Willa Cather, Eudora Welty, William Maxwell. For writers who loved nature's New York manifestations, I'd suggest E.B. White, A.J. Liebling, Joseph Mitchell.
Do you have a good local bookstore?
The Princeton University Store is much improved. Micawber's on Nassau Street is a serious up-market store. But we can always use more. You can never have too many bookshops.