Thursday, September 24, 2009

The Natural History of Unnatural Nature: Urban Natural Histories

Pale Male the famous redtail hawk
Performs wingstands high above midtown Manhattan
Circles around for one last pass over the park
Got his eye on a fat squirrel down there and a couple of pigeons
They got no place to run they got no place to hide
But Pale Male he’s cool, see ‘cause his breakfast ain’t goin’ nowhere
So he does a loop t loop for the tourists and the six o’clock news
Got him a penthouse view from the tip-top of the food chain, boys
He looks up and down on fifth avenue and says “God I love this town”

But life goes on down here below
And all us mortals struggle so
We laugh and cry
And live and die
That’s how it goes
For all we know
Down here below

Pale male swimmin’ in the air
Looks like he’s in heaven up there
People sufferin’ everywhere
But he don’t care
But life goes on down here below
And all us mortals, struggle so
We laugh and cry
- Steve Earle[1]

It takes a relocated Texas songwriter to capture the irony of Pale Male, the red-tailed hawk who nests on the edge of Central Park in New York. This kind of ironic perspective on urban wildlife, with a bird more at home in the city than the suffering humans down below, suggests the possibilities for reinterpreting narratives of nature from the vantage point of city margins as habitat. The mobility of urban wildlife like birds and large mammals allow them to exploit the entire city as habitat. The emplaced nonhuman communities of wastelands and margins do not have the ability to elude the human interventions of restorationists or environmental managers. We can imagine Pale Male as an agent making his way through the city picking off squirrels and courting and nesting while New Yorkers line up below to watch.

The agency of marginal nature is a more collective undertaking, a gathering of nonhumans in a collaborative project to make home in a particular place in the city. Most members of the community are not as mobile as the mammals and birds, and so they take advantage of more discrete opportunities like high alkalinity of soil which some flora and fauna tolerate better than others. Soon the community has begun to gather and the coproduction of marginal nature has begun, as Richard Mabey describes in London,

"Within a few years the young shrubs will be head and shoulders above the grass, and in a decade may form dense thickets. This is the natural succession of plants on disturbed ground. But it is the fate of disturbed ground to be roughed up again, and it’s not often that the scrubland stage is reached. Where it is, it is in those awkward-shaped parcels of ground – left over like a hem when the surrounding areas have been sewn up – often called ‘marginal land’. These seem to be multiplying with the piecemeal extension of built-up areas: a sliver of land left over between two strictly rectangular factories, a disused car dump, the surrounds of an electricity substation. Nothing can be done with these patches. They are too small or misshapen to build on, too expensive to landscape. So they are simply ignored – at least until the bushes start shutting out the light from the machine shop."[2]

Like Mabey in London, the most open engagement with this successional habitat in American urban wastelands is found in urban natural history writings. Mabey references Fitter’s London's Natural History (1945) as a guide to his exploration of London, and in America we have examples like Kieran’s A Natural History of New York (1959) in which sanctioned and unsanctioned nature is included in the account. Both are survey accounts of flora and fauna and good examples of traditional natural history writing reminiscent of the Nature Study movement in the early Twentieth Century and both were written before the overt politicization of environmental writing. They both turn a naturalist's eye to the margins of the city and discover a richness of flora and fauna usually overlooked in the everyday landscape of the city.

A more recent example that follows the tradition of the nature study movement launched at the end of the last century in urban America and that focuses in on a specific type of marginal habitat is Vessel and Wong’s California Natural History Guide No. 50: Natural History of Vacant Lots (1987). Vessel and Wong point out that, although Californian vacant lots contain plants specific to the climate of California, they contain a large number of plants that are common to most urban landscapes across America and beyond. The presence of hardy exotic species provides the commonality, for instance Gingko trees (Gingko biloba) or Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) introduced from Asia or Field mustard (Brassica campestris) from Europe. In terms of plant species composition, these new habitats which emerge in urban margins reflect the cosmopolitan influence of urbanization. In Austin, Texas, this cosmopolitanism takes the form of Chinaberry (Melia azedarach), Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica) and Texas Oaks (Quercus buckleyi) growing together in marginal places.

The best recent example of this genre of urban natural history is Houck and Cody’s Wild in the City: A Guide to Portland’s Natural Areas (2000), an edited collection of essays and site descriptions of the “natural areas” in and around Portland. The book is the distillation of almost twenty years of the journal Urban Naturalist, which documented the natural history of Portland including of non-native species. Although utilizing the traditional discourse of wildness and green nature and focusing primarily on the pedigreed nature of parks and preserves, it openly addresses the ruinous attractions of marginal nature in wastewater ponds and vacant lots. Perhaps this is influenced by Robert Pyle who contributes an essay on the value of vacant lots entitled “No Vacancy” in which he takes to task the unexamined support for “infilling” as a way to save the rural. “Every time infilling takes a vacant lot, either through direct development or conversion to formal parkland, something precious is lost in the heart of the living city.”[3]

The focus of urban ecologists, biologists, and naturalists is on the nonhumans who inhabit the urban landscape, but, as we have seen in this chapter that nonhuman focus is insufficient to account for the community gathered in the margins. For that account we must turn to writers like Pyle and Mabey who enter the wastelands in search of community with nonhumans and lose their bearings amidst the ruinous attractions of marginal nature. We end this post with Mabey for some “biological slumming” as he looks out across an abandoned water-filled gravel pit on the edge of London,

"A red-crested pochard, a rare vagrant from Eastern Europe with a bill so luridly crimson that it looks like Bakelite. A solitary cormorant overhead, as dark and reptilian as a pterodactyl. Kingfishers, siskins, herons, teal.

At times like this I would find in myself an affection for these grubby landscapes that I could never have predicted and would be hard put to excuse. Visually, they were without exception ugly. Although the healing processes of natural growth were everywhere in evidence (they were what I had been looking at the whole year), each one of these habitats represented an assault upon some green country. They had none of the restful predictability of ancient countryside, that feeling of seasoned flow and stability that you find in downland and forest.
Yet it is the disorder and incongruity that I find so exciting and irresistible."[4]

In praise of grubby landscapes.

[1] Steve Earle, “Down Here Below”, song on Washington Street Serenade (2007)
[2] Mabey Unofficial Countryside (1973) p. 32
[3] Pyle in Houck and Cody (2000) p. 23.
[4] Mabey Unofficial Countryside (1973) p. 154

No comments: