Anne Matthews
Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City

from the publisher:
Deer in Manhattan, coyotes in the Bronx, wild turkeys flying down Broadway: among the traffic and tall buildings of America's most urban terrain, another city -- suppressed and segregated during daylight, exceedingly lively from twilight to dawn -- has begun to stake a new claim. Wild Nights is a startling tour of this other New York, revealing how stubbornly nature reasserts itself, adapting its survival strategies to even the most violently resculpted terrain.

In this first predominantly urban period in human history, confrontation and competition with the natural world are becoming everyday occurrences. Some encounters charm us; some we dread; some we badly misunderstand. Anne Matthews explores them, examining the implications of this unexpected and powerful resurgence of nature for the fate of a world of megacities and suburban hypersprawl. Animated by her keen wit and eye, and anatomized by the often warring theories of scientists, historians, and environmentalists, New York emerges as a case study in civilization on the brink of environmental overreach.

Other civilizations, in other centuries, reached such points of no return. As Matthews reminds us, most disappeared. Whether nature gets to bat last depends on our understanding one of the oldest, hardest lessons in human history: wild doesn't always mean natural, and urban is rarely the same as tame.

Anne Matthews is the author of two previous books, Where the Buffalo Roam and Bright College Years. She is a contributing editor for Preservation magazine, and her articles have also appeared in The New York Times and other publications. She lives in Princeton, New Jersey.

"While environmentalists worry about the 'urbanization' of Yosemite and the Grand Canyon, Anne Matthews writes with great wit about a wilderness miracle in the very heart of Gotham. As she eloquently shows, New York City is strictly on loan from Mother Nature." --Mike Davis, author of Ecology of Fear and Magical Urbanism

"An engaging account of the return of wild nature to New York City and to urban areas across the United States. Anne Matthews is a crackerjack reporter and an elegant writer. She reveals a different kind of nature -- a clever, opportunistic, frightening nature, often hauntingly beautiful -- adapting to the human species and exploiting us, and reminding us that our place in the long-term natural history of the earth is by no means assured." --Richard Preston, author of The Hot Zone and The Cobra Event

"Wild Nights teems with facts, swirls with delights -- combining curiosity and biophilia, goodwill and bright intelligence. I was more than engrossed, I was educated; I'm a fan." --Edward Hoagland, author of Compass Points and Tigers & Ice

"A stunning exploration of urban and natural history and the ways in which the two are ultimately the same. From dazed, light-drunk songbirds dropping in the wee hours at the base of Wall Street skyscrapers to bridge-crossing coyotes, Anne Matthews teaches us how to see and listen all over again, both to the physical world around us and to the well-wrought, cadenced prose with which she brings that world to life. Wild Nights is an important book that helps us put civilization in perspective even as it gently coaxes us to consider with greater perspective civilization's future course." --Charles Siebert, author of Wickerby: An Urban Pastoral

"For those who think nature and New York City are mutually exclusive, Wild Nights will come as a surprise -- and thanks to Anne Matthews's lively, engaging, and frequently poetic writing, a delightful one. Reading Wild Nights is like taking a tour of the city, past and present, with a deeply knowledgeable guide who also happens to be a brilliant raconteur." --Michael D. Lemonick, author of The Light at the Edge of the Universe and Other Worlds

The following is an excerpt from the book Wild Nights: Nature Returns to the City by Anne Matthews.


In the first week of my first year in Greater New York, I hid a twenty-dollar bill in my shoe and took New Jersey Transit to The City, as everyone in Princeton seemed to call it; you could hear the capital letters every time. Another new graduate student from Wisconsin came with me, grumbling. If you are young and ambitious and live west of the Mississippi, Los Angeles and Seattle pull at the imagination far more strongly than the old cities of the eastern seaboard. But Madison lies just within New York's thousand-mile forcefield. So this was really a courtesy visit, we assured each other as the train rattled cityward through Linden and Rahway, because back home we were already terrific urbanites, who gloried in each fat Sunday New York Times; had seen (though never eaten) a water bagel; had visited Chicago on bus trips since junior high.

But New York undid us. Three blocks from Penn Station, at Broadway and Herald Square, we clung together in a Macy's doorway, stunned, disoriented, drowning. Even when we shouted we could not hear each other; almost nothing is louder than midtown Manhattan, not even a jet engine at close range. The gray urban air smelled of sewers and diesel and burned pushcart chestnuts. The local signage was full of opinions: LITTERING IS FILTHY AND SELFISH. DON'T EVEN THINK ABOUT PARKING HERE. And no matter which way I looked to find a horizon, I saw only faces -- near, nearer, gone: Manhattan wedges 1.5 million residents plus three million commuters onto a granite island thirteen miles long by two miles wide. A band of city pigeons made a showy landing at the curb, barged over, and began to eat our shoelaces.

At least, they looked like pigeons; in truth, these were feral superdoves -- immigrant New Yorkers descended from Old World rock doves and escaped racing birds, honed to urban perfection by urban pressures. New York City pigeons can breed year-round, eat meat, and see ultraviolet light. They perform alarmingly well on tests of symbolic logic. They produce droppings of acid enough to snap cables of the Brooklyn Bridge. I looked down at the iridescent necks of the flock surging about my ankles and up at the impossible Manhattan skyline and began to understand that in this magnificent and unforgiving place, this American Galapagos, adaptation -- change -- is the only law and only hope. My compatriot went home at midyear. He said the New York region was clearly uncivilized; you couldn't even get the noon farm prices on the radio. I stayed, became a commuter, and learned to barge and peck.

But after twenty years spent in and around America's largest city, I began to notice odd alterations in the texture of daily life here, little slubs in the weave. No hog futures on the radio yet, but definitely a spate of wildlife reports -- animal, vegetable, and mineral. A cornfield appeared on Upper Broadway. A Dominican immigrant had noticed a nice piece of land going to waste, there in the median strip, and decided to farm it; the city let him. When a distinctly under-the-weather fox visited the inner suburbs, its cityward progress was breathlessly chronicled on New York's all-news stations (". . . to see what a fox looks like, especially a rabid one, go straight to our Web site at www.1010.WINS!"). By 1999, coyotes and wild turkeys had begun to roam Central Park. ("How did they get there?" demanded The Wall Street Journal. "Crosstown bus?") By 2000, black bear had visited suburban Chappaqua, and the Palisades Parkway. White-tailed deer came back to Manhattan for the first time in generations, making late-night dashes down the Amtrak trestle at the tidal strait called Spuyten Duyvil, on the island's north end, where Henry Hudson once came ashore.

And between Newark and the Jersey Meadowlands one winter morning, I spotted from my train window a dozen egrets, flying low above the dank chemical mudflats, an arrow of white headed straight for the World Trade Center. What are they doing here? I wondered, horrified, amazed. How do they live? But a quarter-century of water cleanup has brought ibis and yellow-crowned night herons and the shy and solitary bittern back to that former open sewer, New York Harbor. Hundreds of herons now breed on uninhabited islands off the Bronx and Queens and Staten Island. To see them, you must crawl ashore through great tangles of poison ivy, then hold up a truck mirror to observe their secret rookeries -- but they're there, and flourishing. I had no idea.

It was a figure-ground problem, really. For years, I had looked at Greater New York and seen only what I expected: a profoundly unnatural landscape; a competitive maze; a wonder of money and art that seemed a thrilling human triumph on some days, and on others, a declensionist's delight. New York attracts jeremiads. Emerson called it a sucked orange; Fitzgerald pronounced its grimy suburban sprawl "the ugliest country in the world"; Vonnegut thought it a skyscraper national park. Yet above, around, behind, below, I began to find another New York, suppressed or silent in daylight, exceedingly lively from twilight to dawn.

Because I am interested in how place shapes people, and vice versa, over the last eight years I have been writing books -- as a reporter, as a participant-observer, as a witness -- about American landscapes in the grip of change, like the Great Plains, like the college campus: for both, deciding who and what must alter stirred the deepest passions and the worst fights. Yet all the while I was living in Greater New York, of all American landscapes the most transformed and conflicted, the best studied, and the least understood. Four years ago, when I started gathering material for Wild Nights, much of it seemed academic speculation, or outright fantasy, like the damage projections for a Manhattan-bound hurricane, or researchers' solemn warnings on the migratory potential of jet-age viruses. Yet as fictions turn to fact, and theories become headlines, the range of potential futures for The City -- any city -- becomes daily more distinct. Some urban futures are reassuring, others dire. But nearly all evoke our species' ancient dread of nature coming back to a human-claimed place: the return, the retaking. The books first section ("Sky and Water") considers the mystery of nature's resurgence in the urban and suburban landscapes of the twenty-first century. Part II ("Leaf and Stone") traces the history of the nature/culture shoving match that so distinctively shaped greater New York. The final section ("Day and Night") suggests some outcomes for this new and baffling wilderness: the contingencies, the competing visions, the odds for us all.

For human and nonhuman to covet the same real estate is no light matter, since the next decades will be the first truly urban period in human history. At the turn of the twenty-first century, half of us were concentrated in the world's metropolitan areas, particularly twenty or so emerging supercities, chief among them New York, Los Angeles, London, Rio, Mexico City, Djakarta, Calcutta, Lagos, Nairobi, and Dacca. By 2050, three-fourths of our species will be city creatures. Already, about one American in fifteen lives in New York, or in the New York suburbs.

Yet throughout the United States, as from Toronto to Tokyo, nature/culture confrontation is becoming part of urban, suburban, and periurban routine. Some encounters in this new wilderness charm us; some we dread; others we badly misunderstand. Archaeology, history, and the earth sciences all tell us that other citified cultures, in other centuries, met such tests too. Most failed -- some gradually, some with spectacular rapidity -- for reasons already repeating themselves in the five boroughs today, and in the fifty states. 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.

New York has long cultivated an edgy relationship with nature, that big green blur between the lobby and the cab. To be vague or dismissive about the resurgent natural world is the last acceptable prejudice in The City, which talks a lot about diversity, but about biodiversity hardly at all. Yet the array of new pressures already hard upon New York are all environmental, from regional hyperdevelopment to the effects of climate change on an island metropolis. New York, that fashion-forward town, has never minded change, if it can set the terms -- a luxury that may no longer be possible. For centuries now, the city of New York has resolutely rushed ahead, determined to find the best deal, to never waste time, to never show weakness. It rarely looks around, rarely looks back. Maybe it should. Wild does not always mean natural; urban is not the same as tame. Even in Manhattan, you are never more than three feet from a spider.