Our book today is Wild Nights, the winning little work of urban natural history Anne Matthews wrote in 2001, a smart, informed book that follows in the natural history footsteps of such works as Cathy Johnson’s The Nocturnal Naturalist (and act as precursors to great books like Marie Winn’s Central Park in the Dark) by turning a naturalist’s eye and notebook to the close-focus: the wildlife that, as Matthews’ sub-title puts it, “returns to the city.” It’s a popular subject, especially for what Matthews calls “confirmed urbanites” who are alternately entranced and appalled by the thought of sharing their space with wild things. In other words, the book is about Manhattan – although our author is willing to expand that prejudice to include all islands, which, for their isolation and idiosyncrasy, she characterizes as nature’s Petri dishes:
A dead island pig left at roadside simply isn’t there in the morning. The other island pigs devour it. Nothing is left but a stain. On an island, Darwinian processes are distilled and magnified. There is nowhere else to go. This is it. Work it out, or die.
“Islands intensify,” she tells us. “Islands also accumulate. Once something is on-island, whether artifact or life-form, you can’t get it off without enormous trouble.” And while a little of this goes a long way (hobbyist naturalists like Matthews have a tendency to talk about Manhattan as though it were as isolated as Tonga, when in fact a third of this particular island’s school children don’t even know it is an island), it serves one of the author’s purposes, which is to remind readers that nature is all around them, whether they choose to see it or not.
Matthews covers a wide spectrum in writing about that resurgent natural world, but since this is at heart a New York book, there’s one member of the animal kingdom who’s of course waiting impatiently to step on-stage – and Matthews doesn’t disappoint:
Rats like to socialize, just not with us. Lords of the night city, with territorial maps as precise as any falcon’s, they avoid humans whenever possible. In the country, rats may life in packs of up to two hundred, capable of killing piglets or lambs. In cities, they form smaller but even more aggressive gangs. One New York rat population traditionally summers in Central Park but invades East Side apartment buildings when the weather cools. Another tenacious pack defends the Manhattan end of the Brooklyn Bridge, terrorizing pedestrians. Morninside Heights, near Columbia, is a famous rat zone; park your car on the street overnight, and by morning the local rats may have built a nest in the engine.
After regaling her readers with satisfyingly blood-curdling mentions of New York sewer rats that measured seventeen inches long, she extols the ingenuity of the little bastards:
Rats are smart: although a fast-forward version of natural selection has made rats in many big cities immune to nearly all conventional poisons, they still may press one pack member into service as a taster; if the test rat dies, the others resolutely avoid the bait.
Of course there’s a good deal more to Wild Nights than rats – there’s a multitude of birds as well, and foxes like the one on the book’s cover, and coyotes, and wild turkeys, and innumerable mice and squirrels and pigeons … and there’s the vanishing night sky as well, swallowed by buildings and light pollution. And all of it is presented in enormously vivacious prose – Matthews has written a nature book that even her confirmed urbanites will love.