Despite Adversity, Some Species Just Survive

Coyotes, whose lugubrious howl defines the badlands, have spread over the eastern United States. But this coyote reached Midtown. Naturalists think he crossed into Manhattan from mainland America over one of the northern bridges, then made his way south via Riverside Park. Between that and Central Park lie the apartments of many liberals; the beast must have slunk past them in the night. Your average New Yorker probably can’t tell a coyote from Balto the Sled Dog, but Central Park’s rangers could, and soon a massive animal-hunt was under way. The Times ran a picture of the coyote sneaking, like the Roadrunner, behind the back of a determined stalker. At last he was tranquilized, a few blocks from the Plaza Hotel.

dassNew York takes an interest in natural irruptions because there is so little nature left here. When the Dutch discovered it, the great harbor was like Monterey Bay, filled with seals and whales. When George Washington arrived in a ceremonial barge for his first inauguration, he was followed (a detail that always makes my eyes tear) by leaping porpoises. Foot-long oysters used to be harvested in Gowanus Creek; now the only fruit of the Gowanus Canal is tires, which glow in the dark and are poisonous. Over the centuries, New Yorkers have drained the marshes, filled the gullies, shaved the hills, and straightened the coastline. When we finally grew impatient with the curve of Spuyten Duyvel, the creek at Manhattan’s northern tip, we moved it and renamed it the Harlem River Ship Canal. Nature in New York has been flattened, strangled, buried.

And yet it persists. Because naked streets become hellish canyons in summer, the city plants trees. When one species succumbs to a blight, it switches to another. The current tree of choice is the Callery pear, a fruitless variety brought by missionaries from China. Its leaves are the last to turn bronze in the fall, and its puffy white blossoms are the first to appear in the spring. Every April, skanky East Village blocks lined with Afghan restaurants and jewelry stores that do piercings become cloud-banks. Just down the hill from nr’s old office, the street that pours traffic into and out of the Midtown Tunnel looks, for a brief season, like a lane from A Shropshire Lad.

On summer nights, choruses of insects compete with car alarms and garbage trucks. A Swedish naturalist who came to the city in the early 18th century remarked that the nighttime din of tree frogs was so great that conversation was impossible. Very likely he was hearing bugs instead. “Bugs,” I know, is imprecise; unless I see their taxi license on the bullet proof interior divider, how am I supposed to know their proper name? But whatever they call themselves, they make quite a racket. In July they are accompanied by fireflies, setting off their own inches-high fireworks displays, with what seems like special relish over the signs that warn, keep off the grass.

Some species flourish here. Vermin, of course-roaches, rats, silverfish. Pigeons are pests, but they are wonderful, with their iridescent throats and their solemn, seemingly purposeful walks that always break up into zigzags. Peregrine falcons nest on skyscrapers and bridge trusses, feasting on the pigeons.

Sometimes abused nature hits back. The heat waves are the grimmest, although the whopper snowstorms speak with the most authority. The blizzard of 1888, which struck in March, dropped more than 21 inches of snow; winds piled it into enormous drifts. Sen. Roscoe Conkling was trapped for 20 minutes in a huge one in Union Square, and died of pneumonia shortly thereafter. An Irish kid, Alfred E. Smith, saw people walking across the frozen East River, just to be able to say they had done it. A few winters ago, we got even more snow, minus death and ice.

The only reason to go on about urban nature, apart from the fact that everyone likes to talk about the weather, is that it is typical of nature all over the United States. Americans do their considerable best to tame it and put it to use, but it never quite works. North America is just not a dependably pleasant place to live. In 1944, Denis W. Brogan, an English journalist, devoted several pages of his book, The American Character, to what struck a foreigner as “the savage possibilities of the climate.” “It is no accident,” he wrote, “that a great American fairy tale, The Wizard of Oz, begins with a tornado and storm cellar” or “that one of the most important inventions of that most representative of Americans, Franklin, was an efficient stove (another was the lightning conductor).” Americans need temperature control, and protection from acts of God.

This is the flip side of our feeling that America is Eden. Maybe it was impious to come back. D. H. Lawrence thought that the last Mohicans in James Fenimore Cooper represented the guilty conscience of their white supplanters. New York has an equivalent urban myth-the pet baby alligators that, when flushed down toilets by children who tired of them, grew into albino monsters in the sewers. There are no alligators down there, but the tale tells a truth: We are still fairly new in the neighborhood, and we don’t quite fit.

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