Wild Nights


(First published in The Boston Globe, June 22, 2001 )

One morning in June 1996, Boston woke up to a delicious television story. A young moose had unaccountably decided to stroll through Cleveland Circle. News cameras caught him wandering through backyards and crossing Beacon Street against the light. Then the photogenic ruminant turned shy. Wildlife officers scoured the precincts of the Chestnut Hill Mall and the Cleveland Circle Cinema for hours before Bullwinkle was finally discovered taking a comfortable afternoon nap alongside the Green Line.

According to Anne Matthews, the author of “Wild Nights,” it happens all the time in New York City. Wild turkeys strut though Central Park, coyotes patrol the Bronx, and snapping turtles crawl over the Cross Bay Bridge. Even in New York, the ultimate urban place, honey locusts crack the concrete casings of the great railroad viaducts, cottonwood colonizes construction rubble, and wind-born seedlings patiently attempt to turn the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway into a maple grove. We can build bridges and pour concrete, but the wild will take its own back. Nature, Matthews tells us, always bats last. Bats are among the wild creatures that Matthews sees swooping past midtown skyscrapers along with birds of improbably rural kinds. “When the seasons are changing, you can stand on Wall Street in the small hours and hear the migrants calling, faint and high, as they stream above the sleeping city. Some travel singly, some in groups: a kettle of hawks, a siege of herons, a wedge of swans. Aerial traffic rises near each equinox, but migrating birds fly over Manhattan nearly every night of the year.”

Turning from birds to mammals, Matthews discovers deer, raccoon, and opossums, but, although she looked hard, no bigger animals have appeared in the five boroughs recently. Not, that is, in the last two or three centuries. The occasional porpoise swims up the East River, but no whales. Hawks, but no eagles. Deer, but no moose. And, to Matthews’s palpable disappointment, none of the marquee-name predators has crossed the New York City line.

There are no bears in the Bronx, no wolves on the West Side, no mountain lions in Manhattan. Humans, we learn, are about the same body weight as deer, and a hungry mountain lion will seize and eat whichever one runs past on a California hillside. “Wild Nights” is full of such tidbits about human encounters with nature.

We watch as Matthews follows the people whose job it is to chronicle the wildlife of the big city. A wildlife biologist bands peregrine falcon chicks on a ledge high above the Cornell Medical School. A park ranger leads a nature hike to watch horseshoe crabs lay their eggs at the edge of Jamaica Bay. An ornithologist collects and freezes songbirds that have broken their necks against the plate-glass walls of the World Trade Center, creatures so delicate that when one casualty is placed in the author’s hand, she tells us, “If I had not seen the honey and amber warbler lying in my hand, I would swear my palm was empty.”

None of this will surprise New Yorkers who have had their eyes open in recent years. Ring-neck pheasants strolling the grassy berm of the Van Wyck Expressway and the return of striped bass to the Hudson River have long been remarked by nature-minded New Yorkers, although few reports have been as delightful to read as “Wild Nights.” Matthews kept me turning the pages to see where this improbable influx of wildlife would lead. The experience was rather like watching the play of water in the Bethesda Fountain in Central Park: extremely beautiful, but shallow, and in the end all the dazzling flow of glittering prose doesn’t go very far.

Matthews has little interest in inquiring why creatures that have not been seen in Manhattan for centuries are suddenly back. She watches black bears amble along a New Jersey roadside, amiably munching berries. But bears are also ferocious predators that strike with lightning speed, take down large mammals, and tear apart flesh with tooth and claw built for the purpose.

Farmers know what bears eat: cattle, sheep, and hogs. Black bears have returned to the New Jersey suburbs because New Jersey is no longer populated by farmers defending their herds with rifles. And the disappearance of farms from the Garden State is only one aspect of a complex web of human interactions with other species. Another of the multiple factors at work here is the fact that the very nature of some species has changed.

In his memoir “The Story of My Boyhood and Youth,” John Muir describes the Canada geese of 19th-century Wisconsin, and they are hardly recognizable as the same species Matthews encounters making nuisances of themselves on suburban golf courses. Muir’s geese were the alluring but rarely achieved quarry of ambitious hunters. Migrating flocks would circle a marsh cautiously, refusing to land if there was a farmhouse in sight. When they did land to graze, guard geese stood at attention, scanning the landscape and alerting the flock to take to the sky at the first sign of a human presence. Hunters almost never bagged a Canada goose because they couldn’t get close enough to get a shot off.

Unapproachable Canada geese? The ubiquitous nuisance birds that take over suburban lawns, refuse to be shooed away, and mob hapless toddlers whose bread crumb bags are empty?

Well, yes. Muir was a close observer of nature, and I would be loath not to take his word for it. Matthews, like Muir, is a close observer of nature who paints vivid pictures of her world. Unlike Muir, who walked the Sierra Nevada in search of nature untouched by humans, Matthews waits in Manhattan to observe those odd aspects of the natural world that make their way to the big city.