Screeeeeeeee! That’s my best keyboarded attempt at a peregrine falcon cry. You’ll have to use your imagination.
Why begin this City Creatures blog post with the peregrine equivalent of a mighty YAWP? We have reason to celebrate. With the transition and unveiling of the new website structure at the Center for Humans and Nature, the City Creatures Blog is metaphorically flying into the deep blue sky. Essays, poems, and art about urban nature will now be part of our “Stories & Ideas.”
We launched the blog as a way to digitally expand the amazing work of the edited book City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness. And now, the blog has been flapping its wings for almost a decade. A decade (!) of lively, thoughtful, wonder-inspiring stories from cities around the world.
To mark the transition to new things in this final blog entry, we thought it would be appropriate to collect thoughts from some of the book contributors. Specifically, we wanted to know:
How has your work been impacted by your contribution to the City Creatures book?
How have your perceptions of, work with, or activism on behalf of urban wildlife evolved over the past ten years?
Do you have a new story, essay, poem, or artwork related to City Creatures that you would like to share?
You’ll find a collage of responses below, reflecting well the diversity of ways we can engage with, better understand, and deepen our relationships with urban areas.
The blog has covered a lot of ground over the years, but always at its core has been an invitation to our readers to open their senses to other-than-human creatures in our shared urban habitats. Cities are lifeworlds, full of wild presences. They contain countless stories, only some of which are human.
We thank you for sharing this journey with us—from rooftop nests to underground rivers, we are reminded that we dwell in the midst of wondrous beings, who thread their lives and stories through our own.
My contribution to City Creatures reflected on my childhood encounter with fish—specifically, great piles of dead alewives—on the shores of Lake Michigan in Chicago. It was about the fish proper, but also about the alewife as a “gateway species” for confronting the history and complexity of dynamic ecosystems, and our actions as humans within them. Like the fish of the lake, that reality so often exists under the surface of our perception. “We are all part of a kaleidoscopic ecology,” I wrote back then, “an ever-shifting pattern of pieces and processes, its parts constantly coming into the field of view, rearranging themselves, fading and falling, reappearing and recirculating anew.”
I have recently repurposed my contribution to open a book-in-progress that explores this theme at length, in varied landscapes. In revisiting the lake and my chapter, I took another look at the alewife and all they represent. The fish of Lake Michigan, I now write, “allowed me to see beneath the water’s surface into the complex and changing reality below. But even that view was far too simple, for what goes on underwater reflects what happens on the land, and within the entire watershed of the lake. What happens there reflects realities that stretch across the continent and around the world.” Our world is defined by rapid social and environmental change, and our varied responses to such change. I turn again to the lake and its fish for orientation. “Lives in motion, communities of change. And so it goes—out there in the great lake, under the waves, all the time.” The modest alewife tells its story: It is as good a species, and Chicago as good a place, from which to strive toward comprehension.
Ed. note – Amy Newman continues to write poems that explore the lives of urban animals. Her work often meditates on and draws us close to the lives and deaths of other creatures—hunger, fragile beauty, powerful want. In response to the invitation mentioned previously, she offered these three poems.
The old cat turns by curving
what’s left of his body
beyond the careless trees. Does it ache,
each twinge and cramp, to wander in hunger,
ever fruitless at eye-level?
Across the lawn the sunlight has nearly given up
dragging out its whites like a chapel veil,
faking away its sullied past,
having come all that way to promise tenderness
only to flee again, leaving me, my mouth, my heart.
Now the deadpan fox has changed his course.
The twitch and bristle of instinct,
tender as murder, my god, and next,
under the mangy strands of wind, under the chill,
animals are sources, little meats!
Let the loving deaths begin,
let out the ashes, the brocade of bone,
layer atop layer of flesh unfastened,
the veins undone, the whole skinflint world.
Aren’t you tired of it all, aren’t you weary,
cat, having to place one foot after the other
towards evening’s stingy gristle? No comment.
Neither the cat nor the grass he bother
scan recognize any largeness of his life,
the creature’s stubborn desire
to find its commonplace, its eternal,
as if anything ever adds up to poetry.
The sun’s gone now. Bleak forfeit.
Old habits pacing, the wind rearranging its yes,
the X-ray moon revising the evening’s bones.
Rabbit and Hawk
In the interval, an element and its hostile equivalent.
The hawk flies up with a difficult freight,
then rabbit substance drops in soft failure. I see
a puny spectacular, the ooze and filtrate,
red gush mechanics of vanishing.
Dead rabbit eyes emptying out, released into the wild,
and it felt like a kiss, unloved. So this is all, I thought.
The god apparatus distracted in reverie,
The god project agitated elsewhere, a spark:
thinking of a god, I make a god,
a larva god shivering in fuels,
waxing in a god lathe, turning in truant resins.
Does he resent my missing his presence?
The window frame hive body, the mind’s sharpened tools.
I had catalogued your restless flowers,
spun your birds into dimension, navigated
each tooth and feather, each difficult beadwork eye
above your half-tone death yard, your acute, excitable
accelerant dusk. It took layers of need to sew you up, god thimble,
sullen, intractable threads, brood materials, your death love!
The unwieldy scours my blood, your incognito split open
as the hawk pivots its fibrous wits at the pencil’s edge
above the limited world’s meats and pelts,
all perceiving motor, optic nerve, dead hunger.
A Chastisement of Deer
In the white of the yard the snow provides,
they arrived, making form seem careless dream
while they fed. From their sentences (like guides)
I know they swung back hoof to front, to seem
to letter selves through white in slow confessions.
I want to know the faith they’re lurching toward.
Something like faith in hunger, no question,
as if the yard, garden of snow, orchard
of that old longing, had swung wide its gates
to welcome nature back this speechless way.
The deer write some belief against all fates,
against the brood of deer as starving prey.
Whatever they have left for me to find
has purpose, meaning. Brushed against the briar,
written in their drafting, no forced design
between the time they set out with desire
to pull their bodies through the white Midwest
for green bits under ice, for sustenance.
Their worries are in forage; the deer wrest
Alyce clover and sweet mix from sweet chance.
To draft their winter history alive,
they follow that which thickens them to being,
compose nonfiction of how to survive
beneath the perfect sky. It does not see them.
Since City Creatures was published, I have continued to be inspired by the natural world, exploring themes of mystery, beauty, and transience. One of my recent photography projects, “Because of Blue,” is a series of close-up photographs of a single blue jay—the closer I look, the more astonished I am at the infinite range of blues and incredible beauty of this bird.
Over the last ten years, we’ve watched our neighboring restored habitats get richer and healthier. Rare plants and animals have become common regular breeders in these forest preserves. Some of the “comeback stars” include eared false-foxglove, American woodcock, great spangled fritillary, handsome sedge (yes, this grassy champ has such a name), red-headed woodpecker, orchard oriole, bearded wheat grass, willow flycatcher, and others too rare to name except with a whisper. Hundreds of great people deserve the credit and reap the pleasure of this fine work. Bless us! Plant, animal, soil microfauna, you, me, all of us!
Contributing to City Creatures was a thrill for me. The wide variety of contributions really opened my eyes to the diversity of nature in our own urban backyards. Attempting to help others see this, in 2013 I began volunteering as a nature educator in my forest preserve district. I’ve developed and presented programs about our watershed, monarch butterflies, and animal tracks, and hopefully I stretched a few folks on my Earth Day, mindfulness, and haiku walks. When some of my programs were canceled last year due to the pandemic, I focused my efforts on helping members of my community to appreciate a gem of a park right in our neighborhood. Love our Lake, a short nature film, was born. You can view it at: https://youtu.be/IgtEaKceatc.
As I read various contributions to the City Creatures book, I’m mostly awed by the insights, passion, and commitment of contributors, such as Steve Packard on the prairie orchid and Stephan Swanson on the Massasauga rattlesnake. Every time I open the book, I find a new treasure that teaches me more about city creatures.
I will offer here one of my pictures of the 300-year-old Bur Oak in Jackson Park’s Wooded Island, the Bur Oak I have photographed countless times since first discovering this tree in January of 2019. I visit the tree often and feel deep gratitude for the presence of this tree in all her steadfast ever-changing life.
My work has been impacted very powerfully and meaningfully by City Creatures. I was honored to be brought into the planning process for the book and blog project from its very early stages in 2011. That was only a year after two colleagues and I founded the Sustainability Studies undergraduate program at Roosevelt University in Chicago. So just as we were in the early stages of developing and growing that interdisciplinary program, I was building new relationships within the Center for Humans and Nature community through City Creatures. These activities felt very complementary, and reinforced my conviction that the environmental humanities are a strong and necessary component of sustainability education, research, and outreach. The year the book was published, 2015, I began teaching a short summer field course at RU entitled “Writing Urban Nature,” and we used City Creatures as our key text. Some of the notable examples of student writing that came out of four years of the class are published as an online writing project on our SUST @ RU blog. This part of my teaching was very much inspired by working on this book as well as writing for and reading the blog.
More personally, becoming part of a local community of writers, artists, and naturalists through the City Creatures project enriched my perceptions of and knowledge about the urban environment, and pushed me as a writer to explore creative nonfiction more seriously and intentionally than I had before. I remember how incredible it was to go on that CHN writers’ and artists’ retreat to the Indiana Dunes back in May of 2012, something I had never experienced before and greatly enjoyed. Being able to bring my children along was very memorable, and highlighted for me the importance of maintaining a childlike wonder at the natural world and curiosity about our urban green spaces. I loved how this and subsequent gatherings created camaraderie and community, which inspired and influenced my own thinking and writing about urban environments and our place in them as humans.
These experiences have informed efforts in our home landscape—a small city lot in Joliet, Illinois—to create a native plant community and enhance biodiversity in our modest corner of the urban world. The changes have happened in small steps over the years, but now we have a small backyard prairie behind our house and along the alley, and a woodland garden along the shaded north side of the house to go along with our little vegetable garden on the sunny south side. We’re oddballs in the neighborhood, but the spectacular summer wildflower displays have inspired some great conversations with neighbors and strangers in our alley.
Another thing has been experiencing the ways in which urban wildlife can bring people together and create joy in observing and appreciating other creatures in our midst. We’ve always been conscious of this in my family and brought our kids up to be observant and appreciative of the natural world; but for me, involvement with the City Creatures project got me thinking about how this personal part of my life—my relationships with family, friends, and neighbors—connected in a very deep way to the work I do as a scholar, writer, and teacher. In many ways, urban nature and the wild creatures that inhabit it are at the center of all of these things. Every day we look out our windows at our bird and insect friends congregating at our feeders, or buzzing around our wildflowers, and give thanks that they exist, and relish the delight and beauty they bring into our lives.
Connecting with the City Creatures team a decade ago reinforced my optimism that there is a growing number of people actively working to improve how human & nonhumans coexist, especially in an urban environment. Putting down on paper my experience with a family of Cooper’s hawks led to volunteering with Chicago Bird Collision Monitors to rescue injured birds, mostly raptors. As a photographer, seeing an eagle, hawk, or falcon in flight and trying to capture on film their magnificence was always an exciting challenge. Surpassed only by holding close a rescued hawk/falcon/owl during rescue and transfer them to a carrier—twenty seconds of intimacy that is indescribable. Or the tiny Blackburnian warbler needing help midway on his thousand-mile migration trip. Meeting the kind-hearted group involved with City Creatures was a stepping stone to becoming more active in human & nonhuman interaction projects.
Volunteering as a bird rescuer covers a wide range of emotions. From witnessing the joyful moment a fledgling falcon is reunited with their parents to providing hospice guaranteeing a soft ending. Experiencing all of that gave me a new appreciation for their vibrance in life and the startling elegance in their quiet. I am honored to have shared space & time with hundreds of our winged relatives—an extraordinary closeness that enriches my life.
Tom Montgomery Fate
In my essay in City Creatures many years ago, I reflected on the emotional weight of death—of our cat, Rosie, and our dear friend and neighbor, Ellen. Is the sense of loss for a human animal different than for the loss of an animal who is not human?
Last year, while writing about my mother’s life and death during Covid, I found myself deeply attentive to the animal and bird life in our suburban backyard, and again wondering about what it might teach us about how to live and die.
The excerpt below is from my essay entitled, “A Great Plenty,” from my forthcoming book The Long Way Home: Detours and Discoveries (North Liberty, IA: Ice Cube Press, 2022). The book will be available from the press website: www.icecubepress.com and at bookstores all across the country.
The soft spring rain felt like an invitation. So I waited and watched.
As a crazed blue jay bullied a starling off our birdfeeder, a coyote slinked through the prickly wall of buckthorn that lines our yard, and stepped onto our wooden deck. He was peering through the cracks between the boards—hunting the pack of chipmunks who have turned the dark cavern below into a new subdivision.
Was it the same coyote I surprised at our garbage can a few days prior? Only eight feet away, and staring him down through a large window in our family room, I still couldn’t tell. Even when I waved and tapped on the glass he ignored me, indifferent, even defiant. Finally, he loped away.
A wild creature abruptly appearing in our suburban backyard conjured up a writer I’ve come to rely on over the years. Thoreau, too, refused to be domesticated. I started rereading him amid the cabin-fever of the pandemic, and found his musings on his two-year quarantine at Walden Pond newly relevant. Maybe because he also lived through a pandemic—tuberculosis—which took his life at 44. “Only that traveling is good which reveals to me the value of home,” he wrote, “and enables me to enjoy it better.” Thoreau loudly proclaims the gospel of now over and over in Walden—that the present tense is not a cage but a gift, that solitude should inspire rather than mire.
During the Covid pandemic such ideas have been useful. Most of us found some relief from physical isolation in Zoomathons and social media, but that kind of presence only goes so far. Soon, the sad hum of anxiety began to drone 24/7 from our laptops and smart phones, and so we got reacquainted with the natural world, or with our partners, or ourselves, as we learned to travel at home, and reimagine time—to recover the arts of baking bread and reading books or simply walking.
Thoreau might call this new attentiveness—to place and people and presence—“a more deliberate life.” Not a simpler life, but more meaning-filled. For some, it was the silver lining that still shimmers.
But the pandemic has caused more shadow than shimmer—enormous suffering and loss. Millions of people around the globe have perished, and hundreds of millions have lost their jobs or businesses.
I lost my mom during Covid. It was a year ago. Though 95, with a walker and waning memory, her death unleashed an emotional typhoon in me that was equal parts grief and gratitude. The waves are still breaking now, as I write and watch the rain, and think of her, and her deliberate life—the joy she found in the daily routines of life in a small town. Like Thoreau, she was frugal, and stayed put. Unlike Thoreau, the family she created was her home.
I sensed her presence that morning, as the rain ticked on the roof, and a robin glided by with a beak full of wet grass, and flapped up to his mate in the crook of a silver maple. She was preening in the nest—adding and adjusting the twigs and leaves—getting ready. The birds had just returned to northern Illinois from a winter feeding ground somewhere south. An internal geo-magnetic compass allows them to home their way back to their nesting place each spring. For birds, home is both verb and noun—both journey and destination.
Oddly, I think it was for my Mom, too. She was always traveling home, to her family. Though she had a different kind of compass, a different magnetic force—love—which she shared with anyone who could not find their way, including me, and my dad and three older brothers. Her needle always seemed to be pointing to others. I think it still is.
GROWING A SMALL MILKWEED FOREST
Over the past ten years I have become particularly involved with growing milkweed in abundance in my backyard, to assist specifically the plight of monarchs. I have also modified my plant selection and am growing mostly native perennials, colorful pollinator-attracting plants, and vegetables that will attract and assist the greatest numbers of pollinating species, including birds, bees, butterflies—monarchs and others, moths, and more.
I am a visual artist, writer, and poet, and have documented my milkweed-monarch, pollinator-centric nature via my artwork and poetry, and am more than happy to share some of these works with you. My intent lies in bringing these works to a broad audience, in efforts to open others’ eyes to the importance of our coexisting and assisting with the future of these important species. We need each other to flourish and exist!
I’m sharing with you a series of four oil paintings that follow milkweed through the seasons. The series is still a work-in-progress. The four paintings are, Spring Milkweed, Summer Milkweed, Fall Milkweed, and Winter Milkweed—still to come. Each painting has a poem tied to that season, and will be reproduced on the back of the painting. The paintings will be suspended from the ceiling, enabling the viewer, you, to walk around, up close, and through them as if you are in an actual milkweed patch.
My interests in nature around us never seems to cease. I’m magnetically drawn to it and compelled to share these overwhelming feelings via my art and writing. Presently I’m working on a small book, Bird Lovers A – Z, that will have artwork of birds and many poems, for a kindred-spirit bird-loving audience.
I am grateful for the opportunity once again to share my nature-concerned ponderings with the folks who organized the powerfully rich City Creatures book and exhibit, Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian.
The following three oil paintings are from my Milkweed Through the Seasons series. They were begun en plein air (outside in my garden) as weather allowed.