Conversation with Gavin Van Horn

4,205 total words    

17 minutes of reading

I met Gavin Van Horn in the offices of the Center for Humans and Nature, located on the twenty-eighth floor of the Lyric Opera Building in Chicago. The titles of the books lining the walls of each of the five or six offices give clues about the substance of the Center’s work in promoting an understanding of the relationship between humans and nature and the ethical questions that need to be considered. Conversations in a small conference room turn on how best to bring the ideas generated by the Center staff and its many volunteers into a larger public forum. Like the other offices, Gavin’s contains ample evidence that it is a place where thought-provoking work is accomplished.


JB: Gavin, your job title of Director of Cultures of Conservation at the Center for Humans and Nature seems far reaching, and it takes you into a number of projects that employ your educational background and your research interests. Were you contemplating a position like this when you did your graduate work at Princeton and the University of Florida?

GVH: Well, I couldn’t have dreamed up a position that was any better than it turned out to be, really, and I had no idea something like the Center existed. Before you encountered the Center for Humans and Nature, Jim, I’m sure you didn’t know that there was something like this organization out there on the landscape. But once you found it, you probably had the same feeling that I did, which was “Wow! This intersection of topics is perfectly suited for my interests.” And a lot of people who find the Center’s website or hear about it through a friend have the same reaction. I know, because people have e-mailed us saying that they never knew this community of people was out there. So I think a lot of people have the feeling of coming home or finding that space of conversation and dialogue that they always wanted and never knew was there.

As far as my background goes, I had academic training in religious studies, but I was also always a person who liked to get outside. I liked to explore—camping and fishing and that sort of thing. Nature was my place of solace, my place of being humbled by big landscapes, my sacred space. And so, combining my interest in the sacred and my love of nature, I realized, was what I wanted to do. I know from talking to people who have recently attended Princeton that the program is shifting somewhat, that there are more opportunities now for people to study the way that religious beliefs and values influence people’s views about the environment. But that was only just emerging when I was there. And when I was there, I was a little bit frustrated because I felt like the focus of a seminary education shouldn’t be solely on people. In other words, our obligations, our responsibilities, don’t end with other human beings. They should be much more encompassing. But I didn’t see or hear a lot of talk about that, which was puzzling to a person for whom the book of nature, if you will, had always been formative in my understanding of spirituality, my understanding of religious experience. So when I went to get my Ph.D., combining those two interests was really important to me as a field of study. And to circle back to your original question, when you find an organization whose name is the Center for Humans and Nature, you know you’ve come home.

JB: Right. And you introduced me to the Center, if you remember, over a cup of coffee over two years ago, I think. And I certainly thank you for that. At that time, you told me that you had something that you were working on, a collaborative anthology with David Aftandilian, an associate professor of anthropology at Texas Christian University. That anthology is now a reality titled City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness, recently published by the University of Chicago Press. Was this an idea that you came up with as Director of Cultures of Conservation? And how did you and David decide to collaborate on the book?

GVH: Interestingly enough, while I was applying for this position, I was teaching environmental studies at Southwestern University. I knew Dave from the American Academy of Religion, which is a national group of religious studies scholars that meets once a year. I met Dave through the animals and religion group at the AAR. I immediately wanted to get to know him better, and we had some informal discussions outside the typical conference goings-on. So Dave was in my mind as a person with whom I shared interests. We were both trying to incorporate animals into our teaching. I taught a class at Southwestern called “Wildlife Ethics.” Dave teaches various classes at Texas Christian that focus on animals. When I was still a professor at Southwestern, the university hosted a conference on animals, and Dave came down as an invited participant. At that time, I was thinking of applying for the Center job, and Dave had worked at some point on a project for the Center when Strachan Donnelley, its founder, was still with us. Dave had nothing but good things to say about it. And I said to him, “If I get this job, I’m going to make sure that I find a way to wrap you into another Center-related project, probably on animals.” Then I got the job, and one of the things that I outlined as a potential project early on was the City Creatures project, which met with affirmation all the way around. Dave became a fellow for us as part of that project.

I think for me the City Creatures project was interesting on a number of levels. But to speak on a more personal level first, I would say that my orientation to a major metropolitan area like Chicago—the third largest city in the United States—was facilitated by finding out what I could discover about its history, its changing species, its urban adapters. All of that was a larger process of orienting me to this place.

JB: You have a personal story in the anthology about a wolf. Would you say that a wolf carried with it the spirit that helped you with this orientation?

GVH: My dissertation research was on the reintroduction of Mexican gray wolves—not on the wolves themselves necessarily, but on the human dimensions: how people were reacting, what kinds of value conflicts were in play. I thought that with my training I could tease those things apart in a way that might be helpful in an academic context, showing why some of these problems were so intractable, why it is that people were unable to see eye to eye. And that’s probably putting it mildly. Wolves have always been a controversial species in this country, and one of the reasons they are is that, unlike other animals we can more easily ignore, when wolves are on the landscape, you have to take them into account. You can’t ignore them. Although in this country, wolves don’t pose much of a safety threat, you still have to have a heightened awareness if you are in a place with wolves that you wouldn’t if you were in a place with only blue jays or cardinals. So what that means to me is that they expose ethical boundary lines more readily than other species do.

JB: They are often thought of as alien to humankind.

GVH: That’s right. They are oftentimes a species that can be an icon of wildness (as I’ve called them before) and looked at positively, showing that humanity is ready to live with other species, some of whom will never share our own interests. But also they have an elaborate lore associated with them from European cultures and others that makes them the ultimate wild animal in a negative sense—out of control, needing to be tamed or eliminated. They can define the boundary between civilization and animal wildness for many people. And for that reason, they are considered by some persons an unacceptable species on this landscape.

JB: I have heard you talk about “multi-species communities.” I assume you mean by that that these communities harbor not just wild creatures, but also human beings. Can you elaborate on what you mean by “multi-species communities”?

GVH: Sure. I think it is important to remind ourselves with the kind of language that we use of the relationships we have with other species, both plants and animals. And by saying “multi-species community,” I’m really doing nothing except signaling a kind of inclusivity. Often we draw boundary lines between ourselves and other species. We think of ourselves as categorically different. But as Darwin said, we are different in degree, not in kind. Although we have many defining things that we could point to and say make us different, I like to point rather to what we share with other species, the continuities between ourselves and other species. I think that leads to moral consideration of those other animals’ needs and their lives. It makes them harder to dismiss. It gives us more opportunity to recognize their agency on the landscape and that we share in what Mary Midgley calls a “mixed community.” We have these different relationships with animals. Some are domestic animals, like cats and dogs; some are feral; some are what we might call wildlife. We group them into categories. Well, in a mixed community, we don’t collapse those categories but acknowledge that we share a variety of relationships with these other animals. And we have different responsibilities to these animals depending upon the depth of that relationship. Using that phrase “multi-species communities” is one way of pointing to the fact that we are one species on this planet, or in this city, among thousands or millions of others, depending upon the scale that we are looking at. So let’s find out how to be the best human beings we can be in that mixed community.



JB: You and Dave write in your introduction to City Creatures that “the anima of what we now call Chicago is not gone. Not by a long shot—in fact, there’s reason to believe that this spirit is expanding.” Then you add, “City Creatures aims to reanimate Chicago in our eyes.” It might be too early to know the extent to which the anthology has done this. But could you comment on what you expect to happen?

GVH: Well, one should have modest expectations about the work that you put out there and how many people are going to engage it, or whether by reading somebody is actually changed; I set my bar pretty low, I think. On the other hand, if we think of the book as a voice in a chorus of voices, if we can look at it as opening up a space for dialogue and inviting others to view the city with different eyes, then I think there’s nothing wrong with hoping to contribute to that. I’m trying to remember a wonderful quote by Aldo Leopold where he says something along the lines of: there’s a lot to do, but the important thing is to throw your weight behind it and not worry about the enormity of the change that needs to happen.[1] Just to know that you are throwing your weight in the right direction. With this book we are throwing our weight in the right direction.

JB: The book is about what you term “inhabitation” of the Chicago region by animals. Many had been displaced by humans but are now returning to live among us. Is Chicago unique in this? Or do you believe that it reflects what has happened in urban areas throughout the world?

GVH: I think it is happening throughout the world, in some places more than others. There are wild boars roaming the streets of Berlin. Even in a country as densely populated as the Netherlands, they’ve had reports of wolves. So there do seem to be expansions of different species. Of course, that varies from species to species and how successfully those animals are altering their behaviors to adapt to us. But some animals have been quite successful at becoming urban dwellers. Others will need too much space to ever become comfortable in an urban environment. Nevertheless, there are a number of species that, although they may not live within our cities, are at least moving close to or migrating near or around our cities. So yes, we are seeing this around the world. And there are remarkable examples, such as mountain lions near Los Angeles, leopards in Mumbai. Those are eye-catching ones. But, of course, you have a lot of raccoons and squirrels, possums—all sorts of creatures that can actually live longer lives in urban areas because they have reliable food sources and, as long as they can avoid the unforgiving ways of cars on the roads, they do quite well.

JB: Many people are quite surprised by the increasing phenomenon of animal inhabitation. I personally am not surprised by that happening in Chicago, because the city is ringed by forests, dotted with parks, lined by rivers, and on a shore of the world’s largest inland expanse of water—all habitats that nourish animals. Why do you suppose this phenomenon appears to be occurring more often today, especially when we think of cities as being somewhat uninhabitable, even sometimes for human beings, but truly uninhabitable for other species?

GVH: I would speak to that in two different ways, two sides of the same coin. We’ll start with the negative first. The negative is that because of sprawl, because of development in rural areas, and, at least in the case of Illinois and much of the Midwest, which serves as the bread basket of America, you have monocultural farms that do not support a lot of diversity and often are sprayed with all the “cides.” Those lands that are singled out to grow a single crop do not allow for diverse habitat. That’s the negative side of the coin. Pressures are put on animals to find other habitats. The positive side of the coin—and I’ll circle back to the word “inhabitation”—is that a city like Chicago, which, like other cities in the United States, has experienced massive and rapid growth, serves as an example of how dynamics can change. Two hundred years ago there was no Chicago. There were settlers here, but there was not anything close to resembling what we know as a city. As you know, the Chicago River—especially with the advent of the railroads and the stockyards—was once a complete mess. Talk about uninhabitable. It was viewed as an open sewer. To that, you can add all kinds of pollution: air, land, water, and otherwise.

But then people began to figure out that they were going to be here for a while and said to themselves, “We’d better clean up our act and make this place as livable as possible.” So now you have a river that is recovering. You still wouldn’t want to swim in the Chicago River, but awareness raised in the 1960s and 1970s led to laws to protect waterways. We’ve come a long way. There is an essay in the book by Michael Bryson about canoeing down Bubbly Creek—so called because the methane from decomposing animal detritus at the bottom creates bubbles to this day. Nevertheless, he saw all three heron species there and a Sandhill crane. And this is in the heart of Chicago, where he has taken his students on field trips. So there is a recovery going on within these areas. Another great example is what you wrote your poem about [in the book]: the black-crowned night herons coming to dwell at the Lincoln Park Zoo. They wouldn’t have been able to do that if the city were in the same condition that it was a hundred years ago.

When things become scarce, people tend to do something about it. Although Illinois is called the Prairie State, only 0.01 percent of the prairie is left. And people—among them, many who are connected in some way to the Center for Humans and Nature—have set to work to do something about it. When you have enough people, enough person-hours to rally around these areas and commit to their long-term restoration, you start to bring back these habitats and think about what native plants should or could be there.

JB: The Magic Hedge at Montrose Harbor comes to mind.

GVH: There you have a perfect example. Montrose was a Nike missile site during the Cold War. The military installed a honeysuckle hedge, which is a non-native plant, but the birds were just delighted by the creation of this secondhand habitat. And now there is active restoration going on there, with people trying not to tear anything out that might be useful to the birds, but at the same time trying to bring in more native plants and think about what other species might need to thrive in an urban area. So that’s the positive side of the coin, where cities are providing habitats in ways that maybe they weren’t even fifty years ago. I think we’re seeing the results of that, seeing other species taking advantage of those opportunities. Learning about the needs of other species is about becoming inhabitants of this place ourselves.

JB: You have spent many years thinking about the ethical relationship between humans and nature. Do you see that there is an increased consciousness within the human community of the other communities among which they live? I’m thinking of the average person on the street. Is that person beginning to be aware of the presence of these other communities? I’m thinking of a question posed by Robert Michael Pyle in City Creatures asking how a young person who has never seen a wren can understand what it means that a condor has been shot. As you’ve said, City Creatures is one means of raising consciousness. Are there other ways being employed to raise the consciousness of the general public? The City of Chicago’s motto is Urbs in Horto, meaning city in a garden. Lately, the city has increased its adherence to its motto, just as it did over a century ago with the publication of Plan of Chicago.

GVH: Well, we are seeing a growing recognition that is backed up by a growing body of research that green spaces are important psychologically and behaviorally, even if it’s only a small pocket park or a handful of trees. Recognizing the human affiliation for the natural world, it’s not a mystery. If you are a politician and you want to attract young talent to your city and make your city the home of young entrepreneurs who want certain types of space, then you are going to provide it. You can do it for utilitarian reasons. But at the same time, we’ve got organizations that are focusing on giving young people an environmental education, taking young kids out on birding trips in the schools, like the Openlands program Birds in My Neighborhood, or the No Child Left Inside movements. These programs are based on recognition that it is important to foster children’s wonder and curiosity in the natural world. For the kid who does not know a wren, caring about the death of a condor is going to be that much more difficult. But to a kid who learns those birds around us and sees how fascinating they can be, all the wonders they hold, even if those birds are what we might call “common”—and I know this because I have an eight-year-old son—they are anything but common. They are portals to a universe of relationships.

For us, it was important to say, in the words of Gary Paul Nabhan, a contributor to the anthology, that along with the restoration of all of these natural areas throughout the city that provide habitat for other species, that provide us places of connection and solace, we need a “restoryation” of the city. And so our book is putting those stories out there. In other words, in order to care about our cities we are going to have to hear stories that tell us that these cities are valuable as natural areas, that they can be places of connection. They aren’t places that are vacant of other forms of life. They aren’t places that are blank spots on a map when it comes to biodiversity. Old stories of the city often drew a hard line between the city and nature. Now that line is being breached or dissolved. We are contributing to that by restorying and restoring our natural surroundings. We might have grown up with those stories or come to see the value of natural places as adults—adults are not beyond the pale of being reachable. Though the book is, in fact, targeted to adults, I heard that Brooke Hecht’s (the President of the Center) daughter Tara was reading it on the couch the other day. So this book is a way of restorying urban nature, for all/many ages. All the stories, whether they come in essay form or poetry or images, give the reader a chance to see things from fresh angles with new insights. All of these stories say, “Don’t dismiss this life around us. In fact, there is a world full of wonders awaiting.”

JB: I think you’ve pretty well summed up everything in this book. This anthology is not an endgame for you. Could you talk a bit about your next project?

GVH: The next project is a book that I am co-editing with John Hausdoerffer called Wildness: Relations of People and Place. The book is similar to City Creatures in that we asked our contributors to tell personal stories, engaging stories, to tell them from a ground-up point of view, but they are linked thematically by an exploration of wildness as something that exists in degrees across the landscape, from heavily populated urban areas to monumental wilderness areas such as Yellowstone, Glacier National Park, and Denali.

We want to emphasize that wildness can be found wherever you are. Not only that, this relative wild signals that we are kin to other animals, other species, other plants, that we share a relationship with these animals biologically, psychologically, socially. We want to counter the myth that whatever humans touch is defiled. Humans can “co-create” the wild through our participation, through our work, through our engagement. And this is about “inhabitation,” as we learn to respect other species, as we learn the needs of other species, we can react and actually manage our landscapes in ways that allow for mutual flourishing of this mixed community. You have a lot of different examples of that in the book, from working agricultural landscapes to sustainable forestry (regenerative forestry, as it is sometimes called), to ranching in ways that account for the well-being of the land as a whole. We also have such restorative stories from the urban environment.

JB: In conclusion, I wonder if you could comment on how you believe the work for the Center for Humans and Nature will be sustained into the future.

GVH: This comes back to where we started and my interest in this organization. I was in an academic context before. With students you have a captive audience who may or may not absorb the material, who may only be interested in making a certain grade. One of the exciting aspects of this job is thinking about how to reach different audiences; it’s an ongoing exercise in public philosophy. And when I say “public philosophy,” I don’t mean abstract discussions. I mean reaching audiences in language that is accessible, understandable, and comprehensible, so that it starts and continues a dialogue, a conversation. And that’s what I think the Center for Humans and Nature does very well. It is a hub for those conversations that can change us because it does not demand us to think in a single prescribed way. It’s saying that these are important issues, so let’s discuss them in an intelligent way—in a way that furthers the dialogue and clarifies the conversation. I know that Strachan [Donnelley] liked to gather people together to have these stimulating discussions. But he was also a person who had his feet on the ground. It mattered to him what went on in the world. Engaging public audiences about environmental ethics, philosophy, and the importance of ideas should not be confined to an academic institution. It’s wide open. We provide that habitat. And I think that people that are interested in that can invest in us, not only monetarily but also intellectually and actively on a number of levels. I found a home here at the Center, and I think that has been the experience of a lot of people who have found us and discover that it is a hospitable place for the exchange of ideas.

JB: Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us, Gavin, and giving us an insight into the work of the Center for Humans and Nature.

[1] A. Leopold, “The Ecological Conscience,” in A Sand County Almanac and Other Writings on Ecology and Conservation, ed. C. Meine. (New York: The Library of America, 2013), 532: “The direction is clear, and the first step is to throw your weight around on matters of right and wrong in land-use. Cease being intimidated by the argument that a right action is impossible because it does not yield maximum profits, or that a wrong action is to be condoned because it pays. That philosophy is dead in human relations, and its funeral in land-relations is overdue.”

More Stories & Ideas

Scroll to Top