Storying Animals, Reanimating Chicago

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10 minutes of reading

City Creatures (forthcoming November 2015) aims to reanimate Chicago in our eyes: to help introduce readers to the unexpected diversity of finned, feathered, scaled, and furry animals who live alongside us in the city and suburbs. And in turn, we hope that learning about these animals will inspire readers to care about and for them.

Toward those ends, we adopt a story-based approach, both in words and images. For as long as we have been human, and quite possibly well before that, people have been telling stories about animals. While we can’t hear the animal tales that were surely spun around the dancing hearth fires of our earliest ancestors, we can see cave paintings from 30,000 years ago—some of our first representational artworks—which focus almost exclusively on animals, in carefully observed and vividly depicted detail. These animal beings fired our imagina­tions and nurtured our spirits as we pondered ultimate questions about our place in the world; about what it means to be human animals, both like and un­like all the others.

But why stories? Partly because, as Jonathan Gottschall argues in his book The Storytelling Animal, “We are, as a species, addicted to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.” Because we seem hard-wired to love them, “stories can accomplish what no other form of communication can—they can get through to our hearts with a message,” as conservationist Will Rogers puts it in his introduction to The Story Handbook. Moreover, we also remember information better if it is in story form. In other words, stories are a much better way to teach than, say, dry reci­tations of scientific data. This is why indigenous peoples around the world have always used stories to share their knowledge with children and adults alike.

Stories can also help us build relationships and a sense of shared community with other animals. For example, in an essay he wrote for the book What Are the Animals to Us?, Boria Sax coins the term “totemic literature” to describe “an approach . . . based primarily on understanding the changing bonds that people have with other forms of life that share our planet.” In this sense, stories about animals—totemic literature—can help focus our attention on the rela­tionships we have with other animals. Furthermore, stories that foreground other animals as agents, as the essays, poetry, and artworks in City Creatures do—as subjects rather than objects, acting with consciousness and intention in the world—can help us relate to them on a more equal footing.

Telling stories about animals can also make them present to us and change the ways we perceive them. In the case of the often unseen and unthought-of animals with whom we share the city, stories can shift them from invisible and insubstantial to tangible and consequential. For example, the Koyukon of interior Alaska express both scientific and spiritual understandings of animals through stories of the Distant Time, the time before time, at the dawn of creation when humans and animals were one people. But these stories are also intimately tied to close observations of and interactions with living animals in the present. This means that for the Koyukon, as Tim Ingold has argued in his book Being Alive, “every encounter with an animal is . . . equivalent to hearing its story retold. Thus as people go about their business in the woods, they are continually connecting stories of other lives to their own. It is in these connections that the meanings of the stories are found, and from them people draw moral and practical guidance on how to carry on.” Coming back to our Chicago context, we suspect that you will not look at so-called nuisance species like squirrels or opossums, foxes or monk parakeets, crickets or deer, in quite the same way after reading the stories about them in City Creatures.

For all these reasons, then, the stories we tell about animals matter, both to our lives and to theirs. But storying animals is just the first step in reanimating Chicago. The next step is seeking out your own encounters with city creatures and sharing stories about those encounters with others. Why is this so important?

Why City Creatures?

How do we come to know, and become present to, a living city? Some of the readers of the City Creatures book may be scientists by profession, but many more are prob­ably part-time naturalists, urban explorers, creative artisans, outdoor enthusiasts, green-space lovers—or naturally curious, at least. It is our hunch that such readers have an animal to thank for feeling connected to the city as a living place. Why? Non-human animals are arguably the most available and perhaps most compelling means of understanding larger ecological, geographic, and historical issues regarding the relationships between humans and urban nature.

Other readers might not be convinced: Aren’t cities places full of “junk” species—pigeons, squirrels, starlings, rats, and unwanted creepy-crawly insects? The first image a person might call to mind when thinking of urban wildlife might be those animals that are feared as disease-carriers, or that wreak havoc in attics or dumpsters, or that are so ubiquitous, like sparrows, that they are virtually ignored. “True” wildlife may be considered something only found on a television screen, a video game, or in some deep jungle.

There is ample evidence to the contrary. An extraordinary range of animals and a variety of possibilities for encountering them exist throughout metropolitan areas. Moreover, this book offers a new set of lenses through which to view those species that are common but nevertheless have their own remarkable ways of being.

Animals also provide alternative ways to experience familiar places, revealing that the city is not simply a human social network but an ecological web of interactions. Other species can crack open our tendency to focus exclusively on human comings-and-goings; they help us to see urban worlds with new eyes, feel the city in a different way, know its textures and respond to the needs of our co-inhabitants more fully. The menagerie that this book presents speaks to the ways in which non-human animals can instill in us a renewed sense of care and concern for place.

Indeed, it is the variety of places in the Chicago region—from isolated pocket parks to thousands of contiguous acres, from sedge meadows to tallgrass prairies to oak-hickory woodlands—that attracts such a diversity of animal life, some of which is globally rare or locally endangered. Every day, the ordinary places we traverse—sometimes a bus ride away, sometimes right outside one’s back door—create unique opportunities in urban areas for encounters with non­-human others. In some ways, those everyday experiences may be the most important of all.

In The Thunder Tree, lepidopterist and writer Robert Michael Pyle puts it this way: “People who care conserve; people who don’t know don’t care. What is the extinction of the condor to a child who has never known a wren?” To be sure, Chicago’s muddy stream embankments, overgrown housing lots, and abandoned fields threaded with bike trails are not the “jewels” of any national park or wilderness area. They are, however, critical to nurturing our sense of connection to nature and the development of a caring perspective. Without those places, we can’t directly experience and thereby relate to and with other creatures. One year a copper-colored butterfly gently bends a flower stalk; the next year it is gone, concrete substituted for milkweed.

One theme of this book is to anticipate and counteract what Pyle calls the “extinction of experience,” the loss of contact with other animals due to the disappearance of informal natural habitats—the “wilds” of our backyards, our neighborhoods, and the interstitial spaces of urban exploration. These are the secret gardens of adaptable plants and animals, the fertile grounds of imagination for children who later become adults who care about conservation. City creatures draw our attention to the life that pulses through our everyday worlds. They can also help us rethink what our responsibilities to nature are by refram­ing our ideas about where nature is.

A Changing Conservation Paradigm

As the world rapidly urbanizes, some worry that we are losing a vital sense of what it means to be fully human. In the year 1800, only 3 percent of the human population lived in cities. Now 80 percent of us live in urban areas in the United States and 50 percent globally. It seems certain that cities will increasingly be the settings in which most humans experience non-human nature. Does this mean that more humanized environments portend a critical rupture in our ability to connect with the non-human?

Not necessarily. Retraining our vision of cities as places of inhabitation and encounters with nature is key to taking care of nature everywhere. In the late nineteenth century, as industrial production grew in the United States, city planners and social reformers advocated for parks, gardens, and other urban beautification projects as cultural medicine for social ills. Yet nature in its supposedly purer forms was still associated with the sublime, the out there, the not-city, the untrammeled and untamed beyond the edge of the frontier of exploration. This nature came to be regarded as a refuge from the enervating impacts of urban life, and the early environmental preservation movement sought to keep human presence to a minimum in these remaining wildlands.

In the early decades of the twentieth century, progressively minded leaders and government agencies also promoted the proper management of forests and watersheds as a public responsibility. Lands were protected by federal fiat for the purpose of what we might now call “ecosystem services,” the provision in perpetuity of the “goods” that nature has to offer, such as drinking water and timber. In both cases, wild nature was something apart, to be communed with or properly used, but not something to be lived with or in. Cities were viewed as the antithesis of wildlands.

No longer. People are increasingly devoting attention to the wildness threaded throughout metropolitan areas. Many nature-loving Chicagoans are likely familiar with restoration ecology, which is the (often sweat-intensive) process of bringing a historic ecosystem or landscape back to a condition resembling its former functionality and biological diversity. Beginning with pioneering efforts in the 1960s, and evolving into a volunteer-driven movement in the 1970s, citizen-led restoration projects now engage thousands of committed volunteers throughout the Chicago metropolitan area.

Much good work has been done in terms of nursing native species and fragmented habitats back to health, but another paradigm is emerging that may help us further rethink the importance of urban areas. Reconciliation ecology, a term coined and defined by evolutionary ecologist Michael Rosenzweig, “is the science of inventing, establishing, and maintaining new habitats to conserve species diversity in places where people live, work, or play.” Reconciliation ecology involves situations in which people both intentionally (and unintentionally) create critical habitat for other species, while still making a living themselves. So while ecological restoration involves diminishing and, where possible, reversing human impact so that other species can reestablish themselves, reconciliation ecology argues that humans can create and build novel systems that are suited to other species’ needs. In short, by knowing the lifeways of other species, we can deliberately create places of co-habitation.

Such efforts foster ecological empathy, engaging us in the long-term work of living with grace and skill in our everyday worlds. It asks of us that we anticipate the impacts of our actions and take responsibility for our historical shortsightedness. When other animals are in our midst, their lives amount to more than dry facts in a textbook, or characters in a children’s story, or charismatic megafauna in a National Geographic special. Active reconciliation means trying to understand what other animals need, and what we can give to move toward a more satisfying and artful co-existence—including and perhaps especially in urban environments.

 The city is an entity that is embedded within and arises out of nature, a human-constructed membrane of more and less permeable natural materials—bearing affinities with the termite mound, the beehive, or a monk parakeet colonial “condomin­ium.” As a cultural artifact, a rearranging of organic and inorganic materials, the city may or may not endure. It depends—in the strict sense of that word—because it is deeply dependent on the quality of the relationships that create and sustain it. These relationships include those with our non-human neighbors who have carved out niches for themselves, often quite successfully, amidst densely settled human populations.

Humans aren’t the only city dwellers. It may well be that the endurance of any given city, its necessary reinvention as a human and humane lifeworld, depends on opening our eyes to the nature that never left; the nature that constitutes our common air, water, and land; and the nature that is seeping, crawling, stalking, trotting, and flying through and back into the city. The art, poetry, and essays in this issue of Minding Nature place the dialogue about urban conservation front and center and contribute to an ethic of care for the everyday places where people live and work. Doing so can foster place-based perception and emotional connection with the more-than-human world.


The essays grouped in the Reviews and Reflections section of this issue do not appear in the published book but are drawn instead from the companion blog of the Center’s City Creatures project.

From the beginning of the City Creatures project, we imagined that a weekly blog would make a wonderful online complement to what was to come in print. Through the wonders of virtual space, we could include and reach an international audience. The blog also lent a certain amount of immediacy to the project. We knew it would be a good long time to produce a book, especially one that involved color artwork. But a blog . . . that could start now. Moreover, the blog enabled us to highlight human-animal encounters in a timely manner, and with a seasonal flow.

A regrettable part—the only regrettable part—of selecting the blog pieces that would appear in this issue of Minding Nature was not being able to include all of the many that I (Gavin) love. The consoling part of the necessity of selection is that everything is available online. Believe me, having gone through the “archives,” there is so much that is worth your reading time.

I made some rules for myself to help narrow the options. (1) Spread the wealth and show the breadth of voices and experiences: I would include only those authors who didn’t contribute to the book. (2) No me: I would not include any of my own contributions to the blog. (3) Nobody should question my egalitarian love for all my colleagues: I would not include contributions from any Center for Humans and Nature staff or board members. Even with these restrictions, my task was difficult. (4) My final self-imposed rule: variety, in visual and narrative style, in geographical location, and in theme and tone.

One of the joys of editing the blog has been meeting so many thoughtful, articulate, and creative people, from across the country and around the world, who share a fascination with the non-human lives that make our own lives so much fuller. I hope you enjoy reading, or re-reading, the accounts of these experiences as much as I did.



This article is excerpted and adapted from the Introduction to City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness, co-edited by Gavin Van Horn and Dave Aftandilian.

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