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Urban Wild

“What the hell is going on around here?”

I’d just finished telling my neighbor, Ben, about a doe that had bounded into our fenced front yard the other morning while my wife lounged just feet away on the porch. This adult, full-sized deer had been flushed along by a chugging, screeching garbage truck as it rolled and halted its way down our hill amidst a mild, garbage-day dawn.

Cynthia, my wife, eagerly described this wildlife sighting. The deer had stepped through our front gate, looked about rather frantically with those famously beautiful eyes and long ears and graceful, spindly legs, then pranced out the gate and down the street. This was our third deer sighting of the summer in high-density city space lined with bumper-to-bumper streetside parking and hundred-year old homes with yards supporting no more than a few bushes and a few square feet of grass.

Given this chance to experience wild nature while living within the confines of built city life, I was glad to hear about the deer. My senior, long-time-resident neighbor clearly was not.

One of our many recent visitors ...

“This is nuts. Deer?! And all the groundhogs are going crazy. The city needs to do something about this.”

Yes, ground hogs had devastated our neighborhood’s little urban garden, devouring the kale, cabbage, and spinach (though passing on the tomatoes). And recently Cynthia saw the deer again, this time as a late-night visage nibbling at a blackberry bush that had volunteered its way into our yard. Having heard a rustling outside of the living room window, our tuxedo-colored cat, Dash, had alerted her to it, leaping to the windowsill, ready to pounce.

Meanwhile, it seems more garter snakes have been patrolling our flowerbeds. Songbirds do seem more prolific this year. This summer, we watched an eastern cottontail come of age under the shelter of hosta leaves. And of course there’s always the squirrels. Unfortunately, we’ve also seen a few rats running curbside of late and fewer feral cats; always there seems to be a correlation between the two.

There’s good reason to be concerned. Neighbors worked hard on those pilfered veggies. Deer can be hit by cars, causing property damage and even injury to both deer and human. But personally I seek out encounters with wildlife, so much so that, living in a city where I feel I experience a dearth of nature and wildlife, I’m literally crawling up the walls. In India ink, I’ve been drawing leaves and branches and various organic shapes on my study walls as a way of coping with my cemented surroundings. So, just as when I see the first crocuses of spring, I did an internal whoop-whoop! when I heard about the deer.

Why does this “wild” nature elicit such different reactions from my neighbor Ben and me?

Of course long-time urbanites have had less access to and personal knowledge of nature, so such “wild” nature is experienced as more peculiar and even dangerous. Personally, I grew on five acres of Ohio country land where animals and other wildlife were standard fare. But I think there’s much more to these different responses.

Historically, the elite – both urban and rural – have had more direct access to sublime nature and the wonder of wildlife (think: elaborately cultivated flower gardens, weekend recreation in wooded mountains and wildflower glades, REI-outfitted adventure) and working stiffs have encountered nature more as a place of work and survival (think: logging, crop farming, animal husbandry), or they’ve even been divorced from wilder spaces altogether when cramped together in treeless city neighborhoods.

I do feel it was a kind of privilege to spend long childhood days tromping through the woods and muddy ravines and cornfields, not to mention climbing peaks and splashing into the ocean while on vacation. Conversely, poorer urban neighborhoods often have fewer green spaces, fewer trees, less natural beauty. Often these neighborhoods and divisions have faulted along racial lines. And this lack of natural spaces has physical and psychological effects upon people, including children and their rapidly developing brains.

A few years ago I spent a summer trailbuilding in city parks with high schoolers. I’m white, middle class; my team of six African American high schoolers grew up in economically strapped sections of the city. Entering the woods of Pittsburgh city parks proved challenging for them not only because we labored in heat and humidity, swinging picks, pulaskis, and mattocks into hard soil, but because we had to walk into the forest in the first place.

“I’m not going in there,” I heard from the most vocal team member, though I’d come to find she spoke the other kids’ thoughts as well. “There’s dead bodies in there!”

And she wasn't kidding. This from a teenager who grew up minutes from large parks in a city that is, relative to other American cities, fairly green. (According to National Geographic, 42% of Pittsburgh is covered in tree canopy, one of the highest tree coverage rates in the nation among major cities). Of course, not all African American city kids view the woods as repositories for murder victims (and neither would most of my neighbors, who are African American), and neither do all white city transplants like myself wish for greener expanses.

But it’s a fact that American cities are deeply segregated, and research has found a correlation between that segregation and the presence of green spaces. Richer white neighborhoods have more trees and parks than poorer black neighborhoods. City planning, “redevelopment,” economic disparity, redlining, and the many movements of people congregating from one place to the next have made this so.

But if my neighbor is saying “What the hell?” while I’m saying “I want more!” then I’m wondering if the future of urban wildlife and urban wilderness may well depend foremost upon the relationships we form as neighbors as we learn to live together, as we build community within and between neighborhoods. Together, we’ll determine how hospitable to nature we should make our yards and streets and cityscapes, not only to deer and bigger wild, but to the relative wild of grass and trees and all levels of fauna and flora.


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