We Are the Wilderness: Gavin Van Horn’s “The Way of the Coyote”

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The first time I saw a coyote in Chicago was more than a decade ago, turning one night onto Rockwell off of Addison, snaking past the darkened academic Gothic hulk of Lane Tech. I was taking the shortcut to Jewel to buy beer, I presume, heading into the Riverview shopping complex that was a melancholy reminder of the amusement park that once stood there, tilting madly along the river.

This night was before the city renovated the area, installing a boathouse and river access. The backroad there was weed-lined and vaguely fetid, abutting a field that stank of sewage. It seemed tired and forgotten, a little part of the city lost in the bewildered and inchoate transition away from a striding industrial power.

There in my headlights a ragged dog jump-trotted across the road, lanky and shambolic. It looked at the car with barely a passing glance, and I realized that it was a coyote: low to the ground, more feral, and more determined than some stray.

It was one of those vertiginous moments where you can’t come close to vocalizing the disconnect. It all seemed to fit though: the weedy stink of that stretch of street, the memory of industry, the ache of grubby commerce standing dully in an parking lot filled with torn-down nostalgia, and this creature that just didn’t belong; a creature, I naively thought, of the woods and the moon-howling sands. It was a dizzying reminder that just as there are no true separations in time, the distinction between the animal kingdom and ours is equally illusory. No matter how many times it happens, like with a fox on a full-moon summer night, it is still disorienting and indescribable.

Those sorts of encounters are at the heart of Gavin Van Horn’s The Way of the Coyote, (University of Chicago Press), which I called last month one of my favorite books of 2018, and whose impact on me has only grown (and who actually can describe these encounters). Van Horn, who works for the Center for Humans and Nature, crafted a book that doesn’t so much break down barriers as point out that these barriers never existed, no matter how much we try.

(Needless disclosure: the company I work for designed the website for the Center for Humans and Nature, but it was before I worked there. It’s important to practice radical honesty. Radical, pointless, honesty.)

Van Horn, a fellow Evanstonian, shows himself in the book to be an inveterate walker, someone who moves along seeing the world at the ground level. At this level he sees that our buildings and sidewalks and river paths are more than an imposition onto the animal kingdom: they are actually a part of it.

One animal we get to see quite a bit of is the peregrine falcon, who live in urban environments, reaching speeds of over 200 miles per hour as they swoop and dart for food, much to the consternation of local rodent populations. Once on the verge of extinction, they have made a remarkable comback, thanks partly to the conversation efforts of some individuals to whom the book introduces us.

Why are they doing so well? Simply put, it’s because the city works for them. It has food. It has shelter. And it really sort of looks like home. As Van Horn writes:

Other than the wild tenacity of the birds, a key factor for peregrines’ success may be the city itself. Peregrines are historically cliff-dwelling raptors, and as Mary (a bird expert) observes, “If you think of the city, it’s nothing but a psuedo-cliff, with lots of ledges, ample prey, and no competition for the use of space.”

Now you, as a brainy human, might be thinking: idiot birds! A skyscraper is nothing like a cliff. Cliffs are rocks, you dumb bird!

Well, first of all, settle down. Second of all, from the bird’s point-of-view, so what? A falcon doesn’t enjoy a cliff because it prefers its homes to be eroded; rather, it’s because a cliff gives it advantages for food and shelter. If a skyscraper- or a city full of skyscrapers, with uncompromised vantage points- does the same thing, then the bird adapts. It barely even has to. The city just works.

Van Horn uses this to talk about reconciliation ecology, which is, as he explains, “the (often sweat-intensive) process of bringing a historical ecosystem or landscape back to a condition resembling its former functionality and diversity.”

It’s actually a radical concept: can a city, built by and for humans, with contours and structures dictated by the pressures of population and the maw-shoveling dictates of capitalism’s endless grind, work for other animals? Is that even possible?

North Shore Channel, dam existing as either an archaism or a strange future-perfect vision of a post-human world

Throughout the book, Van Horn time and time again says “yes.” He says it with an expression that points out that it isn’t easy, but also with the quiet knowledge that it is already happening. He sees traces of beavers along the North Shore Channel. He finds animal activities in TV graveyards. He spots the ghosts of coyotes in human graveyards.

And in the book, Van Horn introduces us to a large cast of people who are working to restore natural pathways in the city and urban areas, whether through restoring prairies on a large scale of neighbors banding together to help bees find food yard by yard, block by block, until they can fly across a city that has only recently sprung up in their ancient paths.

While the book is decidedly first-person, and Van Horn takes on on his jaunts and kayak trips, he lets other people tell the story. We hear from luminaries like the great Aldo Leopold and the unknown activists dedicated to helping other species.

He’s a wry story-teller and gifted writer, capable of subtle sentences whose power reveals itself unexpectedly. (“Why do I walk? I press my toes against the edges of that question”) The book is also deprecatingly funny, with a particularly good bit when he is sinking in mud in the North Shore channel, as concerned about the embarrassment as he is about actually drowning.

My mind refocuses on the present. Gelatinous good oozes between my toes and I descend a few inches farther. Is there a bottom to this? I wonder. Who’s to say how deep the goop goes- beside the white egrets, who ignore my plight, stepping gingerly atop the sludge with enviable stilt legs and hollow-boned bodies. My bones will be hard to find in a few minutes. I wish for a pith helmet- my cartoon-based version of what remains of a British explorer caught in Amazonian quicksand- so next of kin can locate me once I’m fully submerged. At least I will have saved them a trip to another continent. I am standing with one leg mired in a tiny tributary of the Chicago River, and the river is doing its best to absorb me.

What’s striking is the uncertainty, the inability to really know the depth of the goop. It is just a “tiny tributary”, a man-made slop channel just now sprung back to life, but that doesn’t matter. It can absorb someone, and they can drown surrounded by impassive egrets.

The possibility of death only exists because the river has come back to life. That it has is partly due to the efforts of conservationists and city planners, but partly because, well: it is a river. Mud doesn’t care about intent; it forms when dirt hits water, and can create a sucking terror no matter what. The egrets are clearly happy that the Channel is clean, even if they don’t show that gratitude by throwing a goddamn rope or something. Because for them, this is now a pathway.

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As Van Horn points out, the last bullet point is pretty much as “you know what- just stay away, dorks.”

Pathways are key to the book. Our sidewalks and streets and buildings and highways and our plows and shovels and sewers have interrupted ancient pathways. Bees and butterflies and birds are confused where to fly on inherited migration paths. Ground-based animals have to deal with the terrors of the roads just to find food. Open space is interrupted, parceled off, relegated to a patch of strange color and odd-shapes on a gridded map.

That’s not the way it should be, and cities are beginning to recognize that. There are more attempts to link up habitats, create ways for animals to move from zone to zone. Whether that is by restoring waterways like the Chicago River or just providing bridges and tunnels and walkways, cities are linking open spaces.

That’s for every animal, including humans, and I think that’s the point of Van Horn’s subtitle, “Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds”. We’re in these cities together, these unnatural aggregations, these dense and pulsing and terrible and wonderful zones. They are often indifferent to their own citizens, much less any other species.

Cities with this size and noise and intensity are incredibly new to the human experience, to say nothing of their eye-blink appearance in the natural world. We all need to learn to adapt.

In a short little book on the extinction of the passenger pigeons called Pilgrims of the Air, John Wilson Foster describes the superabundance of creatures that greeted European colonists in the New World. The world was so filled with fish and fowl that “sky-darkening” swarms of pigeons “didn’t leap off the pages of the discovery and settler narratives.”

But there was another reason. The birds and the fish and the game weren’t seen as natural wonders. “They were crude grocery lists rather than field-logs of the naturalist; they were files of potential merchandise; and the very abundance they roughly noted hindered an observant awareness…”

When settlers came to America, they adapted to the land by attempting to transform it and everything on, under, or over it into capital. Passenger pigeons, whose flocks were the size of counties, went extinct. Cities went up without any care for their impacts. The land was for taking. The animals were for eating or killing so as not to interfere with our plans.

We’re still doing that, of course. We still put capital over things like clean water and human rights, everywhere. But there is a new ethos competing with it. We are adapting.

Adaptation is everywhere in the book. How do we adapt to the weight of our disruption? How do we adapt to the weirdness of our cities? How do we adapt to the disconnect we’ve had with nature, of which we’re an indelible part? If we can drown in the mud, of course, we are a part of the natural world.

For Van Horn, it is about ethics, or creating new mindways, new journeys in our own lives, and a new way of seeing the world.

New patterns of thought about the purpose and possibilities of a city can create new corridors of life in the urban landscape. Imaginative leaps across neural bridges may build the bridges between our lives and those of other creatures, and may compel us to demand corridors that repair the frayed weave of life-giving pathways throughout the city. Rewilding the mind can rewild our cities.

While that’s important, to some creatures, that’s almost superflous. The coyote, the ultimate adapter to every landscape across the country, is learning how to exist in the city. It prowls and skulks and feeds. We catch glimpses of it. Even just today, a coworker, with a thrill in her voice revealing that recognizable breathlessness of experience and that instinctual, bright and nameless wonder in pond-green eyes, told me that she spotted a coyote running across Ravenswood before slipping alongside the tracks. It was another glimpse at adaptation.

The coyote reminds us that we can adapt in the same way. The city is always changing: a fetid field along a sluggish, industry-wrecked river can become a spot of leisure and activity. An amusement park gets torn down, its laughter becoming a memory, fading into photographs and stories of streetcar journeys. A massive school can stand still as the world moves around it.

Our minds have to adjust to these changes, even if they do so while clinging to a weeping nostalgia. We long for things that are gone, which might explain why seeing the coyote disturbs and excites. These things aren’t gone. The world we wrecked is figuring out how to live with us. If we can take those lessons, and share that journey, we might be able to live with them. We just might be able to live with ourselves.

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Programming Notes and Good Reads

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So, first a programming note. As the handful of you who read this can probably tell, posting has been sporadic at best. The grind of writing 1500 words every morning isn’t always compatible with my schedule, and I admit to being frustrated that the work doesn’t really seem to have an impact. I truly value everyone who reads- you mean more to me than I can express- but I’ve decided to focus more on larger projects, rather than quick reaction pieces.

So this will still be active, but mostly for book reviews and good read roundups. I’m sure I’ll be writing when moved by something, but want to work on a few other things, without the pressure to blog or the weird scratching guilt that comes when this has lain fallow for a few days.

OK- enough solipsism: onto the reads!

Illinois has always been a hub state, where the Great Lakes get connected to the Mississippi River basin. It’s where the continent shifts. Chicago, especially, was built to connect the two great water systems, and it quickly became the railroad center of the nation. Read the magisterial Nature’s Metropolis for a deep background on how the vast American west relied on (and built) Chicago.

So to say that the region was forged around the dictates of capitalism is a bit of an understatement. It is still the case, even if it has shifted. In The New Republic, Alexander Sammon has a really well-written, comprehensive, and stunning piece about how Elwood, IL, 40 miles southwest of Chicago, is at the center of the global shipping economy, and how it has transformed and erased this town of 2200.

As Sammon explains, Elwood is blessed with “serendipitous proximity to the country’s major infrastructure. Six class-1 railroads and four interstate highways pass through the region, which is situated a day’s drive from a full 60 percent of the country. Chicago is some 40 miles northeast as the crow flies.”

It ain’t the crow that flies though. It is 25,000 tractor trailers every day. It is over three million shipping containers a year. It is goods from around the world, transported on vast ships, loaded onto trains, distributed into trucks in Elwood, and then to their final destination.

Sammon shows how it the center of the global economy, with all that entails. This is a story of the promise of industry and jobs not trickling down even as global companies get bigger and the rich get richer. It’s wildcat truck drivers, unaffiliated contractors who are untrained and paid only for getting goods as quickly as possible, hurtling down residential streets at 50 miles an hour. It is creeping automation. It’s choking pollution. And it is always growing. Always consuming. It never stops.

It didn’t just start, of course. Here in Chicago we’ve had 150 years of industrial impact, but as a new report by the NRDC shows, it’s impact hasn’t exactly been even. (Via Citylab and Sophia Yeo, who explains perfectly what it all means.)


This shows what neighborhoods are most at risk for pollution and its dangerous impacts. You can see pretty clearly that the industrial corridor running southwest along the Sanitation and Shipping Canal (or the South Branch) is deeply dangerous, with a long legacy of industrial negligence and environmental apathy.

While this isn’t a 1:1 with race and class, it is pretty telling. Some areas have political power, and some don’t. We put industry and dumps and power plants in near some people, but not others. We redline some people out of areas with more parks than plants, but not others. There is no one decision made: it is a long and intertwined history. You can’t tell the entire history of Chicago from that map, but you certainly can give it a good shot.

Want some more Chicago history? Of course you do, dammit! Here’s a cool story in the Guardian, by Tanner Howard, about Native American trails that are still in Chicago’s grid system. It’s not all the angle streets, but most of them. Actually, the story is less “cool” than “predictable”.

Two neat Chicago maps in one post! Who said this blog was boring?

These native roads are buried and the history effaced. Rogers, up in Rogers Park, was originally called Indian Boundary Road, since it marked where natives had to be beyond after the Blackhawk War. It might be an uncomfortable name, but it is also an honest reckoning one. Howard’s story is unflinching in the way colonizing land and people and history works, how thorough and comprehensive it is- how comprehensive the project of effacement needs to be- even down to the street system.

One thing that stands out in the story is that the native trails were based on nature- on the search for high ground in the marshy wetlands.

Over the course of four distinct periods of glacial melting, stretching as far back as 14,500 years ago, Chicago’s terrain was shaped by the ebbs and flows of melting ice. Through the process of littoral drift, where small bits of sand and organic matter drifted from place to place on the tide, small but distinct ridges were etched into the land. Those natural high grounds, rising no more than 10 or 15 feet above the rest of the terrain, became some of the pathways used by Native peoples as they began to inhabit the area about 11,000 years ago.

And then Europeans came and drained the swamp and imposed a grid system and killed and erased the natives and built this city I fucking love. It’s complicated. But it shows again that we need to understand our history, reckon with it, and take joy that those irritating 6-corner intersections are remnants of glaciers, bits of high ground over the wet prairies, trod on for thousands of years, and remember that we live in geology.

We live in geology and we live in ecology, but we don’t really remember that very often. In fact, as a species, we go out of our way to thwart it. Hence, so long, fish!

The apocalypse has a new date: 2048. That’s when the world’s oceans will be empty of fish, predicts an international team of ecologists and economists. The cause: the disappearance of species due to overfishing, pollution, habitat loss, and climate change.

We could reverse this, but it would mean international cooperation, a change in the way we organize our lives and comfort, and the ability to look past the short term and our own lives. So yeah: so long, fish!

There’s a chance that is too hard on the species, but we live in liminal times and we’re run by the worst people. Our ruling class is made up of a bunch of wet-brained idiots who are extremely comfortable with corruption. This Washington Post article about how T-Mobile execs suddenly started staying in Trump’s Washington DC hotel when they needed a merger approved is a perfect tale for our times.

You have a huge company getting huger and knowing that to do so they need the personal approval of our idiot President, and they know that giving him money is how to make it happen. There’s no moral or metaphor here. It’s naked corruption.

That’s what Trump has done: by being so insecure, so vain, so empty, and such a ridiculous moron, he’s brought the worst of the ruling class into the open. Corruption and disdain for decency has always been the way they do business. It’s the the daylight now.

Corruption is the key to the entire Trump Presidency and to our moment (except for one other thing, which we’ll get to below). Our monied elite believe that the government should exist only to ease their path to power, help them get richer, and crush the working class. They’ve worked to make that happen. Over the last 40 years, the GOP has built itself around that idea: that government is the enemy and so we’ll destroy it except to help the rich. Large parts of the Democratic Party agree (though that is changing).

So corruption, here, is a feature of the system, not a bug. It’s made so that the rich can get richer and their water-carriers get sinecures. Why not loot? Why not hand over bags of money to the President? Why not use the highest office in the land to make a few more dollars? If the government exists only to serve the rich, what difference does it make?

That’s why Trump is the perfect GOP president. He’s so nakedly corrupt, and believes so fully and openly that the government should exist just to cater to him, that it is a family business, that he has made it open and acceptable to act in the same way. There are no more illusions. It’s an open shop, so long as you flatter the storekeeper.

But while corruption is key to Trump and the GOP, it isn’t the only key. Racism and hatred are the driving force. By now, you’ve seen this horrible teenager.





You’ve probably seen the video. White, MAGA-hat wearing teens, marching to deny women’s rights, got into a shouting match with some Black Israelities (not Black Lives Matter), and then a Native activist started drumming and chatting to break things up. They surrounded him, mocked him, shouted “build the wall”, and otherwise intimidated him.

Especially this kid.

He walked up, inches away, and started staring, and smiling a smile of cruel mockery, of power, of intimidation. He was hoping to scare the activist, to rattle him, to show him who is boss. He was hoping to get laughs. He was hoping to get the approval of his hooting peers.

In some ways, this is edgelord bullshit. It’s defying “norms” or whatever, and showing that you are pretty cool because you don’t give a fuck about being PC. It’s showing that you can do whatever you want. That’s the heart of trolling, of course.

It’s more though. Build the wall, harassing a Native, denying women’s reproductive rights: it’s power and racism. It’s not just that they are looking to be edgy. They’ve found it. As a friend of mine said, “being an racist bully is an edgy identity.”

That’s why racism works and lingers and is growing. For certain people, it is fun. It’s laughable. It’s brave. And while you can say “they aren’t really racist; they just think it is cool”, I think that’s naive. It all comes from a lack of empathy, and manifests itself the same. It’s privilege to know that your actions won’t hurt you, and so you can do and say whatever you want, because those people, those women, those migrants, that old man clamoring for peace- they aren’t people. They don’t matter. We do what we want.

That, of course, is the heart of Trumpism. It’s why those red hats are the official uniform of smug racists. And they aren’t going away.

Joshua Tree Reminds Us Why We Have Government And Why Republicans Hate It

I was recently reading Against the Grain, by James C. Scott, in which he went deep into the history of state formation, starting with the rise of rooted agriculture, and concluded that neither were the natural way of things, much less the most desired or inevitable. The book was far from political, but even someone as liberal as I am couldn’t help but think ill thoughts about state formation. Is government really needed?

Well, yes.

Illegal roads, cut down Joshua trees, and damaged federal property, along with the need to clean up garbage, prompted Joshua Tree National Park Superintendent David Smith to announce Tuesday that the park would close indefinitely on Thursday to address those impacts incurred during the ongoing partial government shutdown.

“There are about a dozen instances of extensive vehicle traffic off roads and in some cases into wilderness,” Smith replied when asked about the damage in the park. “We have two new roads that were created inside the park. We had destruction of government property with the cutting of chains and locks for people to access campgrounds. We’ve never seen this level of out-of-bounds camping. Every day use area was occupied every evening.

“Joshua trees were actually cut down in order to make new roads.”

National Parks Traveler

The government shutdown has done terrible things to our national parks, the one shining symbol of our commitment to and belief in the common good, in a shared heritage. Starved of the resources to keep people in line, the parks have become strewn with trash and filth, littered around nature like the casual discarding of an idea.

In a way, of course, these acts are entirely nonpolitical: it is a bunch of entitled yahoos seeing something beautiful and being overwhelmed with the near-religious need to tear ass across it. And while I believe in my heart that they are the same people who think coal-rolling is a declaration of individuality and pure lib-ownership, I don’t know for sure.

But in a way, it is of course political. It gets to the heart of this country’s conflict: that between people who think the land and everything and everyone on, in, and under it should be converted to capital and made profane, and those who think that the idea of the common good is more important.

That’s tied directly to our idea of self-governance. Are we all in this together, fighting for something, with a responsibility to each other? Are we here to do the hard work? Or do we abdicate that to a ruling class?

It’s complicated, of course: the right wing/libertarian could say that having a government at all is an abdication, but that way leads to things like the national park being destroyed and our shared resources being plundered. The myth of individuality, like we saw at Malheur and with the Bundy clan, is really just a money grab by the powerful who think the government should only exist to protect and further their interests.

It’s been that way throughout our history; it wasn’t until FDR in the 30s that the government was neutral on labor fights. Before then, they threw the weight of the state at strikers, grinding up protestors in the teeth of truncheons and tear gas. And now we’re getting back to those terrible days.

That’s what the Republican Party is right now. It is a vehicle to advance the interests of the rich and powerful by destroying the state’s ability to protect the common good. (It is also a vehicle for white nationalism, but those are intertwined). The GOP hates government, and hates shared resources, and hates land that isn’t being exploited. The shutdown isn’t an accident; it is a culmination.

It’s also a reminder of why we need government, and more of a reminder that the work has to be shared. It is a reminder that we are the government, and our duties toward each other have to make us fight and compromise and struggle together toward something better. Something bigger. Something that keeps the Joshua Trees standing, against the hot winds and the slow erosion of an idea.

*(Want to note that hunter/gatherer societies weren’t ungoverned; like tribal areas in Yemen today, they had rules and regulations and an idea of shared responsibility based on reciprocal altruism. It was also based on the role of luck in life, an obvious attribution that has been Horatio Alger-ized out of America.)

A Fatal Case of Both-Sides-Ism

RIP, Associated Press.

On the one hand, the idea for the wall is racist nonsense, ineffective idiocy, and would require a massive land grab that is both massively authoritarian and ecologically ruinous. On the other hand, some people don’t want that.

From one point of view, the administration’s pricetag of $5 billion is both laughably high and entirely too cheap. It won’t pay for the wall and the admin is unable to offer specifics on what the money will be used for. It’s almost as if the President just made it up out of thin air and now refuses to budge, and the money has become an item of totemic faith for the worst people in the country. From another point of view, they aren’t giving it to him for some reason.

There are many perspectives in this world. There is a perspective that a man who a few weeks ago said he’d gladly shut down the government over a vanity project he can’t even comprehend should shoulder the lion’s share of blame. There is another perspective that says no one understands how it is really dogs who are walking people.

Some people say Al Qaeda is now fully in control of Ciudad Juarez, recruiting MS-13 members to sell cocaine-laced fentanyl to West Virginia, and another side that thinks that sounds a little funny. Who is to say!

From which horizon does the sun rise? Can we ever know the truth? Or is the world an ineffable poem written on the wind?

I personally feel like the party who loathes the role of government and wishes it to be destroyed so that the rich and powerful could have full sway over the land and all the people and which is in thrall to a meglomaniac might bear more responsibility for shutting down said government. I might feel that the inability of our press to recognize the idea that one party is dedicated to operating in bad faith so as to ruin the idea of democratic self-governance helps that party do so.

But it takes two to tango, I suppose.

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