Listen to a related podcast here.
We think this world is designed and built for us. Perhaps best exemplified by the cities we have constructed, it not uncommon to believe the world is built for humans. As a part of our built environments, though, we’ve been careful to conserve open, natural spaces. These open spaces – or places intentionally undeveloped and accessible to the public – are places where humans are meant to relax, recreate, and find some distance from their everyday lives. While these open spaces have always had value for humans there is another, unintended, purpose these spaces serve in today’s urban world: these are places where wild animals congregate and dwell.
At the center of the University of Utah’s campus is an open, “natural” space: Stillwell Field. Originally the parade ground for Fort Douglas during the years the military occupied the site (from 1862 until 1991), this field is now primarily a site of leisure and recreation for the University community. Yet this field, bordered by Red Butte Canyon to the east, sits at the edge of a vast country of scrub oak and open land. While Salt Lake City spreads out below in seemingly impenetrable network of gridded streets, up here things are more permeable, more fluid. Though parking lots and high-rise buildings have replaced what was before a high-desert ecosystem, up here the wild edges-in even as the civilized edges-out. Stillwell Field is commonly thought of as a human space, yet if you begin to see the signs and observe the traces, the presence of animals becomes unavoidable.
It is mid-February. A fresh layer of snow has fallen overnight and the field is all glitter and dazzle in the midday sun. This is what I notice: signs of a recent snowball fight, the mounds built up like improvisational bunkers in a battle; a wooden bird box on the western edge of the field; the path the students have tromped into the field crossing from the dormitories to the classrooms; and on the near edge, a lone set of prints. I lean in and notice the unmistakable hoof of mule deer. I follow these prints attempting to figure out where they’ve come from and where they lead to, wanting (hoping, really) to learn something about this solitary creature. I follow the tracks, but they lead nowhere and soon I give up the hunt. Resigned I look up at the foothills that rise up just beyond the eastern edge of the field and think about the animals out there – the coyote, the cougar, the deer, and the moose as well as the smaller creatures and the rodents – and wonder what they are doing now in this cold season.
A few weeks pass and spring has arrived on the eastern bench. Grasses sprout in the field and the sun remains longer in the western horizon each evening; snow remains only on the highest foothills and most sheltered foothills. I am shown one morning a hawk’s nest on the edge of the field. It has been inactive for almost two years, but is now inhabited once again. The hawks have had chicks, and the chicks have hatched. Too young to leave the nest, these chicks are known as eyas, a word associated with ‘unfledged’ or ‘youthful.’ I hear these young birds call out in the midafternoon and imagine them stumbling in the nest, testing their balance, feeling their bodies as well as the boundaries of their world. Is what keeps them safe, I wonder, also what keeps us safe? Do we not also, like these fledglings, expect some stability and borders in our lives?
As an urban people, I think we believe our cities are impermeable to wildlife. Yet report after report confirms there is a thriving population of urban wildlife in this country. A skim of recent headlines is revealing:
‘Moose crashes through window of Colorado home’
‘Trail runner was attacked by a mountain lion. He suffocated it to death in self-defense, wildlife officials say’
‘After a week of cougar, moose and other wildlife sightings in cities, expect more animal encounters in Utah as the valleys warm’
‘Mountain lion found in crawl space of California house’
These animals live in the nooks and crannies of our urban lives. Denning beneath boulders, tree trunks, fallen-over-trees, and sometimes even beneath our houses, these wild animals persist on the peripheries of our cities, stalking our urban lives. These animals find their way to playgrounds, community gardens, culverts, and local parks where they spend their lives hunting prey – rats and rodents, house cats, squirrels – and living as wild animals do. In their passing as well as in their dwelling, these animals disrupt what we, humans, consider “normal,” “domestic,” and “civilized.”
As much as we may want to believe that our cities are for us, the creatures with whom we share these spaces are making themselves known to us in unavoidable ways. The next time you pass a park or playground or forested space in your city, pay attention, you may just notice an animal trace.
~ Jacob Northcutt (Spring 2019)
To explore related Sightlines, follow this route.
For further reading:
Derrida, Jacques. The Animal Therefore That I Am. New York: Fordham University Press, 2008.
DeStefano, Stephen. Coyote at the Kitchen Door: Living with Wildlife in Suburbia. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2010.
Dillard, Annie. “Living Like Weasels.” Teaching a Stone to Talk. New York: HarperCollins, 1982.
Goodyear, Dana. “Lions of LA.” The New Yorker. February 13 & 20th, 2017. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2017/02/13/lions-of-los-angeles
Haskell, David. The Forest Unseen: A Year’s Watch in Nature. New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2010.
Seegert, Natasha. “Play of Sniffication: Coyotes Sing in the Margins.” Philosophy & Rhetoric 47, no. 2 (2014): https://muse.jhu.edu/article/545810