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We think this world is designed and built for us. In the cities we have constructed, it makes sense to believe the world is built for humans. Yet as much as these environments may depend on the manipulation, standardization, and exploitation of nature, we’ve been careful to conserve open, natural spaces in our urban lives. These open spaces – places intentionally undeveloped and accessible to the public – are places where we are meant to relax, recreate, and find some distance from our everyday lives. But there is also an 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 the borders 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 wild animals is unavoidable.
It is mid-February. A fresh layer of snow has fallen overnight, and the field is all dazzle in the midday sun. I’ve come to observe the field. This is what I notice: mounds built up like bunkers in a battle (signs of a recent snowball fight); a wooden “bird box” on the western edge of the field tacked onto the trunk of a locust tree; the path crossing from the dormitories to the classrooms that the students have tromped into the field; and on the near edge, a lone set of footprints.
I lean in and notice the unmistakable hoof of a mule deer. Intrigued, I follow these tracks and attempt to learn something of this animal. I want to figure out where it came from and where it went; I want to learn something about this solitary creature. I follow the tracks, but they lead in circles. I give up the hunt. Resigned that I will learn nothing more about this creature, I look up at the foothills rising just beyond the eastern edge of the field and think about the animals out there – coyote, cougar, deer, and moose, as well as the other, smaller creatures. I 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 and most sheltered aspects of the foothills.
One morning I am shown a hawk’s nest on the edge of the field high up in a tree. It has been inactive for almost two years, but is now inhabited once again. The hawks have had chicks this year, and the chicks have hatched. Too young to leave the nest, these chicks are known as eyas, a word with associations of ‘unfledged.’ I hear these young birds call out in the mid-afternoon 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 also, like these fledglings, expect some stability and boundaries in our lives?
As urban dwellers, many of us believe our cities are impermeable to wildlife. Yet report after report confirms there is a thriving population of urban wildlife in this country, that we live in closer proximity to wild animals than many of us imagine. A skim of recent headlines is revealing:
‘Moose crashes through window of Colorado home’
‘Coyotes finding new home in downtown Chicago’
‘Mountain lion found in crawl space of California house’
These animals live in the nooks and crannies of our urban lives. Denning beneath boulders, fallen-over-trees, and sometimes even beneath our houses, these wild animals persist on the peripheries of our cities, stalking the edges of our urban lives. These animals find their way to playgrounds, community gardens, culverts, and local parks where they spend their lives hunting prey 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 we share these spaces with are making themselves known to us. As a result of their presence, I wonder, are these animals remapping our cities; are they offering us new ways of knowing our urban spaces?
And so, as I pass by and through Stillwell Field, I stop and observe, get down and look. I am hoping for an animal trace. Though often I see nothing, find no noticeable trace of an animal in my midst, I know there is wildlife nearby, wondering who and what I am just as I wonder who and what it is.
~ Jacob Northcutt (Spring 2019)
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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, MA: 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. www.newyorker.com
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): 158-178.