Anne Matthews believes that a "nature/culture confrontation is becoming part of the urban routine." She supports that statement with hundreds of facts and dozens of personal stories in this fascinating book subtitled Nature Returns to the City. Writing with an almost poetic sense of remorse for what has been in the past, what is now, and what might come to be in the future, Matthews gives us a glimpse of the modern city's relentless attempts to cope with the forces of nature. Focusing on an ever-encroaching melange of plant
and animal life, she takes us in Wild Nights on a wild journey of discovery deep in the heart of New York City.
Eighteen million people live in and around the five boroughs of New York. Confined by old forests to the north, marshland to the west, and ocean to the south and east, the city was stretched to its natural limits years ago, yet developers continued to seek space for new communities. Draining, filling and cutting their way through the land, these suburban planners forced hundreds of species of wildlife to adapt to less than natural surroundings. Deprived of their old nesting sites, peregrine falcons have taken to roosting on ledges of New York skyscrapers. Snowy owls and wild turkey have found their way into Central Park. Coyote packs roam the streets of the Bronx at night while egrets, herons and ibis are resettling the city's harbor islands. Deer wander deep into the city, and striped bass ranging from 20 to 60 pounds once again flourish in the Hudson River.
Across the country bear, beaver, alligators, deer, vultures, coyotes, elks and even mountain lions invade city and suburban landscapes alike as developers scramble to build homes in areas once reserved for wildlife. At the same time, new forests are reclaiming abandoned cropland and old logging tracts. East of the Mississippi River the landscape is now eighty percent tree cover where one hundred years ago it was ten percent.
What does this mean for an ever-increasing urban population? According to Matthews, it means the reclamation of the countryside by an astonishing variety of wildlife, both plant and animal, a change in climate due to the expansion of people-producing air and water pollution, and the need for city planners to realize that "nature, sufficiently provoked, bites back." She recalls that Freud marked a successful civilization by its ability to control nature, but her own definition of a successful civilization is quite different. Today, says Matthews, we must look not to control but to live within nature. She predicts devastating results if that warning is not heeded.
In a depressing but perhaps realistic look at the world of tomorrow, Matthews sees a hotter, wetter New York City by 2050, a city where ozone-produced smog and frequent electrical shortages will cause soaring numbers of asthma and heat-related deaths. She warns of earthquakes due to the bordering of the city by two increasingly active fault lines, and cautions that even a mild tremor on the order of 5.5 would burst the city's antique water pipes and cause flooding throughout New York. Even more ruinous to the city would be a direct hit from a hurricane. A Category 3 storm would cause a thirty-foot
jump in the water level at Jamaica Bay and Kennedy Airport and flood the train and subway system. But New York will not be the only city to suffer future disaster, according to Matthews. The last chapter of her book is filled with dire warnings for the entire country if present-day land, water and population management policies are not changed.
This is not a book to be taken lightly. While early chapters draw the reader in with falcon breeding success stories and tales of school children reintroduced to the wonders of wildlife, later ones acquaint us with the killing nature of the West Nile virus and the bacteria-laden droppings of Canadian geese. Matthews delivers a one-two punch, then lands a knock-out blow with her book-ending dire predictions for the future. Wild Nights is not the type of book you curl up in front of the fireplace with on a cold winter's eve, but it is a fascinating book for the serious reader.