This Thing Called Courage

Sunday, December 30, 2007

The Remembered Landscape: Mountain Lions in Manhattan


I WAS COMING BACK FROM THE GYM TONIGHT, driving in the beautiful snow. Why is it that the beginning of a snowstorm is so beautiful, while the after effects may not be? Anyway, Fionn was in the car and we were coming home via Jerry Jingle Highway (as it's called by the locals-- it's a very pretty parkway on the far side of the Fells) so that I could stop at the Flynn Rink parking lot and walk Fionn from there, along the northern edge of Quarter Mile Pond.

Anyway, there was this show on the radio from National Geographic Radio, on NPR, like a magazine format type thing, and one of the segmets was so fascinating. The host was speaking with this guy named Eric Sanderson, who is the director of the 'Manahatto Project,' (not sure of the exact spelling-- this was the name of Manhattan as given by the Native Americans who lived there), which is a very ambitious project seeking to recreate exactly what Manhattan looked like back in 1609. That was the year Henry Hudson sailed up the river that would later bear his name. As it turns out, they have succeeded in drawing a very accurate portrait-- a portrait that inlcudes wolves, wood ducks, mountain lions, 60 miles of brooks and streams, beaver ponds, beaches, stands of American Chestnut trees 300 years old and ten feet wide in diameter, a red maple swamp where Times Square is now, and a vast meadow of grasslands in Harlem. Can you imagine?

Sanderson's fascination with this began back in the latter part of the 1990's, when he got a job in New York working with an international wildlife conservation group. He moved from Northern California, where he'd grown up and gone to grad school, to New York City. Naturally he found it a bit overwhelming. To try to make sense of it all, he began looking at the history of the city, in an attempt to understand it all better. One day in 1997 (I think) he was in the Strand Bookstore in NYC, and there he found this book containing old maps of NYC, many of which had never been published before, as they were from private collections, estates, museums, etc. One of these was an old military map used by General Gates (or was it Howe?) of the British Army in his New York campaigns. It gave very accurate (for the sake of military purposes) details about topography and geography and natural landmarks, like streams and brooks, hills and forests, and Sanderson became determined to put together a very accurate account of what Manhattan looked like when Europeans first came there.

This is all very synchronous to me, as the novel I'm working on now, Lucky in Love, opens with an examination of a natural history of South Boston, as it were. In thinking about South Boston, the scene of all my books but one, it occurred to me that places are as apt to be as stereotyped and misunderstood as some people, or groups of people. For example, there are probably many in the world that, learning I was a gay man, could not get beyond that one fact: I am nothing more than a gay man to them, in the same way that a black man or an Islamic woman may be, to many, nothing more than that. Some cannot see that I'm many other things besides-- an amateur naturalist, an avid walker and outdoorsman, am anti-war activist, a lover of animals, a lover of Dancing Deer Chocolate Chunk Brownies, a devoted brother and son and uncle, a drummer, an afficiando of Trad Celtic Music, a painter, a practical joker, a person who struggles at times with my fears and insecurities and loneliness like the rest of us, etc etc.

In the same way, people hear the words South Boston and a certain image comes to the mind. Just perusing some of the reviews my books have had over the years and the evidence comes rushing to the fore: South Boston is hard-knocks, hard-scrabble, tough, working-class, lower-class, homophobic, Irish-Catholic, tight-knit, etc etc. Well, some of these things are true, or (to quote Tina in Mommy dearetst-- there's a gay stereotype for you!) "maybe just a little true." But S-B so much more than that-- it's a place of golden dawns and silvered moonrises, shooting stars and the changing of tides and harbor islands where egrets nest. It's a place beneath the surface of which there are billions of butterfly and beetle eggs. It was once a primordial swamp; later it had middens of mollusk shells, created by untold generations of Native People-- if one digs just a little beneath the 'hard-scrabble' streets, you can still find these. It had a very high hill, crowned with White Pine trees 150 feet tall. The land can still remember the songs of whales and dolphins, singing from its bays. I want to bring all of that awareness to people when they read the book.

One thing this Sanderson guy said that really struck me as true was when he was talking about a "shifting baseline of nature." By that he meant the perception of nature that different generations have. For example, I can remember being very young, out at my grandmother's in Arlington, and her waking up in the middle of the night to throw rocks (she kept a bucket of them by the back door just for this purpose) at the foxes who were raiding her chicken-coop! And I remember her apple orchard, how the edge of it came right up to the second floor of the house, to the bedroom windows, and when we'd sleep over in apple blossom time the smell was a drench, a new universe. The earth smelled then, the hot smell of sun on tall grasses in a meadow, the smell of the sky just before snow, the exhaling of the warming earth's breath on a new spring night. I'm sure children in this neighborhood now (my grandmotehr's old neighborhood) have never seen a live chicken, let alone a prowling fox. And they only smell apple blossom when a phony chemical iteration of same is sprayed from their mothers' Glade cans. And yet my childhood experience of nature, deep as I perceive it to be, is but a pale thing compared to my mother's (who grew up on that farm in the '20's and '30's) and that too must pale and recede in comparison to her mother's experience of nature, and so on. Leaving us unable to imagine, Sanderson says, what the experience of nature was for people ten generations ago. Something to think about. We will not fight to preserve what we have never known we've lost, no?

On our walk tonight we saw something. It was about 9:30 and the snow was sifting down like a gentle Chopin nocturne. The Parkway was fairly quiet. Something bounded across the road, once we had passed, coming over to our side. I saw it out of the corner of my eye after Fionn stiffened and turned to look. It hid in the bushes by the side of the road. We waited for it to come out but it wouldn't-- obviously it knew we were close by. Finally I said to Fionn, "Let's see what that was." We turned around and headed back in the other direction. We had only taken a few steps when BAM! out it came from the bushes, and it bounded like mad-- it was a rather large rabbit, and when I say this thing bounded, it bounded! It was wonderful to see. He was gone in a flash.

I can only imagine what that particular strip of land, bordering Quarter Mile Pond, remembers. The grinding of glaciers. Wooly mammoths. The grinding of 5000 years of ice giving way at last to prodigal green. I am so very glad this strip of land, which I visit so often, still knows the leaping, almost flight-like, bound of a white-tailed rabbit.

"I'd never hurt you," I called after it. We found its tracks in the powdery half-inch of snow: Fionn sniffed them, while I observed them. Then, something in both of us satisifed, we headed back to the car.

Oh, go here to hear that radio show: http://podcast.nationalgeographic.com/ng-news/

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