The Journal of Nature in Visual Culture
An Interview with Gavin Von Horn regarding CITY CREATURES
This robust and lush collection of essays, poems, and artworks explores the too-easily overlooked ecologies present in Chicago’s urban locale, from backyard chickens to symbiotic squirrel populations, outdoor prairie landscape classrooms to flâneur/flâneuse insect collection, and the intersection of history, politics, and ecology in the Calumet River.
Within that study, the book brings out the ways in which personal experience resists the hierarchical division of Nature and Culture. “It’s fantastically bizarre to me that other living things are carrying out parallel lives, sometimes inches away from us [humans], with concerns and strategies for survival completely alien to our ours,” writes Jill Riddell in her essay about frogs negotiating winter (254). Made up almost entirely of water, the amphibious creatures freeze “just a hair’s breadth short of death’s final door” each year, surviving until spring because their bodies’ nervous systems release enough glucose—an antifreeze—to keep their hearts beating.
Riddell’s current of amazement flows throughout City Creatures, amplifying the editors’ wish, “to call attention to the city as an entity that is embedded within and arises out of nature.” In so doing, they write, “we hope to foster place-based perception and emotional connection with the more-than-human world” (7). In that respect the book is a wonderful and wellarticulated assortment of accounts, providing a gateway for ecological awareness.
But what is it about that approach that remains so enigmatic and difficult to embrace? Why is it so fantastically bizarre to account for multiple forms of consciousness and lifestyle? In a moving essay about mortality, Tom Montgomery Fate writes, “…I’m convinced that Rosie, [Fate’s cat], understands my sympathy, that she draws comfort from my voice. / And I don’t think this is far-fetched, since more and more biologists are beginning to discover that nonhuman animals also have emotional lives” (37).
That simple aside illustrates how difficult it is to square one’s subjective sense of animal awareness with societal conventions that have, for so long, dismissed the animal entirely. Fate gestures to the scientists for back up, and perhaps the more traditional readers among us feel relieved. Rebecca Beachy describes her experience as a bird taxidermist at The Beecher Lab of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.
A white lab coat is often used metonymically to describe the necessary non-description of the scientist—at the museum, I wear an institutional apron. I become a live human subject with a parsed [i.e. scientifically classified] bird. I notice human qualities when noting differences between birds. I identify features. Thankfully, a bird species will never be an accumulation of anatomical parts or the scientific name ascribed—any species defies domination by a simple persistence of presence (158).
As if to further illustrate the simultaneous internalization of method within Beachy’s body and the limits of deconstruction, she includes an account of the taxidermy process that reveals the desire for learning and perseveration on the one hand, and the inevitable violence and hierarchy the method requires. Eli Suzukovich III’s essay, ‘Kiskinwahamâtowin (Learning Together): Outdoor Classrooms and Prairie Restoration at the American Indian Center of Chicago’ describes how The American Indian Center at 1630 W Wilson was initially established in 1966 to help “Native peoples arriving in Chicago from various reservations throughout North American as part of the Relocation Program.”
The AIC became a place for dislocated populations to gather together to foster and maintain respective traditions. In 2003, the group started a community garden to grow medicinal plants they could not find elsewhere and that garden later grew into a Prairie Restoration program in 2007. Suzukovich goes on to describe the learning environment that developed on site, one in which Native youth meet not only to learn stories of past and current community members, but also learn about the landscape. What emerges is an incredible more-than-human classroom where Suzukovich watches other species teach their young survival skills as well.
As the [human] youth went into the garden on Monday night in early August to make their daily garden observations, they were met with a flurrying mass of golden twittering birds swooping and diving in and out of the garden. We all stopped and watched the goldfinches, not quite sure what they were doing at first. But as we watched, we noticed that the brightly colored male finches were leading the fledglings through the garden, twisting and swooping in a syncopated dance…The male finches, we found, were teaching the fledglings how to evade capture from hawks or other predators. This predator ‘class’ went on for about about thirty minutes. (109-110)
Seeing the transmission of knowledge between species challenges traditional assumptions about instinct and learning. Not only would animals have a propensity to feel, they also teach. “As the goldfinches conducted their daily learning activities in the garden, so did we. The AIC garden became a shared learning space for both humans and goldfinches, along with other animals in the garden. We found that rabbits, squirrels, voles, and whitefooted mice also taught their young and ultilized the garden as a nursery in the spring” (110).
Maybe what is especially complicated about learning to be present to the innumerable lives sharing our cities is that so many strangers emerge. The landscape does not stay prettily in the background, despite the conventions of Western thought. Alex Chitty’s Water Bear comic describes how the microscopic polyextremophile is not only everywhere, but “can live almost anywhere” as well (235), including the vacuum of Outerspace. Suddenly everything is alive, and the anthropocentric standards by which Western Civilization has, for so many generations, judged reality must be recalibrated. Perhaps what’s most fantastic in fact, is that a dominate strain of human thinking conceived of itself in isolation. What happens now?
Xavier Nuez’s Nikki: (hiphop) dancing queen, a photograph of a presumably dead but nevertheless luminescent beetle lies on a multicolored backlit grid that, as the title suggests, gives the impression of a nightclub. Ed Roberson’s poem, 'The Western Scarab', begins: “All this glittering would be lightening bugs / were it not all architectural structuring” (65).
In the midst of the Sixth Great Extinction, City Creatures articulates a challenge: how to make friends with the shocking number of different lives among us? How to appreciate their different priorities and strategies of subsistence? Andrew Yang gives one possible answer. “The lover of life makes the whole world his family,’ he writes in his essay about insect collection, urging us toward the strangers one might prefer to ignore.“
If you find an insect in the city, try to say hello. You’ve stumbled into an intimacy with an Other that is all around you.”
An Interview with Gavin Von Horn Giovanni Aloi: Gavin, you are the Director of Cultures of Conservation at the Center for Human and Nature in Chicago. Can you tell us about your organization, how it formed, and what are its main aims?
Gavin Van Horn: The Center was founded in 2003 by Strachan Donnelley, a man who sometimes referred to himself as a “fly-fishing philosopher.” That tells you something about Strachan’s perspective and what he was trying to accomplish by founding the Center. He believed we should have our feet on the ground (or in the water) to think clearly about ourselves and others.
The easiest way to describe the Center’s ethos is that we believe that ideas matter; they have consequences that shape the landscapes in which we live. So our main aim—across our publications, at public events, and on our website—is to gather people from diverse disciplines and professional backgrounds to discuss, study, and produce meaningful information and media about how human communities can be better integrated with natural systems.
GA: What are the main challenges and rewards involved in being the Director of Cultures of Conservation?
GVH: I’ll start with the rewards. I work with bighearted, empathic, intelligent people in a super supportive work environment. I have a great deal of freedom to cook up projects that I think are relevant to furthering people’s care for the natural world. So, I think a lot about what sorts of mental pathways exist for us to understand ourselves as related—to nature, to other species, to one another—and contribute to the wellbeing of our places. What is a landscape, or a place, but a set of relationships? Our places become part of us as we listen and attend to their needs.
A welcome challenge of my job is what might be called “public scholarship.” I came from an academic background, so at one time my “audience” was university students and, to some extent, colleagues in my field. At the Center, I get to consider a wider audience, people of all ages, and how to best engage them through various mediums (traditional publications, blogs, videos, digital storytelling, and so on) about particular conservation topics.
GA: As I say in my endorsement of the book, City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness is “a fascinating collection of thoughtful insights in the richly diverse and surprisingly pulsing urban nature of one of the world’s most busy cities. This vivid and passionate book opens our eyes to the wealth of animal life that regularly goes unnoticed in the hustling and bustling of the everyday. The animals we share our city with occupy different urban spaces, geographical areas, and institutional domains as their fleeting presences are captured in this book by essayists, poets, and artists. With its emphasis on local realities and histories, City Creatures sets the model for the eco-urban engagement this decade so urgently needs”. How did the idea for City Creatures come about?
GVH: Two things in particular funneled my attention in that direction. The first was that Dave Aftandilian, who later became the coeditor of the book, and I knew one another because of our mutual interest and research in the field of Religion and Animals. I’d had conversations with Dave, before I worked for the Center, about possible collaborations. So, when I got hired by the Center, I called Dave up and we began to discuss the potential shape of City Creatures. Dave is a fantastic editor and a great thinker, plus he used to live in Hyde Park, Chicago. I had a hunch he’d be on board for a place-based book about animals, and, to my delight, he was. The second item was more personal. My move to Chicago marked the first time I’d lived in a major metropolitan area. I needed orientation to this new home. Other animals are one way to learn about the dynamic history of any place. I also felt an obligation to get to know my nonhuman neighbors. For me, learning about the lives of other animals is an ongoing discovery of how to be a good inhabitant of Chicago. With that as a starting point, Dave and I began to reach out to people who we knew had their own stories of animal encounters to tell.
GA: How do you hope City Creatures will impact Chicago based readers?
GVH: First and foremost, I hope it will expand readers’ empathy. I don’t mean a saccharine, cuddly, “Ain’t it cute?” sort of response that we might have to a fluffy gerbil at our local pet store (though, a reaction like that is completely understandable!). I mean empathy that is based upon a deeper sense of appreciation, fascination, curiosity, and wonder. An empathy that recognizes that animals aren’t objects or things; they are subjects, who have agency, language, and, for some, highly developed social lives. (Whos instead of whats, as Dave often says.) Such empathy can lead to questions about how our cities can be more accommodating to other species. By expanding our understanding about the kinds of life that surrounds us, our sense of possibility for what Chicago (or any urban area) can be and how we can contribute to that future also expands.
Second, I hope readers absorb one of the main themes of the book: nature is in the city; they are not separate or dichotomous. You don’t need to drive to a nature preserve to find real nature. The Chicago region, like many urban areas, is full of life.
This goes by various terms— nearby nature, backyard nature, informal habitats, everyday nature—but however one chooses to characterize these green and blue threads that are woven through urban areas, they are sources and sustainers of life. Not only that, but as the book documents, there are animals that have and are adapting quite well to urban living, from common pigeons to formerly endangered peregrine falcons.
Which brings me to a final point about the hoped-for impact of the book. Humans are storytellers. We are also storydwellers. And nonhuman animals shape how we define ourselves as humans as well as how we think of nature.
In his book The Others, Paul Shepard argued, “The human species emerged enacting, dreaming, and thinking animals and cannot be fully itself without them.” I’d agree. We’re kin, biologically and psychologically, and a part of something that transcends exclusively human concerns. We are less-than without other animals.
If we see our own stories as entangled with the lives of other animals in the city, we’re more likely to consider their needs, bear witness to their struggles, and take them into account in decision-making, whether that involves planting milkweed for monarch butterflies, designing buildings in a way that discourages bird strikes, or restoring large habitats with other species in mind.
GA: In your opinion, what are the most original strengths of City Creatures?
GVH: I’ll answer this question by building off the last point. Something we emphasized to the book contributors (which ended up totaling over eighty artists, essayists, and poets): tell a story. Stories, unlike other types of communication (say, a spreadsheet of data or a dense scholarly article) offer an open invitation.
They say, “Here’s my experience. Maybe you can see some of your own experience in this.” No one likes to be told what to do, or worse, berated. Stories invite dialogue, even if only in the reader’s imagination. There’s another important aspect to stories that’s worth pointing out. Writer John Tallmadge captures this well: “So much of the quality of our lives depends on relationships, which can’t be weighted, measured, quantified, or even directly observed. We use stories to make them visible.” Stories, at their best, crystallize what is most meaningful to us; they orient us and hold up a vision of the world—an ethic for how to live well. Telling stories about animals in Chicago directs attention to the many beings who co-inhabit this place alongside us, and encourages us to see the city with a new set of lenses.
Another thing I’m really proud of in terms of the book is the diverse range of voices and life experiences that are included. Specific cultural relationships to other species surface throughout the book—from a Día de Los Muertos altar that honors (and complicates) the relationships we have with animals who become food, to the profound cultural exchange between young people and other species in a garden at the American Indian Center in Chicago.
In more than a few pieces—the print White Fish in the Chicago River, the street mural Owl, the poem ‘Pigeons’, and the essay ‘Skunks of My Re-Rooting’, to name a few— urban animals characterize the contributor’s ethnic experience or are reimagined within that experience. A final strength of the book I would highlight are the ways that word and image dance across the sections. When Dave and I originally conceived of the book, we thought we’d have a handful of artists involved, but it soon became clear that there was a wealth of talented artists in the Chicago area with unique and diverse styles that could expand the book’s palette of stories. Our relationships with other animals are complicated, and it follows that some of the essays and artwork in the book are unsettling or laced with ambiguities.
Art, like the best stories, can be a great point of orientation for our lives, helping us understand the world more fully. But art can also disorient us, in the sense of surprising us, allowing us a new angle and a different way of thinking about the city.
An image such as Xavier Nuez’s Asha: jewel of the Nile, for example, does this, transforming something most people would consider a small nuisance into a small gemstone.
GA: I have been living in Chicago for a year now, but I have been traveling to this city a lot over the past ten years. One of the aspects of this city which convinced me that I could be happy here had to do with the incredible wealth of animals and plants which co-exist with us in this dense and very vertical urban architectural fabric. The tropical intensity of its summer weather brings with it the chants of cicadas, whilst the warm summer evening are punctuated by the clicks of katydids and chimes of crickets as fireflies blink in the twilight. My European friends struggle to believe that all this is indeed true as they think of Chicago as the cradle of modernity, the bustling metropolis that invented skyscrapers.
But even many Chicagoans don’t know that this city was once called ‘the city in a garden’. What’s your impression on the status of Chicago’s biodiversity and ecological health?
GVH: I’m not an ecologist, but since I moved to Chicago I’ve often heard that there is more biodiversity in the Chicago metropolitan area than rural Illinois. In part, this has to do with the remarkable efforts of far-seeing early twentieth century Chicagoans, who preserved sizable acreages of forestlands, along with prairie savannas, in Cook County.
A citizen-led land stewardship movement gained traction in the late 1970s and continues to thrive, and that’s played an amazing role in encouraging native habitat types. But the more disheartening reason that biodiversity is higher in Chicagoland is because so much of Illinois’ land has been converted into soy and corn monocultures.
Read Craig Childs’s chapter ‘Species Vanish’ in his book Apocalyptic Planet, which shares his experiences of attempting to tally species diversity in an Iowa cornfield, and you’ll get a sense of how effective herbicides and insecticides are in simplifying a landscape. But you asked what my sense is, and I would say we’re headed in the right direction.
There’s an amazing and committed number of people and groups who care about the ecological health of Chicago. Steve Packard’s essay in City Creatures, ‘Orchids and Their Animals’, highlights one of those groups, the Volunteer Stewardship Network, as well as what makes a city special in terms of its biodiversity possibilities.
To quote from Steve: “If you’re a rare species or a rare ecosystem, there are advantages and disadvantages to being located near Chicago. Some negatives are obvious: sprawl, pollution, big trampling boots, et cetera. But much more wild land survives in the metro area than in Illinois farm counties. Moreover, the forest preserves are much more likely to be managed by stewards and ecologists and have the benefits of controlled burns. Great expertise is concentrated here in urban universities and not-for-profit agencies. Tens of thousands of volunteers are available to help worthy causes.” In other words, though there are more people, there are more people who care about particular