Home | Reviews | Blog | Daily | Glossary | Orrin's Stuff | Email

    [N]ature's agenda never changes.  It will take over, if it can.
        -Anne Matthews, Wild Nights

This is an always fascinating, frequently funny, but ultimately somewhat disingenuous and hysterical look at the renewed interaction between Man and Nature in urban areas generally and in New York City in particular.  From peregrine falcons making their aeries on skyscrapers to coyotes on the Major Deegan to West Nile Virus in mosquitos to zebra mussels in our waterways, Anne Matthews examines the various ways in which flora, fauna, viruses and climate are impacting the modern urban society in unexpected and frequently dangerous ways.

Much of the pleasure in the book lies in just finding out the incredibly varied species which have returned to the Big Apple, and from the substantial proof this offers of Nature's fundamental resiliency.  Less satisfactory is her analysis of why this resurgence of the wild world is occurring and her failure to recognize how easily it could be reversed.  For the most part, Matthews falls back on such environmentalist stand-bys as limitations on pesticide use, disruption of natural habitat and the like.  But the most likely cause goes unmentioned : Man has basically stopped killing these creatures, and so they are ever more prevalent and brazen.   The DDT ban has of course had an impact, just not the one she's talking about.  With the publication of Rachel Carson's scare-mongering bestseller, Silent Spring (see Orrin's review), government reacted by both limiting the use of chemicals to kill pests and by protecting "endangered" species.  It can therefore come as no surprise that there are more bugs, many laden with disease, and more animals, than there were forty years ago.  Even if we don't dismiss the possibility that there were beneficial effects from the pesticide limitations, ask yourself a simple question : if you let people hunt and trap peregrine falcons and coyotes again, how many would there be in New York City at the end of the month ?

Though she never approaches this topic directly, Matthews periodically touches on it when she's tossing statistics around.  For instance, the U.S. deer population is now over 20 million, higher than it was when Europeans got here.  Or again, when Massachusetts banned the trapping of beavers, their numbers skyrocketed from 18,000 to 55,000.  Gee, no kidding ?  It can hardly be coincidental that the explosive growth of these populations has paralleled the restriction of hunting and trapping.

For the most part, the return of American wildlife has been handled up until now as a feel good story in the national media.  After all, it's pretty hard at first glance to feel anything but satisfaction at having "saved" Bambi, and it was easy for the, as Ms Matthews notes, predominantly urban citizenry to ignore the consequences when they were mostly being felt in rural areas.  But now it's not just the yokels who are being killed in collisions with deer, elk and moose, nor just farmers who have to worry about the predations of wolves, bear, and coyotes.  Now all of these critters are tying up city traffic, colliding with yuppies cars, damming up urban waterways, killing pigeons in front of office workers and housewives, and suddenly, we've got a "crisis."  It used to be said that a conservative was a liberal who'd been mugged.  Today, a hunting advocate is an environmentalist who's had his car destroyed and his life nearly lost, when two hundred pounds of deer or a ton of moose came rocketing up his hood and through the windshield.  That makes the problem personal in a hurry.

Since Man crawled from the muck, he has had but one goal, to vanquish and control Nature.  But in recent years, sentiment and political correctness have made Man a neutral in this battle, if not an actual collaborator with the enemy.  Anne Matthews amply demonstrates the degree to which Nature has taken advantage of this one-sided truce.  What's lacking here though is a realization that this state of affairs is unlikely to continue.  Every Biff and Muffy in Westchester County may support the idea of reintroducing wolves out West, but when those deer in their backyards are carrying ticks with Lyme Disease and when those wolves start bringing down the family dogs, it seems extraordinarily unlikely that the Natural world will be able to maintain its current sacrosanct status.  And when the local beaver turn the neighborhood into a government protected wetland, driving property values into the dumpster, government officials won't be able to repeal such regulations fast enough.

Projecting endlessly burgeoning animal populations adds drama to the story she has to tell, but Matthews decision to do so seems rather shortsighted.  Similarly, in her final chapter,  she takes the most extreme global warming predictions and forecasts a future for New York, and the planet, that is so dire that it's just not believable, with continually rising temperatures and ocean levels and declining air quality standards.  This overreach is too bad, because up until then she does a nice job of balancing the amusement provided by and the dread inspired by the renewed confrontation of Man and Nature.  But, in these closing pages she goes way over the top, on the basis of fairly sketchy evidence.

On balance, it's a very entertaining book.  Matthews at least raises a number of issues which are destined to consume public attention in the coming years and does so with an observant eye and great good humor.


Grade: (B)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Faculty Page : Anne Matthews  (NYU)
    -PANELIST : The Top 100 Works of Journalism In the United States in the 20th Century (NYU)
    -Preservation Magazine : National Trust for Historic Preservation (Contributing Editor)
    -BOOKSITE : Wild Nights (FSB Associates)
    -BOOKNOTES : Author : Anne Matthews Title : Bright College Years (C-SPAN, May 18, 1997)
    -EXCERPT : from Bright College Years by Anne Matthews
    -ESSAY : A NATURAL SELECTION : Crumbling, undistinguished, hard to find: Down House was just the place Darwin needed to contemplate the mysteries of life. (ANNE MATTHEWS, Preservation)
    -ESSAY : Rage in a Tenured Position (Anne Matthews, November 8, 1992, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : Deciphering Victorian Underwear, And Other Seminars (Anne Matthews,  February 10, 1991, NY Times)
    -ESSAY : EDUCATION; New Trend on Campus: Nonstop Public Reading (ANNE M. MATTHEWS,  October 12, 1988, NY Times)
    -FORUM : WHY GO TO COLLEGE? :  Anne Matthews takes your questions on what really goes on within campus walls.(Online Newshour, May 27, 1997)
    -REVIEW : of THE CLIFF WALK A Memoir of a Job Lost and a Life Found. By Don J. Snyder (Anne Matthews, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Wild Nights (Bob Minzesheimer, USA Today)
    -REVIEW : of BRIGHT COLLEGE YEARS Inside the American Campus Today. By Anne Matthews (Larissa MacFarquhar, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of Bright College Years (LORI LEIBOVICH, Salon)
    -REVIEW : of Bright College Years (JON SANDERS, The Pope Center for Higher Education Policy )
    -REVIEW : of Where the Buffalo Roam: The Storm over the Revolutionary Plan to Restore
America's Great Plains by Anne Matthews (Audubon)