Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness
by Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian (Eds.)
Parakeets in Hyde Park, skunks on the Northwest side, alewives in Lake Michigan, bison in Batavia, frogs in Wheaton … city slickers and suburbanites might not often think about the various flora and fauna that call the country’s third-largest metropolitan area home. But home the area is, to myriad species large and small, common and uncommon.
In more than a hundred essays, poems, photographs, illustrations, and stories, editors Gavin Van Horn and David Aftandilian have amassed a thoughtful collection of musings on the wilderness that is Chicagoland. From Evanston to Oak Park to Wheaton, from the Calumet River to Lake Michigan to Bubbly Creek, the vastness of the natural beauty in and around Chicago is described lovingly and at times reverentially. From the quotidian—squirrels, sparrows, wasps—to the unusual—coyote, wolves, rattlesnakes—the many contributors to this collection share stories and experiences that mark the Chicago area as one rich in wildlife for those who take the time to notice it.
In these pages, readers will learn about strange experiences with opossum, odd coincidences with dogs, and almost-mystical encounters with hawks. They’ll learn about taxidermy and frog monitoring and urban insect collecting. Throughout these pages, readers are afforded an opportunity to look at Chicago in a different way, to look beyond the concrete, glass, and steel, to look up from their smartphones, cast their gaze beyond mobile devices, and see the wild world that exists around them, from the tiniest mite to migrating birds to stealthy mammals who sneak around city streets in the middle of the night.
The pieces in this collection ask us to pause for a moment and consider our relationship in, among, and to the natural world that surrounds us. As Nora Moore Lloyd writes in her essay “Visits From a Messenger,” we, every day, have the chance to consider our connection with the creatures around us as a gift:
“… especially those brought by animals and other beings in the natural world—[such gifts] often also offer a lesson, and can arrive unexpectedly. Moreover, the recipient of a gift also has a responsibility to try to understand the message or lesson that it brings.”
We can, for instance, treat the sighting of a coyote walking down the driveway as a potential menace, a nuisance that threatens our domesticated pets. Or we can consider such a sighting as a gift of wonder, of a fortunate connection to the mystery that is nature, as many onlookers recently did with the sighting of a coyote who had taken up residence in an empty lot in Streeterville.
Each piece in this collection is thoughtful and thought-provoking. Some essays are more lyrical than others, some more academic than others, but all of them are honest, and it’s clear that the contributors have crafted their entries with care and love. Poems, photographs, and illustrations break up the essays, some of which are rather long. As with any collection, the pieces come together in a mixed bag—some pieces will be loved by readers, some not. Not every entry will be of interest to every reader (reading about bison—cool! about mites—not so much. But maybe that’s just me.). Either way, as a whole City Creatures is a feast for the senses. It is an unusual, unexpected tour through Chicagoland, proffered by docents clearly in love with the natural world that surrounds us. It provides a view of the city and suburbs that is all too often easily overlooked, and, as such, it is a gift in and of itself.
October 2015, University of Chicago Press
Local Interest/Science & Nature
$30, hardcover, 377 pages
—Reviewed by Kelli Christiansen