Reviewed by James Ballowe, Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University
In his “Prologue” to The Way of Coyote, Gavin Van Horn, Director of Cultures of Conservation at the Center for Humans and Nature, leaves no doubt as to what his book is about. Before coming to Chicago, his “Plan A” was to inhabit a cabin with his family far from an urban area. But he found himself in a decidedly urban environment.
In this biographical journey, he reveals how he adapted with the help of one non-human animal known as a great adapter: the coyote. This book is both his and Coyote’s journey. Along the way,Van Horn also enlists the wisdom of Lao Tzu and Aldo Leopold as he meanders the pathways of the city. The Way of Coyote is in part philosophical meditation and in part a word artist’s close observation of the natural world within the city. As Van Horn says, “These are the stories of my own adaptation to the city, the adaptation of other animals to the city, and how we might better adapt our cities to the larger landscapes on which they depend.”
Following this promise, he begins the book with a deceptively beguiling tale featuring the character Coyote playing dice with his friends Badger and Wolf. The game ends abruptly when the dice encounter a concrete roadway that Wolf and Badger fear walking on. But Coyote, the great adapter and trickster, jumps playfully onto the surface, gathers up the dice, and coolly walks away. The tale is deceptive, like the coyote, because this story resembling a bedtime story for adults is Van Horn’s way of introducing the reader to his admirably adaptive central character. The story also sets the style of the book, a delightful lyrical prose that beckons the reader to follow along with Van Horn on his personal journey, accompanied by non-human animals and even insects. The journey takes the reader into the wilds of one of this country’s most populous cities into which non-human beings are beginning to feel less and less threatened by or threatening to greater numbers of humans.
Van Horn invites the reader to walk with him throughout Chicago’s many pathways and to ply with him its waterways. The city “bleeds out” into majestic Lake Michigan to the east and into flatlands to the south and west beyond its suburban communities. Two hundred years ago, Van Horn reminds us, this was wilderness where non-human animals thrived. Their abundance brought the hunter and the pioneer who slowly diminished their numbers and their habitats by building their own city, thus making subservient the water and land to their own use and convenience. Even so, through the insight of a few city planners and architects such as Daniel Burnham, large swatches of natural land were preserved and a long process of non-human animal inhabitation has followed. Now, as Van Horn suggests throughout this book, a multitude of non-human beings is once again inhabiting this city and other urban areas throughout the country. The coyote is no longer simply an evanescent being unlikely to be encountered by a city dweller. The urban adapter now walks pathways within neighborhoods, created by prescient city planners who know the value of balance within the natural world.
Van Horn plies Chicago’s rivers and walks Chicago’s lakefront, parklands, trails (both completed and in progress), and garden corridors planted by those citizens who understand the value of green spaces for the health of human animals and non-human animals alike, right down to bees and butterflies. Creating an environment to promote interconnectedness within the magnificent architectural constructions of Chicago is an ever-present theme in Van Horn’s narrative. The city, of course, is not Leopold’s sanctuary within a wooded area, brought back to life and for whom the grouse’s call is the noumenon, or in Van Horn’s words, “the mysterious essence” of place. Interestingly, Van Horn chooses as the noumenon of Chicago not the coyote or peregrine falcon, both returning to the city in numbers, but another recent city dweller: the black-crowned night heron, or Nycticorax nycticorax, inhabiting trees in Lincoln Park, as though to greet their cloistered cousins living at the Lincoln Park Zoo. For Van Horn, it is the heron’s red eye, “a ruby supernova that deepens to a black-hole center,” that pulls you in. “This red eye fixes you in its gaze, letting you know that you are part of the heron’s passing world, not he of yours. Black-crowned will do, it is evocative as species names go, but better would be the red-eyed night heron.” The black-crowned night heron, he concludes, “carries the juxtapositions of the landscape in his body, reclaiming the fruits of modern engineering with a premodern disposition. He is the noumenon, the will and self-expression of the land, the mysterious essence of this place.”
Van Horn’s journey leads him eventually to a meditation on Aldo Leopold’s “land ethic,” which Leopold defines in this way: “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability, and beauty of the biotic community. Wrong when it tends otherwise.” And that well-known thought of Leopold’s that has governed many conservationists and environmentalists over the past three quarters of a century brings Van Horn to contemplating an “urban land ethic,” one that will engender this: “New patterns of thought about the purpose and possibilities of a city [that] can create new corridors of life in the urban landscape. Imaginative leaps across neural bridges may build the bridges between our lives and those of other creatures, and may compel us to demand corridors that repair the frayed weave of life giving pathways throughout. Rewilding the mind can rewild our cities.” It is right that his final chapter before his last words in the “Epilogue: Postscript to Hope” is titled “Mindways.” His book, after all is a mind journey inspired by the way of the coyote, trickster and capable thinker who has learned to adapt in the wilds of human constructions.
In the “Epilogue,” Van Horn talks to his three meditative and real companions throughout the book. It is one more beguiling story. Coyote and Leopold begin a walk through the city and eventually come upon Lao Tzu who is cooking a fish that Coyote would like to eat. He does so after practicing a little trickery on the ancient philosopher. Coyote’s abrupt but good-natured departure into the woods is preceded by this declaration: “I know this! You can build, or not, with minds turned toward your animal-kin in the city—I know this! You can create new paths and not destroy the old ones—I know this!” And then Lao Tzu whispers as Coyote disappears and he and Van Horn walk back toward the well-lit city, “Follow your path to the end….Accept difficulty as an opportunity….This is the sure way to end up with no difficulties at all.”
It is difficult to predict a classic. But certainly Van Horn’s book will be read by new generations of those gaining an appreciation of urban wildlife and, indeed, an ethical concern for all living things. While Van Horn relies upon many historical sources, he capsulizes an argument in this journey, this way of the Coyote, that cannot be ignored nor easily forgotten. I expect it will become a classroom staple at the very least, and an exemplary model of nature writing and a thought-provoking discussion of how we might achieve what to some may now seem impossible.
University of Chicago Press
The Center for Humans and Nature connects people with ideas that explore and promote environmental ethics and ecological responsibility.