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Book Review: The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds by Gavin Van Horn

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.

The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds

University of Chicago Press

Read an excerpt from The Way of Coyote in Emergence Magazine.

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Writing Opportunities: Center for Humans and Nature

The Center for Humans and Nature contributes reviews to EcoLit Books.

But did you know they also publish a blog, a journal (Minding Nature) and an ongoing series: Questions for a Resilient Future?

And they are now looking for contributions. If you have a story to share, an idea to explore, check out their publication opportunities here.

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Book Review: The Driftless Reader, co-edited by Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley

Reviewed by James Ballowe, Engagement Advisor for the Center for Humans and Nature and Distinguished Professor English Emeritus from Bradley University.

Readers of Curt Meine and Keefe Keeley’s anthology The Driftless Reader (University of Wisconsin Press, 2017) will find selections from eighty writers whom the editors describe as “eminent and obscure, bygone and contemporary, indigenous and outsider, poetic and scientific, and historic and hybrids .” Among some of the better-known writers are Henry David Thoreau, Robin Kimmerer, John Muir, Mark Twain, Frank Lloyd Wright, Laura Ingalls Wilder, Wallace Stegner, and Black Hawk. The selections are accompanied by fifty-five illustrations which help to tell the story of the Driftless region, its settlers, inhabitants, scientists, and those who journeyed through the unglaciated topography in southwestern Wisconsin and adjoining portions of Illinois, Iowa, and Minnesota.

To help the reader understand the area and its effect upon those who have lived on it, studied it, or simply traveled through it, the editors have divided the essays into eight thematic sections: 1) Geologic Origins; 2} Ancient Peoples; 3) Historical Ecologies; 4) Native Voices; 5) Explorations; 6) Early Economies; 7) Settler Stories; 8) Farming Lives; 9) Waterways; 10) Conserving Lands; 11) Communities in Transition; and 12) Futures. This convenient organization should be a model for examining virtually any geographical area of the United States to which people have gravitated because they found a welcoming and, as with the native inhabitants, a satisfying spiritual environment awaiting them.

This book, as the editors make clear in the “Preface,” is intended to emphasize the relationship between both the character of the place and the people who have lived and live within it. They write, “More than just a location, a place is built on the meanings people find and create there.” The layers of the Driftless’ are rich and their meanings are brought to life through the observations of those who have studied and lived upon it:

Geology provides our foundation for understanding the extent of the place, but from there we step into other modes of understanding. The geological, hydrological, and ecological space becomes personal and cultural through the stories and meanings that it gathers—layered, shaped, grown over, and occasionally exposed, like the strata of Driftless bedrock. Individual experience colors these lenses and layers….

The Driftless Area

The editors’ “Preface” contains brief but enlightening personal accounts of their own encounters with the area. Keefe Keeley, a native of Kickapoo Valley within the Driftless region, is currently the executive director of the Savanna Institute, an organization that helps famers develop sustainable agro-ecosystems in the Upper Midwest. He writes of standing at a rock face of dolomite where he saw “sketches of wind and water, roots and fire, claws and paws, and, most recently, human etchings.” Then he adds, “Compared with writing on paper, or uploading words into the cloud, this little cliff seems an enduring place to have made a mark, but these rocks, too, are pages of history, turning into eroded stories, myth, and mystery.” It is where the story of stories of discovery has been inscribed. But, as he continues to observe, “Yet at its most innocent, discovery is personal. As the mural on a wall of my school in the Kickapoo Valley paraphrased Proust: ‘The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.’”

Besides being known for his many books on conservation and as an Aldo Leopold scholar, Curt Meine is a Senior Fellow at both the Aldo Leopold Foundation and the Center for Humans and Nature, a Research Associate with the International Crane Foundation, and an adjunct professor in the Department of Forest and Wildlife Ecology at the University of Wisconsin. While he is not a native of the Driftless region in Wisconsin, he says that he has found himself “along the margins of long gone glaciers” for as long as he can remember. But now he lives “at the east portal of the Driftless, marginally more aware of its anomalous geology, its kaleidoscopic ecology, its deep and complex human history, its problems and its potential.” And as with Keefe’s remembrance of Proust’s words on the mural at his school, Meine also recalls Gary Snyder’s words written in the Sierra foothills: “’If the ground can be our common ground, we can begin to talk to each other (human and non-human) once again.’”

This book is not just a collection of commentaries on the Driftless region. It is orchestrated and presented by the editors in a manner that not only focuses attention on the Driftless region but also suggests a model that others might use to evoke the meanings underlying the natural surroundings that they call home. The editors’ insights and the voices they collect here become a poetic rendering of the meaning of place. In their final comment in the “Preface,” they write this: “We can dwell on that which divides us, but we all dwell within landscapes that connect us. By listening deeply to the voices of our diverse places, we may find many ways home and many ways forward.” This anthology helps the reader understand the diversity that can be found in multiple regions within this country, and it will encourage readers to look more deeply into the meaning of the regions in which they live.

The Driftless Reader

University of Wisconsin Press

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Book Review: Galapagos at the Crossroads by Carol Ann Bassett

Galápagos at the Crossroads: Pirates, Biologists, Tourists, and Creationists Battle for Darwin’s Cradle of Evolution by Carol Ann Bassett should be on the reading list for anyone traveling to the archipelago, whether as a researcher or a tourist. This insightful essay collection, while offering deep dives into some of the islands’ flora and fauna, also covers the controversial history and present challenges of the human impact on the Galápagos in ways all visitors should see in order to truly understand this remarkable place.

In these seventeen chapters, Bassett writes of her personal experiences in the Galápagos, the first time being 1990. When she returned twenty years later, she witnessed the explosion of tourism as well as the local population, and these effects on the native wildlife were substantial, to say the least.

Most striking about this book is the real vision Bassett gives us of this “paradise.” To the casual tourist, the Galápagos Islands are pristine white-sand beaches, turquoise waters, spectacular snorkeling, swimming with friendly sea lions—but beneath that is a startling reality: that of invasive species threatening to decimate native plants and animals, a human population struggling to survive in a changing world, and a political system so corrupt that it threatens to destroy the most unique ecosystem in the world, which desperately needs protecting.

The book begins with background on the islands and grows increasingly interesting through Bassett’s interviews and research into conservation efforts—not only what studies are being done but what good work is being undermined by other interests, including the local fishing and tourism industries. Bassett highlights local problems, such as lack of education and healthcare, that contribute to wider issues: children who grow up without an appreciation or understanding of where they live, and local tour guides who do not believe in evolution.

Among my favorite chapters is Bassett’s Q&A with Alex Cornelisson, then director of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society in Galápagos. Sea Shepherd does incredible work worldwide for the oceans and its creatures and has been especially crucial to the Galápagos. Sea Shepherd’s work in partnership with Galápagos National Park and the Environmental Police is one of many examples Bassett offers of how it’s only through engaging with those who live on the islands that change can happen and be effective. The stories of those working to educate local children and create environmental stewards are truly inspiring.

The book is filled with dramas large and small — from stories of poachers and mafia to the “siblicide” of masked boobies and other fascinating animal mysteries. The essays appear to have been written individually and, when read together, can be repetitive—introducing the same people more than once, repeating facts—but in many cases, underscoring the islands’ issues and those who are working for change (or getting in the way) is not a bad thing. The more readers can understand about these islands, the better.

Written with an obvious love for the islands and a sense of urgency about protecting them, Galápagos at the Crossroads shows readers a Galápagos that most tourists will never see but absolutely should. It is only through understanding and truly appreciating this World Heritage Galápagos treasure that it can be preserved.

For more on the Galápagos, check out this short video, Voices of the Galápagos, which showcases the people who live on the Galápagos Islands and highlights their perspectives, goals, and efforts to preserve the place they call home.

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ASLE announces 2017 book award finalists

The Association for the Study of Literature and Environment has announced the finalists for their bi-annual book awards. The ASLE book awards “in the areas of ecocriticism and environmental creative writing recognize excellence in the field.”

 

Creative Award Finalists

The judges were Emily McGiffin, the winner of the ASLE Creative Writing Award in 2015, who lives in Vancouver, BC; Rich King, a finalist for the 2015 Creative Writing Award, a research associate with The Maritime Studies Program of Williams College and Mystic Seaport; and Tom Hallock, who teaches in the Visual & Verbal Arts Department at the University of South Florida-St. Petersburg.

Branch, Michael P.  Raising Wild:  Dispatches from a Home in the Wilderness.  Boulder:  Roost, 2016.

“A beautifully-written collection of essays that splices memoir with natural history as it carries us deep into the unsung terrain of domesticity in the wilderness. Michael Branch is keenly observant and unfailingly witty as he schools us in the natural wonders of his home.”

 

 

Hanson, Chad.  This Human Shape.  Northfield, MN:  Red Dragonfly, 2016.

“A beautifully-written collection of essays that splices memoir with natural history as it carries us deep into the unsung terrain of domesticity in the wilderness. Michael Branch is keenly observant and unfailingly witty as he schools us in the natural wonders of his home.”

 

 

Moore, Kathleen Dean.  Piano Tide:  A Novel.  Berkeley:  Counterpoint, 2016

“A beautiful, unique, and suspenseful novel. Kathleen Dean Moore has somehow channeled the ecology and humanity of E. Annie Proulx’s Shipping News and John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row into Good River Harbor, an imaginary town in Southeast Alaska. Even while focusing on the details and spinning a page-turner, Moore encompasses most of the major issues of the twenty-first century in the Pacific Northwest: salmon, water, tourism, jobs, global warming, wilderness, and the lives and legacy of First Peoples. Howard, her straight man caught in the middle, begins to think the same as Nora, the eco-activist: Imagine how you can live in a place without wrecking it.”

Raymond, Midge.  My Last Continent: A Novel. New York:  Scribner, 2016.

My Last Continent is a love story. Raymond teaches us how and why to love Antarctica. She lures us into loving her nuanced protagonist, a field ornithologist named Deb Gardner. And Raymond shows us how and why to love all the other scientists and romantics who spend part of each year at the bottom of the world:” those who have run out of places to go, and those who have run out of places to hide.” Can a drama of romance and shipwreck and penguins also have something to say about ecotourism and climate change? Yes. My Last Continent is what happens when a nature writer crafts an event like the Titanic.”

(Midge Raymond is an EcoLit Books contributor!)


Savoy, Lauret Edith.  Trace:  Memory, History, Race, and the American Landscape. Berkeley:  Counterpoint, 2015.

“Well researched, timely, gracefully written; particularly intriguing on the connections between landscape, memory and race.”

 

 

 

Sutherland, Kate.  How to Draw a Rhinoceros:  Poems by Kate Sutherland.  N. p.:  Book Thug, 2016.

“Surprisingly insightful in its contemporary adaptations of earlier natural history traditions.”

 

 

 

 

Tevis, Joni.  The World Is on Fire:  Scrap, Treasure, and Songs of Apocalypse.  Minneapolis, MN:  Milkweed, 2015.

“Some of the most explosive prose I’ve read in some time. Unsettling.”

 

Ecocriticism Book Award Finalists

The judges were Nicole Seymour, winner of the the winner of the ASLE Ecocritical Book Award in 2015, Tom Lynch, founding coordinator of the ASLE Book Awards and editor of the journal Western American Literature, and Molly Westling, Professor Emerita at the University of Oregon and author of The Green Breast of the New World: Landscape, Gender and American Fiction.


Stacy Alaimo, Exposed: Environmental Politics and Pleasures (University of Minnesota Press, 2016)

“This book is a rich, very original extension of Alaimo’s influential concept of “transcorporeality” from her previous scholarship. Exposed explores the radical ways such a perspective erases illusions of human separateness from the rest of the living world, thus leaving Cartesian objectivism far behind. With ingenuity and nuance, Alaimo here applies queer theory, marine biology, feminist posthumanism, and exciting aesthetic analysis to insist on human embeddedness in the deep material reality of earth and especially sea on the one planet where we belong and whose climates are rapidly, dangerously changing.”

 

Derek Gladwin, Contentious Terrains: Boglands, Ireland, Postcolonial Gothic (Cork University Press, 2016)

“An original, richly theorized examination of the deep landscape histories embodied in Northern European boglands, especially in Ireland, and literary treatments of their meanings by writers from Bram Stoker, Frank O’Connor, Sean O’Faolain and Nobel Laureate Seamus Heaney to more recent poets and playwrights and remarkable geocultural nonfiction writer Tim Robinson. Gladwin as a Canadian ecocritic brings fresh postcolonial approaches to consider these shifting spaces that are part water, part earth and that have moved and changed in radical ways over geological time and more recently through empires from Celtic and Roman to Viking and Anglo powers.”

 

Ursula Heise, Imagining Extinction: The Cultural Meanings of Endangered Species (University of Chicago Press, 2016).

“Heise brings her formidable analytical skills and erudition to an analysis of how we think about and respond to one of the main aspects of the Anthropocene, extinction. Makes a strong case for the importance of the humanities in how we understand what is often considered to be a purely scientific problem. Well written, this will be a key text in the field for years to come.”

 

Erin James, The Storyworld Accord: Econarratology and Postcolonial Narratives (University of Nebraska Press, 2016).

“James adeptly combines three fields often seen as distinct: ecocriticism, narrative studies, and postcolonial studies. Of special note is how the book uses narrative theory, supplemented by cognitive neurobiology, to explain how readers come to inhabit the world of stories, helping us to move beyond the poorly theorized “mimesis” conundrum that has bedeviled ecocriticism. Surprising and innovative insights on every page.”

 

Jesse Oak Taylor, The Sky of Our Manufacture: The London Fog in British Fiction from Dickens to Woolf. (University of Virginia Press, 2016).

“This book fills a significant gap in terms of ecocritical work on both Victorian studies and modernism. Indeed, Taylor makes a persuasive case for literature of that period as Anthropocene literature – and, in so doing, offers a stronger account of the notion of Anthropocene literature than I’ve seen elsewhere. This book seems as important to ecocriticism/environmental humanities as it does to studies in the novel, modernism, Dickens studies, etc. – which I think is quite a feat. It’s also elegantly written and displays highly original thinking.”

Priscilla Solis Ybarra, Writing the Goodlife: Mexican American Literature and the Environment. (University of Arizona Press, 2016).

“This book also fills a significant gap — in this case, when it comes to coverage of Latinx/Chicanx literature and culture. I believe it’s the first book-length ecocritical study of Mexican-American literature. While groundbreaking in these ways, the book also provides a nice complement to extant work on African-American, queer, and other minority traditions of eco-engagement. It makes a bold, counterintuitive but ultimately crucial case against terms such as “environment” and “environmentalism,” showing how they are coded in racially exclusive ways. I also appreciate how the preface models the importance of the personal in the scholarly.”

 

Winners will be announced in June.

ASLE

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