Monday, November 28, 2011

Urban Life

When i was a young man, just into my twenties, I was graced with the opportunity to spend a fall, winter and spring living away from the noise, filth and insanity of the city. For a time, I whiled my way in a little house on a half acre just outside a village on the edge of nowhere.

I lived on the Kings Highway, a small snakey road that traverses our entire vast country without ever passing through anywhere that anyone cares about anymore, so it is dotted with tiny villages that are crumbling as the children scamper off to the big city. So, I was allowed the experience of being an inconsequential fly orbiting the quaintest of dying life forms.

It was a rejuvenating bucolic time for me, spent reading Tolstoy and Thoreau in between bouts of chopping winter wood and clawing back the wild from overrunning my utopic idyll. OK, it may not have been that idyllic. I was working in a cardboard factory in the nearby village and twenty years later, my lungs are still paying for it—seriously, it was the most depressing place in the world and the employees made book on who and when each would drop dead. That isn’t a joke or hyperbole. While i worked there, a man came up on retirement and instead of much wistful conversation on what one might do with retirement, he was sunken and silent, and the rest joked about how long he would last. He died before his pension was processed. Money changed hands. It was that sort of place.

But still, it was one of my few experiences in life that didn’t take place deep in a large metropolis. I treasure it to this day. The odd thing is that other than the time I was in a vehicle than slammed into a deer head on (a great story unto itself), I don’t really recall any of the wild life that one might normally think to be abundant in the country. I remember the marina, the back trails, the woods, and grapevine wrath, but not regular ambulatory life forms.

Contrasting this, I have always found the concrete jungle to be teeming with life. Really. A ridiculous amount of life that very nearly gives us the finger for how much it cares what we do. My experience of the wild is inextricable from my experience of the city.

I used to live in a claustrophobic apartment complex that bordered on an embassy. I don’t remember which embassy, except it was the sort that always had an RCMP vehicle keeping it under surveillance (don’t we all miss the innocence of the cold war, considering how bloody the world is now). They had a tall fence around their complex, but at one end, on their side, was a hill leading right up the fence, and on our side a dumpster. I awoke one morning to loud chittering and found an entire family of raccoons had sauntered up to what they thought was a gorge-atopia and having plummeted in, couldn’t get back out. The large male hissed and bared its teeth at me when I peeked in. I found a long thick branch, fallen from a nearby tree and put one end in, forming a ramp up and out of the cornucopic trap. No dummies, the raccoon family immediately formed rank and climbed up and out and waddled off single file and never looked back at me.

Just last year, i found another family of raccoons living in a small tree in my yard. Up until then, I had never given thought to what animals do when they aren’t foraging. But for most of that summer, late at night, this family hiked up into the branches to sleep. I would never have known, but when I went outside to smoke at night they would startle awake and clamber off the tree, trundling sleepily down the length of a fence next to it. It was never a fearful run, more an irritated grumpy stumble, much the same as humans look when a fire alarm empties an apartment building. They’d go about 100 feet, dad would rear up and look back. I could see the moon reflected in his eyes, and then while I still smoked, they would start back and hoist their chubby bodies back into the branches. From evacuation to being all tucked in again took less time than my cigarette. Even if I fretted about my cats some, I enjoyed these barbapappa-like raccoons.

For a while I lived in Vancouver and lacking gainful employment often found myself rambling around Stanley Park. Raccoons were well known there, only they were much larger than those I knew in the east. They would stand on their hind legs, doing their best imitation of cute to get people to feed them. They resembled nothing less than small bears with masks. Fences had been put up, adorned with warnings not to feed them as they were known to attack small children, evidently not being choosy between peanuts and babies.

Out West, everything seemed bigger. And more prone to eating you. While living in Victoria, on the island I found myself sitting on the roof promenade of a mall eating a take-out, when some sea gulls came to investigate. I saw signs in bold red, warning not to feed the gulls. They were the same sort of signs that you would see at a power station warning you not to electrocute yourself by playing in the wires. Alas, I was the very snotty age of 21 and always on the lookout for a way to stick it to the man.

I tore off strips of my hamburger bun and began tossing. Soon, where there were three gulls, and then there were a hundred, then two hundred. These gulls, like everything out west were much larger than I was used to. They didn’t settle for squawking but began attacking. Like the raccoons, these gulls saw no point in discriminating between a hamburger bun and my flesh. I fled for the safety of the building and they flung themselves on the, apparently bullet proof glass. There was a lesson there about not fooling about with pompous ideas of us ruling nature.

I try not to forget it. I try, but forget anyway. I have had similar experiences since then, with squirrels on Mont Royal in the wet days of late March.

While i was in Victoria I also got to see a pelican. Up until then, my minds image of a pelican came mostly from Walter Lantz and I expected to see the enormous pouch hanging from a dopey bird. Unlike everything else, they were smaller than expected and when they haven’t swooped up a load of fish and water that pouch is barely a waddle. Aside from a long beak, they looked nothing like what I imagined. And they looked quite regal, not like the drunken sailor cartoons made of them.

While on the topic of Walter Lantz, I never saw or heard a woodpecker until this summer. Sitting on a porch in Minnesota, again smoking (i think if it were not for my filthy habit, I would never see any of the world), I first heard and then witnessed the famous bird. They are indeed handsome and bright. More than that, they are loud. Really loud. You think sawing a tree is loud? Try head butting one. That yard in Minneapolis was always chock full of colourful birds I could not name. I felt so jealous. Back home, most of the small birds were a dingy brownish grey. It was a big event to see a jay or a cardinal. In Minnesota, everyday was Tales Of The Green Forest come to life.

Back in the ol’ hometown, one of the more common animals I see is the skunk. They are so common that I think they get a bad rep for spraying. It is obvious that they only spray under dire circumstances, like being run over. If it were otherwise, the entire city would stink of skunk instead of car exhaust. While working night security for an elderly home, I used to routinely come across what I assume was the same skunk, while making my perimeter rounds(this was more for bringing back naked senile escapees than keeping predators out). I learned that skunks can make an impressively aggressive chittering noise to ward you off. They really do hold that spray back for emergencies. I’m glad, because, puppies aside, there is nothing more adorable looking than a skunk. That skunk flipping the bird at me each night was the highlight of that job.

Speaking of, where I live now, one night I was out back(you guessed it, smoking), when I nearly peed myself because a chuthulian nightmare came undulating across the yard straight at me. My paranoia was not delirium tremens; the thing coming at me was real and resembled some kind of manta ray. While I was making out my last will in my head and browning my shorts, it pivoted and writhed up to the front of the yard then slithered under the fence. I dashed after it in some madness, opened wide the gate and watched it ripple across my street.

Under the street lamps, I could see it was a family-or tribe--of skunks(really, what do we know about them?) traveling in a close knit phalanx. The characteristic waddle ripple of a skunk is amusing when it is one. Eight of them all voltron’d up into one being looks distinctly otherworldly. The land manta gang of skunks silently disappeared into another yard and I have never again seen anything like it.

At home, mostly what I like to watch are the crows. They are everywhere, ubiquitous. They do not become invisible to me though, I always think of them as knowledgeable demigods watching. And they do seem to keep tabs on us. Luckily they seem non-participatory. Science has demonstrated that they remember everything they see and do and that they transmit this information between themselves, so from what i can see, they are like a CIA who can fly. I live not that far from a house where legend has it a schizophrenic man lives, who buys enormous quantities of meat which he tosses up onto his roof to feed them(appeasement?).

I do not know if this is true, but, where I live, the word ‘murder’ to depict a flock of crows is insufficient. They darken the skies in the tens of thousands. I see hundred year old trees bend under their weight. If they do signal mystical portent, then I am at ground zero for when the hobbits surface. Or the apocalypse arrives.

The other bird that people nearly forget, because it is everywhere, is the pigeon. It is more common in the central city than the suburbs, but where they live, there are millions of them. I used to adore pigeons as much as I do skunks. They warble in a way that is so appealing, they sheen a great green and blue around their necks, and pivot their heads as though everything we say is daft. What’s not to like?

When I lived in Montreal I used to love how many tiny plazas they had, dubbed “parks”. Usually it was a corner with prettier concrete stones, some benches and a circular fenced enclosure of bushes and a tree. These places tended to have only a few denizens other than the pigeons. There were the elderly, the unemployed and the narcotic addicted. (I will leave off mention which category I fell into). All of them, without ever conferring seemed to agree on feeding the pigeons. These parks are about as serene a place as you can find in the inner city.

But that all changed while I lived in a groovy apartment in Little Italy, Ottawa, with a nice old dilapidated wooden balcony. During the winter, when we weren’t using it, it became over run as a roost for pigeons. I probably could have lived with that except that was the winter my girlfriend got pregnant. If you haven’t had children, this is the moment in life that transforms you from seeing the world as a playground to cavort in to seeing the world as a mortal threat to the well-being of your child. Overnight you become a hyper-vigilant pre-emptive strike kind of person.

Before my daughter was born we began planning on an off-site location to lock up the cleaning supplies and whether we could live without electrical outlets. The pigeons were a major assault on our fortress of fertility. Pigeon guano is quite poisonous, and once dry is easily dusted up into the air. Since my girl had been tasked with the whole gestating thing, dealing with the pigeons fell on me.

Despite a childhood spent revelling in the god-like power of torturing bugs, I grew up, not into a serial killer, but a gentle soul. I didn’t really want to evict these families who must care about their own children as much as we did for our unborn. But, I did feel it was a us-or-them kind of thing. And when I thought of my little baby breathing in pigeon bio-weaponry, my jaw set.

Now, I know from humane traps. At a restaurant I used to work at, we used to lay out the humane traps. They consisted of shallow trays of a gluey substance. The idea was the little mouse feet would get caught in the molasses and then you would pull them free and deposit them in some more appropriate, nurturing environment, like the woods (wherever that is if you work downtown).

In reality, the glue was supernaturally strong, and the caught mice, terrified would rail against it, only to trip and get their bodies caught up in it. Even more frightened, they would pull harder, slowly ripping out of their skins. I would find mice squealing in agony and if I tried to peel them off, all I achieved would be pulling them right out of their skins altogether. Very humane. I took to putting the trapped mice, trap and all, in a bag, bringing them out back and stomping on them before sending them on their farewell voyage to the dumpster.

I took this painful lesson to heart when dealing with the pigeons. I went out onto that balcony, wearing my air filter, kicking up guano dust everywhere and stomped on the cheeping babies in those nests. Then I shovelled everything into garbage bags before scrubbing everything in detergent. Urban life--for them and for me. I never told the mother of my child what had been necessary. She had, generally, more sympathy for animals than people and probably would not have understood. I thought to myself, maybe it is some primal evolutionary part of fatherhood that one lives with killing the babies of the competition.

That is my penultimate anecdote of urban life. Perhaps a poor one to devote so much time to, given the genial nature of this piece. It is just to say that the urban jungle is like any other jungle—vicious and decisive.

I’ve left out a lot of urban life with which I am familiar. Countless rabbits and gophers could also have provided stories. Then there was two summers ago when Ottawa was inexplicably infested with wild turkeys—it became a local internet meme to post photos of a spotting. I never knew there was such a thing as a wild turkey until then. I also have loving tales of snakes and frogs in the city, but ran out of space. I will leave off on one final anecdote of life in the city.

For a time, I lived in the old country, not my old country; I’m Scotch-Irish, but the old country just the same. While I hung my hat in Berlin, I cycled one day to visit the historic site where Hitler signed his little document deciding the world would be a great place with all the world’s religions minus one. Winded from a long ride I walked my bike under the shade of a wooded area and came across a boar.

For fellow North American Urbanites, a boar is neither a cute little pygmy pig, nor a vacuous aimless farm pig. A boar is a large dangerous beast that can take out a human easily. Without arms, you cannot fight one and you cannot outrun one either. I looked at it. It looked at me. It measured me as no threat, snorted derisively and wandered away. In that moment I first understood what wildness was. I first connected with the idea of mankind as a naked frightened animal in the wilderness. I understood our fires and guns and mistrustfulness. I understood the uneasiness that, even in our concrete world, we still cannot shake off. I understood another living thing as something other than food or an irritant to be erased. I understood the possibility of being knocked off by something else's primal nature.

I was quite shaken and cycled off. At my destination I had no stomach to visit the famous building and sat smoking in the garden. While I smoked, two young foxes leapt out of the woods, cavorting and playing without a care in the world. They never noticed me, but just jumped and rolled and yipped. Eventually an adult fox emerged from the trees, looked balefully at me, and barked. Tails down, the two young foxes skulked away and disappeared into the woods. Just another family coping with urban life.

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