✓✓ Read Receipts: Animals and the City

Frog, c.3100–2650 BCE.

Since I’ve started working evenings I’ve become properly aware of London’s nocturnal life. Everyone who’s lived here has heard foxes and I’d be surprised if there was anyone who hadn’t seen one, but I never realised quite how many there are. There’s now even more as the young fox cubs have just started running about by themselves. They’re a little curious, and one or two have allowed me to get very close before running off. The other week I went to a friends new flat that overlooks a wide area of gardens, you could sit at their table and watch all the animals running about three stories below. Birds and cats and squirrels were screeching and running about, they had their own routes that went over and between fences, up trees and into holes. It was a sight that you rarely see in such a flat and built up city. The reads this week draw from these experiences, and look at how animals and cities are adapting to one another.

  • The Metropolitan Museum in New York has recently made all of its public domain images accessible online. I spent a Saturday morning going through the prehistoric and early historic artefacts and to find some nice small animals. There’s something particularly pleasing in their stylisation and form. The frog above is from Egypt and dates to the Early Dynastic Period, c.3100–2650 BCE.
  • The challenge was to translate astounding but chaotic behavior into footage that was as spectacular onscreen as it was in person. Then, after many trips over three years—the film makers shooting and waiting from dawn to dusk—a lizard evaded certain death. ‘Planet Earth II’: A Lizard’s Great Escape by Jeremy Egner in the New York Times. My brother was telling me about his friend working on the sound design for this scene; apparently much of the footage did actually come from a single lizard, this actually made it much more difficult to set to music as they had little footage to splice in and build tension.
  • This realisation led Wohlleben towards a thorough reassessment of the ways trees behave and interact with each other. He presents them not as a mute collection of organisms lacking any sort of guiding consciousness but as a networked, intentionally collaborative and talkative community. Trees are unambiguously self-aware agents. Thinking about how they think by Francis Gooding in the London Review of Books. I’d previously heard of Peter Wohlleben’s theories of plant intelligence and sociability and like Francis Gooding wondered if it was simply bad translation. It doesn’t seem to be, so I’ll be putting any reference to friendly trees in my Ancient Aliens folder.
  • Humans build cities, shape and reshape them according to their wishes and fantasies, and then find themselves deeply alienated by the result; wild animals move in and are completely at ease with themselves. Why the Planet Earth II Episode on Cities Is So Startling by Sam Kriss in The Atlantic. As Kriss says in the piece, watching Planet Earth II it was stunning to hear about the diversity of city life, the abundance of wild animals, and how animals are mapping themselves to our space that isn’t even our own, but that which follows the impersonal inhumane logic of capital.
  • Los Angeles is one of two megacities in the world that have a population of big cats. In the other, Mumbai, leopards live in Sanjay Gandhi National Park and occasionally eat the humans who make their homes around its edge. Lions of Los Angeles by Dana Goodyear in The New Yorker. Foxes are enough trouble when they spend all night screeching, but at least they don’t predate on people. Though the attacks, in LA at least, are rare, I’d be a little more wary cycling at night.
  • Flames inexplicably vent from the tops of towers. Searchlights zigzag the sky but fail to penetrate to the claustrophobic surface. Beyond Blade Runner: Community in Cities of the Future in the Los Angeles Review of Books. In the Los Angeles of Philip K. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep and its film interpretation Blade Runner domesticated species are kept on rooftop farms, out of the thick smog of the lower city and the hands of its deprived inhabitants. Down there is a menagerie of genetically engineered and manufactured robots. Rachael’s Voight-Kampf responses show that natural leather is a controlled substance. LA of 2019 feels less a potential future and more our only one. As the poison air of London chokes us, I think of what it’s doing to the animals of the city.