This might sound misanthropic, but it’s true: Some of the best nature writing that I’ve ever read is about cities. Edward Abbey — the shaggy, problematic voice of 1970s environmental activism — wrote fondly about New York City in such a way that you’d want to divide your time, as he did, between the city and the desert. He embraced the metropolis and celebrated its artificiality even as he cautiously guarded the natural peace of the desert, and he saw no hypocrisy in loving both.
Here in Seattle, we don’t tend to think of nature and urban living as being at odds. Our trees are as much a part of the landscape as our sidewalks. The ambient rain that leaches the color from the sky also coaxes verdant sprays of green and shoots of life everywhere — from moss on concrete walls to tendrils of blackberry bushes reaching across the expanse of a bike trail. You could not have a Seattle without nature; if this city were a gray and brutalist expanse like certain east coast cities, it would have an entirely different character than the Seattle we know and love.
In her book Turning Homeward, Adrienne Ross Scanlan captures this symbiotic relationship between Seattle and nature about as clearly as I’ve ever seen. It’s easy to wax poetic about Mount Rainier, for instance, or the steely depths of Puget Sound. But Scanlan also writes beautifully about the complicated ties between Seattle and its many invasive species. (Scanlan notes wryly that, as a transplant who made Seattle home years ago, she is an invasive species of sorts, too.)
Scanlan writes early in Homeward about her difficult attempts to find nature as something apart from the city: “Those first trips south and east of Seattle were along a confusing array of highways and side roads, often to places with names I couldn’t remember, much less hope to find on a map,” she writes.
“It wouldn’t have occurred to me to look for nature within urban or suburban areas while I lived in upstate New York,” she says, but soon enough she’s exploring nature in Redmond, of all places.
Behind the neatly cut lawns and multicar garages, flowing through a wild riot of sword fern, lichen-encrusted alder, dense stands of salmonberry, and the ubiquitous Himalayan blackberry, was Cottage Lake Creek, spanned by a rain-battered wooden footbridge. Just a few feet below the bridge, the water was thick with pairs of mating sockeye darting back and forth, nipping the tails and fins of intruders to keep them from their precious redds, the gravel sites for their egg nests.
This isn’t a dandelion springing out of the cracked inky façade of a parking lot. This is full-on motherfucking nature, happening right in the middle of an urban environment. She writes later:
Urban animals had their own haunts and routes that were hidden, or simply unnoticed, alongside the human roads leading to soccer fields and pizza joints, or the concrete trails bisecting suburban housing developments. Habitat, I was learning, is never simply destroyed. It is re-created in ways that express our values and imagination. It is alive with creatures, whether or not we bother to see them.
That’s an important distinction. The Seattle Scanlan is writing about is invisible to many. It takes some locals years to find these backwoods trails tucked behind the strip malls. Some transplants never even visit a tenth of the hundreds of parks spread like emeralds on a black velvet mat, all across the greater Seattle region.
In Homeward, Scanlan writes about the efforts to keep the salmon ecosystem alive in the Puget Sound metro area. In Bellevue, she holds coho eggs in her cupped hands. “It seemed to me that the eggs twitched as if turning skyward in some first, rudimentary glimpse of sunlight,” she writes. Even in its most basic form, life wants to see and to be seen. Scanlan is the very best kind of witness.
Homeward is a collection of essays centered around this theme. Scanlan writes about the eager bee enthusiast named Sally who helped her remove a thriving hive from her home. After suiting up in a protective suit and helping Sally retrieve the colony, Scanlan suffers a panic attack. Her fear isn’t as simple as the hurt of being stung; she panics out of a more existential dread: “Our worlds were so different,” she writes. “What the bees sensed was so alien to what I saw and knew.”
It’s another invisible world, but one that will forever remain opaque to humans. You can stare into an animal’s eyes for years and you will never understand what those eyes see when they look at the world.
Not all of those hidden worlds are divided by species. Some of them are divided by more human pursuits, like class. Scanlan writes meaningfully about Seattle’s homeless crisis, and the way homeless people have been forced to take refuge in the city’s many deep green areas. Any park that’s more than a city block seems to have at least one hidden home secreted inside it, and Scanlan can’t help but reflect on the way that we’ve failed our fellow homo sapiens.
What makes good habitat for a green-winged teal? It’s a short list: food, shelter from the elements, and protective cover from predators. What makes a refuge for a homeless woman sleeping beside cattails? Any place where she won’t be raped, or robbed, or pissed upon. Any place where she won’t be seen unless she wants to be seen.
There’s that distinction again — between the seen and the unseen, and the things we choose to see and not see. That’s what makes Homeward such an essential text for understanding Seattle. While most of us choose to make a series of absolute distinctions in our daily lives as Seattleites — between nature and city, between human and animal, between citizen and homeless person — Scanlan doesn’t see those lines. Instead, she reminds us that we are all a part of Seattle, and the sooner we learn to make room for every form of life, the happier every form of life in this city will be.
Paul is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He has written for The Progressive, Newsweek, Re/Code, the Utne Reader, the New York Observer, and many North American alternative weeklies. Paul has worked in the book business for two decades, starting as a bookseller (originally at Borders Books and Music, then at Boston's grand old Brattle Bookshop and Seattle's own Elliott Bay Book Company) and then becoming a literary critic. Formerly the books editor for the Stranger, Paul is now a fellow at Civic Ventures, a public policy incubator based out of Seattle.
Follow Paul Constant on Twitter: @paulconstant