Gavin Van Horn did not grow up in a city and he didn’t expect, after graduating college with a doctorate from the University of Florida with a specialization in Religion and Nature, to end up living in Chicago, the third largest city in the United States.
He also didn’t expect, outside of occasional pockets of wildlife in city parks and preserves, to have much interaction with such creatures.
That is until one night as he was reading a book in his third floor condominium when between the squeals of the passing L-trains, he heard the banter of coyotes as they communicated with each other.
“One expect birds in the city,” says Van Horn, who with Dave Aftandilian, edited City Creatures: Animal Encounters in the Chicago Wilderness (University of Chicago Press 2015; $30). The book is the basis for an exhibit of the same name at Chicago’s Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum. “But knowing there were coyotes in the city added another dimension.”
Coyotes became an icon for Van Horn, the director of Cultures of Conservation for the Center for Humans and Nature, a nonprofit organization that focuses on and promotes conservation ethics. He also writes for, edits, and curates the City Creatures blog at http://www.humansandnature.org/blog.
“I was very happy to find out how much bio-diversity there is in the city,” he says. “And there are so many people in Chicago dedicated to that bio-diversity as well.”
Divided into six sections, the book covers urban wildlife in an array of essays, poetry, paintings and photographs. It also helps readers know where to look for these city creatures. But, as Van Horn says, it’s not necessary to go to such places as Powderhorn Marsh and Prairie Preserve, 192 acres of woodland, prairie and wetland tucked away on the far southeast side of Chicago or Montrose Point Bird Sanctuary in Lincoln Park, a favorite of birders because of such sightings as the Red-throated Loons, Snow Owls, Lapland Longspurs and Semi-Palmated Sandpipers.
“If you’re a person who just likes being outside, you can see so much in backyards, vacant lots, public golf courses and even cemeteries,” says Van Horn, noting the later often has little corners or pockets where native plants thrive, attracting native wildlife. “No matter where you are at, there are things to discover. It’s letting yourself learn to look for them.”
To do just that, Van Horn says the first step is to pay attention and to hone your curiosity.
“Once you’re in a place and learn to recognize what’s around you it’s easy to discover the myth of the city,” he says. “And that myth is that there’s nothing out there but urban life.”
What: City Creatures: Animal Encounters in Chicago’s Urban Wilderness
When: Oct. 3 – Jan. 3, 2016
Where: Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, 2430 N. Cannon Drive, Chicago IL
FYI: (773) 755-5100; naturemuseum.org