Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Rats (copy)

One of my favorite things to do as a reader on vacation is read a book with local flair. You may have noticed my lead to books: The Big Bam by Montville and Pigeons by Blechman. This trip I brought along, Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City’s Most Unwanted Inhabitants by Robert Sullivan, as our 2007 guidebook.

Robert Sullivan, author of The Meadowlands and A Whale Hunt, is currently a contributing editor to Vogue and constant contributor to the New Yorker. In 2004, the year Rats was published, I heard Sullivan on NPR and as a guest of David Letterman.

I remember thinking he sounds sane and looks normal, but what is wrong with this man. No one, in his right mind, willingly gives up a year of their life to observe rats in their natural habitat. I am happy to say, after reading Rats, author Sullivan is like most Americans. He still gets a little freaked-out working around and in proximity to rats, even after a year of “observing.”

Let us start with the whys. Sullivan thought the rats of New York City, although a quarter to half a million strong, were mostly ignored by nature writers. If they appeared in print it was to shock newspaper buyers into full subscriptions. Yet, for all the potential diseases they carry, they have had little consequence on humans in the last eighty years.

Throughout history, where humans created community, so too did rats. As our fictitious Hansel and Gretel skipped into the woods, it wasn’t song birds but rather hungry rats that ate their bread crumbs. For America, it was the rattus norvegicus or Norway Rat, who arrived, “in the first year of the Revolution.” From which they ambled after the settlers into the country, as Sullivan quips, “a manifest infestation.”

In the summer of 2001, Sullivan set up camp outside the entrance to Eden’s Alley. In an L-shaped corridor connecting Gold Street and Fulton, the oldest section of Manhattan, he began his shift at five in the evening where he observed through a night-vision monocular until morning broke. The yearlong experiment included the tragic September 11th loss that fall, when volunteers worked to contain the rats and the pestilence they harbor from Americans.

This is a fascinating read about a disgusting animal many humans would rather ignore. Would it surprise you, John James Audubon spent his later years walking the streets of lower Manhattan, similar to our neo-naturalist Sullivan, looking for rats.