Selected Observations on Urban Fauna



Neighborhood: Greenwich Village, Manhattan

Ants by Aurélie Bernard Wortsman.


The following is a contemporary take on the medieval bestiary, featuring descriptions and characterizations of the actual and apocryphal creatures that share our constricted urban space. This second installment is devoted to insects. Stomped, smoked out, asphyxiated, and trampled underfoot, they elicit a degree of fear and disgust disproportionate to their size. Quietly going about their business with a Zen disregard, they outnumber us and were here long before the first amphibian ever set a wary foot on dry land and will likely revel in the rubble of skyscrapers and sidewalks long after we’re gone. Text and image are gleaned from the lifelong perambulations on asphalt and cement by two native New Yorkers, a father-daughter team, author Peter Wortsman and artist-illustrator Aurélie Bernard Wortsman.


Who’s Zoo is It?

Ever since Noah’s ark, zoos have brashly asserted humanity’s edge as the spectator species perched without, ogling the spectacle species within — a distinction somewhat blurred in New York by the proliferation of window guards and the complex ramifications of the burglar-tenant relationship. Homo sapiens flock to the zoo to feel superior. But cross-sectioned under Plexiglas, the tireless activity of the ant hill in the Central Park Zoo magnified by a surveillance camera reveals a parallel reality disturbingly similar to our own. Lugging leaves and twigs in lieu of laptops, pocketbooks and attaché cases, stepping over each other to achieve some unattainable end, these restless micro-managers in three-piece bodies parody human antics to a tee. Or is it the other way around? Do we, rather, make like insects — so assiduous, so driven, so ruthless — commuting to our destiny? Who can deny the striking resemblance between an anthill and a skyscraper?

Conjoined Firebugs

Conjoined Aurélie Bernard Wortsman.

I recently stumbled on an astounding natural anomaly crossing my path in Washington Square Park, two conjoined firebugs scurrying along. They looked in the fading light at first like a bickering old married couple, at second glance like a pair of inseparable young lovers, and finally like an insect shadowboxing with itself. Over pebble and weed, dirt and rubble, and up a wall they scampered in their frenzy, their rapture, or trying to break free. I couldn’t tell for sure if I was witnessing a sad domestic melodrama or a lurid entomological love story. Now they crawled over a dead leaf, now they paused, cast worried looks about, no doubt aware of the giant eying them, and scurried on. And then it dawned on me. Could they/it possibly be a natural anomaly, conjoined Siamese firebug twins? And might I be the first inadvertent naturalist to report on this freak phenomenon? I reached for my pen and my Moleskine pocket pad to record the discovery, but when I looked up again, the bug/s was/were gone. 

Dust Is Not Dead

Dust Mites by Aurélie Bernard Wortsman.

Still as it may seem, dust is not dead. Those snowy white drifts of shed flakes of skin and strands of hair are home to a horde of tiny Dermatophagoides farina, better known as American house dust mites. Averaging some 100-500 per gram of household dust, with up to 100,000 crowding every square meter of indoor carpeting and rugs, and more than two million infesting the crevasses of your spring mattress, think of them as a mob of messy roommates sharing your bed. Despite a limited life expectancy of some 60 days, a fecund female domestic dust mite can lay up to 100 eggs and excrete approximately 2,000 fecal particles rich in Tropomyosin, an acute human allergen and significant factor in asthma. Clean-freaks beware! You can keep your broom swinging, your vacuum cleaner gasping all day. It’s no use. Every time you scratch or comb your hair you are feeding this tiny intruder with the detritus of self. If the devil exists, it is eight-legged, translucent, a mere 420 microns in length and 320 microns in width, with a striated cuticle encasing its hungry hulk.


A writer in multiple modes (fiction, drama, essays and poetry) and frequent contributor to Mr. Beller’s Neighborhood, Peter Wortsman is the author, most recently, of Epiphany of a Middle-Aged Pilgrim, Essays in Lieu of a Memoir, Pelekinesis, 2021. A chapbook of his cut-up poems, Borrowed Words, is due out from Bamboo Dart Press, in 2022.

Aurélie Bernard Wortsman is an artist, cartoonist, and the director of Andrew Edlin Gallery, in New York, specializing in Art Brut and Outsider Art, where she curated “Beverly Buchanan: Shacks and Legends, 1985-2011,” and “Agatha Wojciechowsky: Spirits Among Us,” in 2021. She is co-founder of the artistic cartoon duo, Zou and Lou. 

© 2022 Peter Wortsman and Aurélie Bernard Wortsman

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§ One Response to “Selected Observations on Urban Fauna”

  • Susan T. Landry says:

    oh, peter: this is fabulous. and aurelie’s artwork is of course the perfect accompaniment. the thing is, creepy crawly companions in NYC are taken for granted. or at least used to be, maybe not these days, when life is either simpler or more complicated. thanks for reminding us that we are never truly alone.

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