Selected Observations on Urban Fauna

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03/11/2023

Neighborhood: All Over

Illustrations by Aurélie Bernard Wortsman 

The following is the third installment in a work in progress, Observations on Urban Fauna, a contemporary take on the medieval bestiary, featuring actual and apocryphal creatures that share our constricted urban space. 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.

I was inspired in this empirical experiment by the story of the discovery of the Paleolithic cave paintings at Altamira, in Santillana del Mar, in northern Spain, which I was privileged to visit in 1973 before the cave was permanently closed to the public. In 1875 Marcelino Sanz de Sautuola, an amateur archeologist, decided to take his young daughter, Maria, on a Sunday stroll. Maria brought along her little dog. The animal followed its nose into the mouth of a cave in which the father had previously discovered scattered bones, and the girl trotted in after her pet with a torch. Moments later, the wild-eyed child came running out, crying “Bisons! Bisons!” Sautuola followed her back in to the spot where the dog stood barking. He was baffled, seeing nothing but bare rock, until his daughter pointed upwards, revealing the magnificent canopy of prehistoric paintings thought to be between 11,000 and 19,000 years old.

Grownups tend by force of habit to always view the world from the same angle, while children whose wobbly heads are not yet glued in place still crane their necks to take in the unexpected.

This installment invites us to look up and down.

____________________________


Squirrels

Beloved for the falling-leaf-like way it moves, the squirrel (a member of the Sciuridae family) may beg a nut, but disdains any further interaction with man. The rat revolts us because it comes too close, invading our habitats, intruding even in our dreams. Not so the squirrel. More of a dwarf-deer than a rodent (its home being not the sewer, but the lawn), it is a permanent visitor in the city. If in one respect, namely its tendency to hoard, it resembles us, the squirrel is quick to dispel other possible parallels. With a sudden vertical pivot, as if to prove that the law of gravity does not pertain to it, the squirrel leaps clear of human limitations. Scampering up a tree and bounding effortlessly from branch to branch, it sometimes seems to be laughing at us.

Seagulls

Seagulls (Laridae) belong to the clouds. They hang overhead with the equanimity and mild disdain of angels in a medieval altarpiece, and unlike pigeons, refuse any direct contact with man. Being a white body with wings, the seagull naturally evokes celestial associations. But its terrestrial counterpart is not the soul. I once witnessed the gruesome spectacle of a gull pecking at the bloody carcass of a pigeon run over by a truck. Part sport, part snack, it swooped down to patiently and dispassionately tear at the bared flesh with its beak, bobbing blithely on the stream of traffic, as on a surging ocean wave, breaking off mid-bite to dodge a motorcycle, car or scurrying pedestrian, returning again and again to drag the carcass to the curb to polish off, sip the blood, and wipe its white feathers clean on the sidewalk.

The Monk Parakeets of Green-Wood Cemetery

Exiting Green-wood, Brooklyn’s biggest cemetery, near sunset, you are serenaded by an eerie twitter. As diverse as the borough’s human population, its wildlife includes herons, egrets, hawks, crows, gulls and killdeer. But the warble comes from an unlikely source, a flock of lime green-plumed monk parakeets originally native to Argentina. Escaped from a crate destined for selected pet shops that broke open upon delivery at Kennedy Airport sometime back in the 1960s, the parrots have been proliferating ever since, sonorously nesting in the spires of the great brownstone Gothic revival gateway, the mood straight out of a low-budget horror flick.

The Garbage Waltzes with the Wind

The garbage waltzes with the wind. Empty plastic bottles dance in a lively tempo. Desired yesterday, crumpled pages of newsprint now lie on the pavement bathed in piss and cigarettes. Widowed too young, a cheap abandoned umbrella, black dress torn from metal ribs, looks back lovingly on her stormy mate, much as he mistreated her. The dirty white plastic spoon sways to the beat before the deli vent, secretly hungering after hot lips.

***

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 a chapbook of his cut-up poems, Borrowed Words, published by Bamboo Dart Press More at peterwortsman.com

Aurélie Bernard Wortsman is an artist, cartoonist and the director of Andrew Edlin Gallery, in New York, specializing in Art Brut and Outsider Art. Co-founder of the artistic cartoon duo, Zou and Lou, her work has been exhibited at Wynwood Arts 29 in Miami, and other venues, and published in anthologies and zines. 

© 2023 Peter Wortsman and Aurélie Bernard Wortsman

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§ One Response to “Selected Observations on Urban Fauna”

  • Jason Trask says:

    What a beautiful paring of word and images. I look forward to purchasing and reading the book.

§ Leave a Reply

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