Norell, Mark A., Natural History
Concrete Jungle: A Pop Media Investigation of Death and Survival in Urban Ecosystems. Edited by Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman [uno Books, $24.95; 219 pp., illus.)
By Mark A. Norell
Fleas the size of rats sucked on rats the size of cats
And ten thousand peoploids split into small tribes
Coveting the highest of the sterile skyscrapers
Like packs of dogs assaulting the glass fronts of Love-Me Avenue ...
David Bowie, "Future Legend"
Over the course of more than ten thousand years, human history has changed our environment, but the change is not always apparent. Is nature better preserved in Manhattan, where I live now; suburban Los Angeles, where I spent much of my youth; or on the periphery of some Vermont hamlet that is home to toothpaste and ice cream makers? Most would pick Vermont. Concrete Jungle's editors Mark Dion and Alexis Rockman-internationally renowned New York artists whose work deals with issues of the representation of nature-argue otherwise. Humans are part of nature, not a separate entity, and thus Yosemite and the Bowery are equally natural.
A book of interviews and essays, photographs, and illustrations, Concrete Jungle is often funny, sometimes shocking. Historical, contemporary, and futurist, it explores the margins and mainstream of society. So diverse are the contributors (artists, scientists, hobbyists, game-control officers) that describing them or their spectra of expertise would take most of this review. But the editors have reined in this disparate collection and loosely organized it under eight headings: "Wild in the City," "Alien Invaders," "Cats and Dogs," "Rats," "Hosting Others," "Trash," "Road Kill," and "Zoos, Museums and Other Fictions." After two careful readings, I have gained a whole new way of looking at the "natural world."
If you are interested in tree hugging or a description of how pristine places are being ruined and exploited, you won't find much of it here. Instead, the contributors examine basic questions about our role in the natural world, primarily from the perspective of urbanites. Collectively, they deconstruct the mythic view of nature as the equivalent of beauty and reveal a nature that all of us-bushman and beatnik-are part of.
This nature is not depicted in contemporary photographs and documentaries or packaged in gift shops as specialty products of the "nature industry." Unpleasant, distasteful, and sometimes repulsive, the natural world, with its human connection, is vividly portrayed in Concrete Jungle. Alive, we are hosts to hundreds of different parasites, including those that may invade our field of vision or result from too many sushi lunches. When we die, a fate no different from that of our cave man ancestors awaits us: in short order, flies with ultrasensitive scent glands find our bodies, proclaiming that a meal and a home for their young is to be had. Curiously, the succession of creatures feeding on our decomposing bodies is so exact (just like the succession of plants in a forest after clear-cutting) that it can be used as a forensic tool.
Is urban existence good for wildlife? Yes and no. …