Wednesday, May 14, 2008

What are "urban" and "rural", anyway?

Three minor events in my life conspired to get me to think about the nature of our geographic construction. In college, way back in the last century, I saw a 'possum. Later, still in college, I saw a coyote. Last, a few years ago I saw a show on PBS about a hawk, a show I thought was curious and at times very silly. What was so unusual about these events?

The first was in Fullerton, California. Walking home from school, this 'possum "runs" (if you can call it that) across the street, trips on the curb, then crawls into a very sparse shrub where it sits stock still and pretends I don't see it. I also pretended I didn't see it, and walked on home. The second event was at Griffith Park in Los Angeles. After a concert, looking for my car in the parking lot, a coyote trots by. The third was the famous (or infamous) PBS show, "Pale Male", about a red-tailed hawk that takes up residence in and around Central Park in New York City. I watched this show with a very skeptical eye, unable to believe that red-tailed hawks had never always lived wherever they durn well please.

Slowly, these events converged, and led me to an understanding:

There is no such thing as rural or urban.

Where is this line in reality? I posit that it does not exist. Start with the line itself. City limits are drawn and redrawn, lands annexed and assigned development titles (even for parks), but this means nothing in the real world. Large, ecologically diverse parks exist in the middle of cities (for the best example, take a boat trip down the Lower American River in Sacramento), but habitat occurs even in the most concrete of jungles. Raccoons, skunks, opossums and coyotes, sizeable mammals, live in the downtown sections of just about every major city in the country, as do countless birds, bats, and bugs. Roads slither in and out of cities, bringing urban effects far into the countryside and vice-versa. Nor does air quality stop at the city limit: Sequoia National Park has the worst air quality of any national park in the country. The same goes for water and soil pollution, as well.

Many wild songbirds are saved on their flights by folks in cities placing feed out where once the birds could have found forage habitat. Are these backyard havens urban, or rural? Many other birds die, their once fertile habitat now mile after mile of corn. This corn is grown for the city - is it rural or urban?

I watched the PBS special, loving the people who were passionate about those crazy birds. I was disappointed that it was about one bird, even though he'd had multiple mates and many children (where were all of these coming from or leaving to?) I laughed out loud when they showed a picture of a great horned owl during the introduction, but didn't consider it as "wild" as the hawk (the great-horned owl is known as the Tiger of the woods, and regularly eats skunks, as well as herons, egrets, and yes, the occasional red-tailed hawk). But mostly I was amazed that people didn't see these hawks until one nested on a high-rise next to Mary Tyler Moore. Every day I spend in every city I see raptors - redtails, red shoulders, coopers, kestrels. I've even seen Swainson's hawks and ospreys well within the designated border between the rural and wild places. I guess they didn't get the memo.

"Rural" and "Urban" don't exist. They help with some management decisions, but for the most part they give people a false sense of separation from place, and from reality.

No comments: