In the landscape I inhabit, urban wildlife usually comes in predictable forms. Raccoons and squirrels are regular visitors to my backyard and roof, and I see them (or their sad carcasses) all over the city–anywhere humans might be trusted to drop or store food, really.
Still, I also sometimes go into my city’s constantly shrinking wild places; maybe they’re just the ghosts of wilderness. In such places, I’m sometimes lucky or early enough to see deer or other even less likely urban dwellers: beavers, possums, minks, foxes. I have yet to see a coyote, but sometimes their scat may be found along roads and paths traversed mostly by cyclists and long-distance runners. I’ve seen a few snakes, but with one exception, they were already dead. And, of course, there are birds everywhere.
Last Saturday, the second last day in January, a day which one can with all reasonableness expect to be cold if not properly frigid, I saw a fat brown rat foraging for squirrely treasures in our brown, leafy and unnaturally sunny backyard. It was a scene perfectly autumnal in its shades of drab dormancy, but one I hadn’t witnessed in Toronto prior. I’d only ever seen rats in the places you would most expect to see them: in areas devoted primarily to restaurants and produce vendors. I don’t believe rats are given to hibernation–I suspect they’re simply too busy for such detestable idleness–but it does seem they should be bunked down somewhere warm and snug this time of year.
Taken alone, this one industrious rat does not signify nature being tipped irresistibly on her head. But the next morning, the last day in January, my husband and I went for a bicycle ride along the Beaches and the Leslie Spit. It was so perfect as to be nearly unreal: 5C and no wind blowing to remind us that straight north lies an arctic region, melting yes, but still terrible in its icy, windy vitality and usually reliably in the mood to kick our asses every January.
Until we arrived at the little bridge that joins the mainland to the Spit’s lighthouse island, we saw nothing to remind us of the deep strangeness of wearing early spring cycling gear in the very dead of winter. But once at that bridge, we felt nature tilt a little and we tilted, too; it began with three swans standing motionless together on a quickly melting floe, a floe as thin and delicate-looking as a giant shard of glass.
There were more swans as we crossed the bridge, at least eight more right away…and then in the wider expanse of water usually reserved for more humble fowl such as ducks, or for small sailboats dreaming of deeper waters and grand adventures, there were swans as far as we could see. They huddled on patches of ice, in worried conference; stood or floated, uncertainly alone, at the edge of gently lapping lake water and prematurely thawed mud; swam gracefully about in groups, like Victorian ladies promenading along the shore at Bath, doomed and resplendent in their finery.
Maybe not entirely doomed, or not yet. Apparently, swans stop in this part of the world every winter, on their way to the Arctic for the summer; still, they were a little over a month early. A month early doesn’t seem like so much, here, but I don’t know what they’ll find at the end of their journey; I was and am uneasy.
(This unease keeps dying down but is then stoked up again by a particular childhood memory: the image of a cygnet rescued just in time by the rough kindness of a farmer; a concerned looking man who smashes the ice the bird is frozen in with the heal of his sturdy work boot, rather than doing the good deed in some more delicate way. This image is from my childhood copy of The Ugly Duckling, found in A Treasury of the World’s Greatest Fairy Tales. I’m haunted, not because swans must surely die, constantly, from the merciless touch of the elements; but because if they’re going to die here, they should die of the cold rather than because the absence of it has confused them into potentially fatal migratory miscalculations.)
They were like a routed army scattered over a battlefield they weren’t made to engage upon, ground that falls away from them as they consider what they ought to do, where they are and what they are. Like the rest of us, swans must become a little dislodged when they land where or when they oughtn’t to. They were beautiful, of course, but they were beautiful like a memory of fields gone missing in the harsh and irresistible spread of civilization, like big fields once wide and glorious beneath richly empty skies but now buried under condos and business parks.
I’ve never felt global warming as a force close and almost solid enough to touch before. Or, if I have, I’ve felt it in only a lazy and comfortable sort of way; but that was before I was confronted with perhaps an entire nation of birds seeking refuge using a faulty compass. To be able to cycle outside when I and everyone else in this northern city should be inside or bundled up beyond recognition ought, properly, to frighten me. And I should, right now, have no choice but to content myself with afternoons at the gym on a stationary bike, lots of reading by lamplight, thick socks, heavy stews and hot tea that stays on the boil till April.
Alas, no; or, not yet–there’s still time for the cold to come in throwing punches. But these prodigies of the natural world have continued to ask for witness since the weekend. While out and about and yesterday, I was entirely comfortable in well ventilated sneakers and a coat for weather two degrees of order warmer than my winter coat is made for; no hat, no gloves; and there were pigeons everywhere, all thrown into a frenzy of courting, dancing and bobbing and cooing the pure dance of spring.
As beasts of the city come more and more to sleep all night with open eye when they should still be bedded down for the season, I wonder what chances they have and what chances we have. The irony is that one of the only defenses I have against despair at an environment I can see changing in real time, is to ride my bicycle just as often as I can.