The NPR station WNYC is hosting an initiative they call Wild New York, in which listeners are encouraged to snap and submit pictures of urban nature. The idea is to celebrate Earth Day by drawing city dwellers’ attention to the beauty all around us, and the result is a riot of birds’ nests, plants pushing up between paving stones, blooming trees and, yes, pigeons. It’s lovely, and I’d happily submit if I’d seen anything save a small rat and a decorative cabbage in the last two days.
Like most cities, this one has often had an uneasy relationship with the natural world. A particularly galling reminder of this is the photographic record of a 1920s and thirties craze: animal mania. Like many fads of the era—phone-booth stuffing, goldfish swallowing, pole balancing—animal mania was brief, giddy, frivolous, and paid by the realities of World War II. But even at its apex—think Bringing Up Baby, a screwball centered around a pet leopard—animal mania was a rarified phenomenon: even pre-Depression, most people couldn’t afford an exotic wild animal to parade at parties. Read More
The many deaths of Ambrose Bierce.
Ambrose Bierce’s old house in St. Helena, California, surrounded by the vineyards of Napa Valley, is in good repair. Eight stout sequoia trunks flare outward from a fused base in the front yard. An hour and a half drive to the south, in San Francisco, is a short knife-thrust of an alley in North Beach named Ambrose Bierce. It runs behind the old San Francisco Examiner building, where Bierce worked as a columnist for the young William Randolph Hearst.
This year marks the centennial of the presumed death of Bierce, Civil War soldier, journalist, and author of The Devil’s Dictionary, a wickedly witty book of social commentary disguised as definitions. He’s still best known for his fiction: his fastidiously plotted horror tales and the dark, vivid stories—including the often anthologized “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge”—that drew from his early war experiences at Chickamauga, Shiloh, and Kennesaw Mountain, where he was wounded. In 1913, at the age of seventy-one, the famous writer saddled up a horse and rode into Mexico, not speaking any Spanish, in order to cover the Mexican Revolutionary War, perhaps to participate in it, perhaps to interview Pancho Villa. As newspaper accounts of his time reported, he disappeared without a trace.
More accurately, there were too many traces to follow and World War I soon broke out, so a thorough search for Bierce was postponed. In his disappearing act—and some thought it was an act meant to cloak his suicide or his removal to a sanitorium—Bierce becomes a bit like one of the ghostly characters in Mexico’s most celebrated novel, Pedro Paramo, which is narrated by a man who doesn’t realize he’s dead. Or like the protagonist in Bierce’s own story “An Inhabitant of Carcosa,” who stumbles across his own tombstone. According to witnesses, Bierce died over and over again, all over Mexico. There is even a cenotaph for him in the sleepy mining town of Sierra Mojada, in the Chihuahua Desert. Curiously, although his body doesn’t lie under it, it is the most distinguished marker for any of Bierce’s immediate family. Back in St. Helena, his two sons and his wife are buried in unmarked graves. Read More