Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants - Robert Sullivan (2005)
Chapter 1. NATURE
WHEN I WROTE the following account of my experiences with rats, I lived in an apartment building on a block filled with other apartment buildings, amidst the approximately eight million people in New York City, and I paid rent to a landlord that I never actually met—though I did meet the superintendent, who was a very nice guy. At this moment, I am living out of the city, away from the masses, in a bucolic little village with about the same number of inhabitants as my former city block. I wouldn't normally delve into my own personal matters, except that when I mention my rat experiences to people, they sometimes think I took extraordinary measures to investigate them, and I didn't. All I did was stand in an alley—a filth-slicked little alley that is about as old as the city and secret the way alleys are secret and yet just a block or two from Wall Street, from Broadway, and from what used to be the World Trade Center. All I did was take a spot next to the trash and wait and watch, rain or no rain, night after night, and always at night, the time when, generally speaking, humans go to sleep and rats come alive.
Why rats? Why rats in an alley? Why anything at all in a place that is, let's face it, so disgusting? One answer is proximity. Rats live in the world precisely where man lives, which is, needless to say, where I live. Rats have conquered every continent that humans have conquered, mostly with the humans' aid, and the not-so-epic-seeming story of rats is close to one version of the epic story of man: when they arrive as immigrants to a newfound land, rats push out the creatures that have preceded them, multiply to such an extent as to stretch resources to the limit, consume their way toward famine—a point at which they decline, until, once again, they are forced to fight, wander, or die. Rats live in man's parallel universe, surviving on the effluvia of human society; they eat our garbage. I think of rats as our mirror species, reversed but similar, thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same. If the presence of a grizzly bear is the indicator of the wildness of an area, the range of unsettled habitat, then a rat is an indicator of the presence of man. And yet, despite their situation, rats are ignored or destroyed but rarely studied, disparaged but never described.
I see that I am like one person out alone in the woods when it comes to searching out the sublime as it applies to the rat in the city. Among my guidebooks to nature, there is no mention of the wild rat, and if there is, the humans that write the books call them invaders, despised, abhorred, disgusting—a creature that does not merit its own coffee-table book. Here is the author of a beautiful collection of photographs and prose joyously celebrating the mammals of North America as he writes about rats: "There comes a time when even the most energetic of animal lovers must part ways with the animal kingdom." He goes on: "No matter how much you like animals there is nothing good to say about these creatures …" It is the very ostracism of the rat, its exclusion from the pantheon of natural wonders, that makes it appealing to me, because it begs the question: who are we to decide what is natural and what is not?
What makes me most interested in rats is what I think of as our common habitat—or the propensity that I share with rats toward areas where no cruise ships go, areas that have been deemed unenjoyable, aesthetically bankrupt, gross or vile. I am speaking of swamps and dumps and dumps that were and still are swamps and dark city basements that are close to the great hidden waters of the earth, waters that often smell or stink. I am speaking, of course, of alleys—or even any place or neighborhood that might have what is commonly referred to as a "rat problem," a problem that often has less to do with the rat and more to do with man. Rats will always be the problem. Rats command a perverse celebrity status—nature's mobsters, flora and fauna's serial killers—because of their situation, because of their species-destroying habits, and because of their disease-carrying ability—especially their ability to carry the plague, which, during the Black Death of the Middle Ages, killed a third of the human population of Europe, something people remember, even though at the time people didn't know that rats had anything to do with all the panic, fear, and death.
In fact, in New York City, the bulk of rats live in quiet desperation, hiding beneath the table of man, under stress, skittering in fear, under siege by larger rats. Which brings me to my experiment: I went to the rat-filled alley to see the life of a rat in the city, to describe its habits and its habitat, to know a little about the place where it makes its home and its relationship to the very nearby people. To know the rat is to know its habitat, and to know the habitat of the rat is to know the city. I passed four seasons in the alley, though it was not a typical year by any definition. As it happened, shortly after I went downtown, the World Trade Center was destroyed. That fall, New York itself became an organism, an entity attacked and off-balance, a system of millions of people, many of whom were scared and panicked—a city that itself was trying to adapt, to stay alive. Eventually, New York regained its balance, and I went about my attempt to see the city from the point of view of its least revered inhabitants. And in the end—after seeing the refuse streams, the rat-infested dwellings, after learning about the old rat fights and learning all that I could learn from rat exterminators and after briefly traveling off from my alley to hear about rats all over America—I believe this is what I saw.
FOR MOST OF MY LIFE, however, my interest in rats had remained relatively idle, until the day I stumbled on a painting of rats by one of the patron saints of American naturalists, John James Audubon. Audubon famously documented the birds of North America in their natural habitat—drawn from nature was his trademark—and he next did the same for mammals, even the rat, or in this case several rats in a barn, stealing a chicken's egg. As I investigated the painting, I learned that Audubon had researched rats for months, and that in 1839 in New York City, where he lived during the last years of his life, he hunted rats along the waterfront. (He wrote the mayor and received permission "to shoot Rats at the Battery early in the morning, so as not to expose the inhabitants in the vicinity to danger …") In other words, Audubon was not just a Representative Man out of the American past whose legacy inspired American conservationists and environmentalists, not just some Emersonian model, but also a guy who spent time in New York City walking around downtown looking for rats.
I read more about Audubon. I read that he was born in what is now the Dominican Republic. I read that he turned to painting late in life after failing as a businessman, and that after traveling all over the continent to finish The Birds of North America he moved to New York, living first downtown, then up on what is today 157th Street, in a neighborhood that is coincidentally now settled by people from the Dominican Republic—coincidence is the stuff of ratting! I read that he fished in the Hudson Paver. I read that his eyesight eventually went, that shortly thereafter he began singing a French children's song over and over and eventually died. His home was left to rot away and was finally paved over. The more I read of Audubon, the more I felt a desire to study the rat in its urban habitat, to draw the rat in nature.
One day, I got on the subway and took a trip uptown. I went to Trinity Cemetery on 155th Street and saw the tall, animal-covered Celtic cross on Audubon's grave, and then, with old maps, I tried to figure out where his house would have been. Finally, I found the lot, unmarked; it had apparently once been on a gentle hill sloping toward the river, but now it was a hole, a three-story-deep pit, surrounded by two tall apartment buildings, and an elevated highway. When I looked away from the hole, the view was breathtakingly panoramic and Hudson River-filled. And when I got my binoculars out and looked down into the site, I could see the dozens of tennis-ball-size burrows that are more commonly referred to as rat holes.