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Feral in the BurbsSir Simon Schama

Portrait of Sir Simon Schama wearing casual clothes.
Portrait of Sir Simon Schama wearing casual clothes.
Simon Schama
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The Hudson Valley suburbs, I am happy to report, remain a savage place.  Two days ago (in the first week of August 2020) we took a direct hit from Tropical Storm Isaias and bosky turned brutal. White oaks and red maples, shag bark hickories and tulip trees bent, broke or uprooted, smashing down on manicured lawns, turning power lines into heaps of hot wired spaghetti, piercing roofs and making placid back roads as well as major highways impassable.

I’ve lived through many hurricanes, especially in New England when the mighty things sucked up moisture off the Carolinas and barrelled north east. In Boston we usually had plenty of warning and since we have always lived in glass-sided houses, we criss-crossed the curtain walls with tape and headed for the basement during the yellow eye of the storm. This time, somehow, it seemed to be the south’s problem even when we should have realised it would very soon be ours. Isaias had been downgraded to Tropical Storm but my, what a whack it delivered all the same. Sitting behind glass respectfully watching the winds rise to shrieking velocity, the trees go horizontal, branches take to the air, it was belatedly obvious that we were in for a sneak attack. The official warnings had been all about deluging rain, flooding further down river and around Long Island. So when the Atlantic monsoon failed to materialise we relaxed. What followed was odd: rainless gusts of phenomenal violence of the kind you expect with the tornados reported to have been spun off the storm. But this wasn’t a cone tornado; more a wide frontal punch that built over half an hour before uprooting ancient oaks, and erupting a huge wall of earth in which the root system had been embedded with it. There they are, heaved up like ramparts in the woods. The wind force died back, the sun came out, I relaxed again and then realised that we were being toyed with. Washed by pallid sunlight the havoc in the sky had begun again with redoubled force.

Out went the lights; down went the power lines and with them wifi, the internet. We’d been through this before, losing water supply from our well too many times not to realise that a minimal generator was a good idea. The little pal by the greenhouse kicked in delivering water, a few lights and the stove top, but mostly we’re barbecuing and eating by candle light; so no complaints there. Come the evening, our local bats skitter about of the cantilevered deck; a veery sings its tentative solo and the skies these evenings are lit with shamelessly operatic majesty. 

The force field of the elements all seems of a piece with our primal condition right now, especially in the stricken American Republic: a deadly plague prolonged by the bone-headed ideology equating mask-wearing with a violation of individual liberty; all presided over (mostly from his golf courses) by a president of breathtakingly dangerous ignorance, consuming egomania and calloused incapacity for empathy with the loved ones of 150,000 fatalities.

The election approaches: one of comparable momentousness for the life of American democracy as 1860 and 1932, in countless profound respects not least the fate of the national – and indeed international – environment. The damage Trump has done through executive orders alone over three and a half years of malign wreckage has been incalculable. One of his very first executive orders (after annulling a prohibition on unchecked firearms purchases for the mentally ill) was to gut prohibitions on the discharge of toxic industrial liquid waste into the headwaters of riparian systems. The destruction has gone on and on. The Environmental Protection Agency has been turned into a parody of its name, little more than a clearing house for fossil fuel and mineral extraction lobbyists who  have been lent a helping hand in removing all impediments to a free-for-all acceleration of achieving short term profit at the expense of long term environmental and public health. It was unsurprising when, in an darkly hilarious attempt to present himself as guardian of national parks, Trump failed to correctly pronounce the name of the very first and most famous created by Abraham Lincoln for the state of California in 1863, voicing it as Yo-Semite – a greeting instantly available for all Jews…

The prospect of a President Biden (no certainty) reversing all this, or at least arresting the entropy with executive orders which restore the EPA to its proper function, is all the more to be wished for, because one of the few positive by-products of the pandemic lockdowns has been, at least where I’m sitting, the spectacular resurgence of raw nature. Into the opening created by the silencing of highway traffic, the vanishing of urban ambient light, the aircraft-empty skies, came choruses, illuminations, burgeonings.


A photo of a rabbit.

The song of the peeper frogs – pseudacris crucifer – the heralds of spring down in the wetlands below our house came late but in chorale form (as I write, these have now been seasonally replaced by the evening chorus of cicadas).


A photograph of wetlands.

We walked more, and looked and listened more attentively than ever before, not least because birdsong no longer had to compete with road traffic. Birds we’d hardly been aware of before were suddenly present – catbirds and cowbirds; the exquisitely voiced wood thrush; chipping sparrows. Coopers Owl and Horned Owl, neither of which are supposed to be here, take off from our trees on their big wide-flapping glide. American goldfinches – much smaller than their European counterparts – were quick to the feeder and fought off the much bigger titmice just by perching with their backs to the feed as if they could stare out the competitors. As you might expect woodpeckers abound, but this spring and summer the crow-sized Pileated woodpeckers have appeared along with Red Bellied and Downies – making a noise of jackhammer power halfway up the trunks of pin oaks and maples. Pairs of red-tailed hawks, mates for life, glide the thermals to look down condescendingly on the hapless mess humans have made of the natural world.

By the roadside verge I’ve encountered weasels and garter snakes taking possession of new territory. In a brook-fed ditch opposite the end of our driveway there appeared not only appealingly ugly bullfrogs, sounding off as they do with something halfway between a twang and a belch, but, one day, a furry face, a gleaming black snout and sparkly black eyes. It was an animal I’d never seen – or noticed – in a quarter of century here: a water vole, and along with it a trio of young volettes, frisky and graceful, sometimes synchronised in their swimming nailing somersault turns at the end of the ditch, as if auditioning for Esther Williams. We have had parched spells and they seem to have paddled on to ditches new. I miss them profoundly. But then there are the rabbits who live in the bushes near our house and have been, as rabbits will be, prolific, yet seem more inclined to sit there as we approach on foot, eyeing us as if barely tolerating large, clumsy neighbours. Chipmunks no longer scatter but run around our breakfasting feet and sometimes make it into the living room. There are black bears in the woods and every few weeks or so around 2 am, we are woken by the manic ululations and howling gibber of coyote packs, perhaps celebrating a kill, inaugurating a fight or just cackling with their fellow beasts at our dopey slumber. 

The show has gone on even as the urban grind is restarting. Native honeysuckle has never been as intoxicating; the milkweed so prolific, the better for butterfly species thought to be endangered – Brown Fritillaries especially – to get drunk on their goopy secretions. Other butterflies which have visited in rarer numbers over the past years – Monarchs especially – but also Karner blues and Tawny Emperors are back in profusion. 

“In wildness is the preservation of the world,” Thoreau famously preached, and rightly, but he also didn’t mean seeking and cherishing it in the far-off. Walden Pond, even then, was suburban. The places where millions of us live (and, as Trump will discover, vote), is not necessarily all about herbicide, lawnmowers and golf. It’s also the trill of the peeper and the skitter of the much-maligned bat, an entire lavish, robust ecology that asks no more than we do no harm for it to return, flourish and populate the magic fringes of the urban world. 


Sir Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University; the author of 19 books including Landscape and Memory, and writer/ presenter of over fifty TV films for the BBC. His latest series, The Romantics and Us, will air on BBC2 in mid September.

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