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 River. 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.
>From Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. Chapter 1, pages 1-14. Copyright Robert Sullivan 2004. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced without written permission from the publisher, Bloomsbury.
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