Urban Wilds and Modern Mythology: A Conversation with Gavin Van Horn

A line drawing of two coyotes in a ying-yang design.

How does one learn to perceive the wildness in cities? In a remarkable new work of creative non-fiction, Gavin Van Horn blends memoir, careful attention to place, and scholarly inquiry as he tracks the wild creatures and landscapes with whom residents of Chicago share their city.Book cover of The Way of Coyote. Coyote stand under the roots of a tree, in which a city street appears. In The Way of Coyote: Shared Journeys in the Urban Wilds (University of Chicago Press, 2018), the Taoist Lao Tzu, Aldo Leopold, and Coyote—North America’s material and mythological trickster extraordinaire—guide Van Horn as he asks how we can perceive the city’s wildness and how attention to that wildness can shape how we design and live in cities.

Geographer Charles Carlin interviewed Gavin Van Horn about the book. They discussed the contemporary mythology that frames each section, some of the many people who helped Van Horn explore Chicago’s wilds, and the ethical stakes of learning to conceptualize the relationship between wildness and urban life in a new way.

Stream or download the conversation here:

Interview highlights:

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

Charles Carlin: Gavin, start us off by orienting readers to this book, the project that it’s part of, and how you came to construct this really interesting piece of work.

Gavin Van Horn: I work for an organization called the Center for Humans and Nature. It’s a nonprofit group that looks at conservation in terms of ethics, values, and philosophy. One of our projects that I led is called City Creatures,which looks at human relationships to non-human animals in the urban environment. That was a group project, but the further I got into it the more I saw it as also a solo project that would be a more personal journey of my own through the city, through my perspective, and my coming to terms with moving to Chicago. 

What deeper mythology exists behind the gleam of aluminum and the solidity of concrete?

CC: The book has an interesting structure that includes interludes that are a sort of modern mythology. In one, coyote and some of the other creatures in the city get together and talk about what’s happening in terms of development, how to interface with the humans whom they’re trying to work around. You have another piece of the book that is dialogue with other scholars. You’re talking with philosophers, with ethicists, and with nature writers. And then there’s a piece of the book that is really much more memoir, reckoning with having wound up in the city and not having your cabin somewhere out in the mountains or away from town. Talk about how you decided on that structure and what those different pieces of the book do as they move the reader through the argument.

A bee rests on a pink echinacea flower, as smoke rises from the city in the background.

A bee rests on an echinacea flower at Lurie Garden, a restored garden site in the heart of downtown Chicago that attracts many pollinators. Image by Gavin Van Horn.

GVH: As I began to organize the essays, the book took on a three-part structure. The first section, “Adaptation,” was about exploring the remarkable ways that other animals have adapted to urban environments using key species that have done this in Chicago like coyotes, peregrine falcons, or beavers. The second section, “Anima,” begins to dig a little bit deeper into not just what is here but how we are connected. It ventures into philosophical and spiritual territory. I propose that there is an anima to the city in the sense that there is a connective tissue to life in the city that is sometimes beyond our physical perception. The last section, “Conciliation,” is my effort to bring things together and say, okay, what are the large and small ways that we can look at cities as organisms that can adapt to the larger environments that they depend on? What role do we play in that? How can we bring things together in our own personal practice and on larger scales? Sometimes I say from the backyard to the bio region.

What, to me, became a very fun part of the book were these little interludes where coyote and other species are personified. I was reading about Coyote, about trickster narratives, and I thought, wouldn’t it be fun to bring Coyote into an urban environment? A lot of trickster tales come from Native traditions, so the city doesn’t figure very prominently even though coyotes as a species have have been adapted to urban areas as far back as Tenochtitlan in central Mexico. I thought it’d be fun to do these urban folk tales that capture a theme of each section. And so Coyote leaps on the stage and provides a kind of introduction to each section.

And at the end of the book I put Leopold, Lao Tzu, and Coyote together roaming throughout Chicago, making sense of it all together. In some ways, those were the most fun sections of the book to write.

A canal with a bridge passing over it.

The view from a kayak in the Northshore Channel, located in Evanston, IL. Image by Gavin Van Horn.

CC: Talk a bit more about invoking Coyote and this idea of anima, this energy that’s in the city. How does that draw the reader’s attention or perceptive faculties to being able to think about all these other creatures as alive in this way?

GVH: One of the exciting things about this book was to not just to think about what creatures are here, but think about these sort of deeper time stories that have been part of this continent from the beginning. Coyote, according to Dan Flores, is America’s oldest deity. Part of my personal journey was asking, what are those enduring stories that live on beneath the surface of the pavement? As I started to explore that and become intrigued by that, I started to think about how to actually put that on the page and write these fanciful stories of Coyote as this trickster figure coming to the city. As Coyote often does in these tales, he fails but he succeeds at the same time. It was a way of playing with those sorts of anecdotes.

Whether it’s climate change, species extinction, or water quality, the basic issue is understanding our relationship to the natural world.

You asked, how does this fit with that larger idea of anima throughout the city? I think maybe that’s best summarized by using a kind of musical metaphor, like what breathes through the city that has always been here, that is still here, that may have been choked off at some points, that may have been bottle necked at other points, but still is here for those who want to tune into it. What is that kind of deeper mythology that exists behind the gloss and gleam of aluminum and the solidity of concrete?

CC: I’m curious how this book fits into the larger picture of your work with the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago?

GVH: What we are trying to do is to create a space and a platform for public philosophy and public ethics, specifically in terms of the relationship of human beings to the natural world. Some of us are fortunate enough to get that at a university or in graduate school if we veer in that direction, but there’s not a lot of opportunity for that outside of an academic context. So, trying to hold that space open for people is one of our main missions, and to create conversation and dialogue around really big, complicated questions that don’t always have immediate answers. They need the participation and the perspectives of all different kinds of people.

Coyotes now inhabit most major cities in the United States. More than 2,000 live in Chicago. Image from Flickr.

Something that we really wrestle with as an organization is knowing how [our work] actually translates to people’s lives on the ground. You send these hopeful dandelion seeds out into the wind of the internet, and you wonder if they land. How can you measure the change in a human heart? Is it an article that they read on your website or is that just a cumulative effect of several different things that are going on in their lives plus something, and you hit them just at the right time that really helps shift their point of view?  It is difficult to discern how far you’re pushing or moving the cultural needle in ways that are going to be really important for the challenges that we face nowadays.

Whether it’s climate change, species extinction, or water quality, the basic issue is our understanding of ourselves and our relationship to the natural world as human beings. Are we a part of that? Or do we stand at some remove from it or consider ourselves somehow superior or dominant over other forms of life?  That sort of fundamental question of relationship is one that we work very hard to explore with other people, to open up the spaces where people can begin to see themselves, or to have reinforced to them how intimately we are connected, to know our every breath is connected to the natural world.

Featured image: Channel Coyotes, by Keara McGraw.

Podcast music: “Gloves” by Julian Lynch. Used with permission.

Gavin Van Horn is the Director of Cultures of Conservation at the Center for Humans and Nature in Chicago, Illinois. He develops and directs interdisciplinary projects relevant to the resilience and restoration of human and natural communities in the Chicagoland region. He holds a Ph.D. in Religion from the University of Florida. Gavin is the co-editor of Wildness: Relations of People and Place (University of Chicago Press, 2017) and the author of numerous scholarly and public facing essays. Website. Twitter. Contact.

Charles Carlin is a geographer and a wilderness guide. He is interested in how ethics and the philosophy of subjectivity intersect with the messy realities of life, especially in wild landscapes. His last contribution to Edge Effects was A Nation’s Shadow at Bears Ears National Monument” (April 2018). Charles lives in Madison, Wisconsin with his wife and son. Website. Twitter. Contact.