Asheville, North Carolina
collecting dust on a living room shelf for
the last five years. The pages are crisp, the
text unmarked, but I ogle pictures like a
kid flipping through a big-person’s book.
Oooh, a forty-acre farmstead, double-dug
garden rows, bee boxes, homemade cheese.
It’s back-to-the-land porn at its finest.
The Self-Sufficient Life and How to Live It
has brought me nowhere near to realizing
its promising title. Somehow, I ended up
in a city—a big city. It wasn’t supposed
to happen. I wasn’t supposed to look out
my condo window and gaze upon a brick
wall rather than a juniper woodland or
verdant valley. When I see maps advertising the reach of the latest cell phone coverage, I am most drawn to the uncolored
blotches—the places where the call will
be dropped, where even the cell phone
providers shrugged their shoulders and
determined, “Not worth it.” I imagine
those spots of cellular incognita as the
places where the ratio of human to nonhuman is just about right.
Chicago splintered the logs of my fictive cabin-in-the-woods. But to its credit,
Chicago has built something else: I’ve discovered that human-dominated landscapes
need not be lethal to the flourishing of life.
What once in my mind was a biotic
blank slate is now crisscrossed by the
tracks, burrows, flyways, hunting territories, and migratory routes of other
creatures who call the city home. Black-crowned night herons, peregrine falcons,
garter snakes, red admiral butterflies,
beavers, eastern gray squirrels, Cooper’s
hawks, honeybees, hawkmoths, chimney
swifts, meadow voles, spring peepers, coyotes, opossums, nightjars, striped skunks,
herring gulls, raccoons, white-tailed deer,
little brown bats, and other creatures
all move, dwell, and thread their lives
through our own.
Chicago may be known best for steel
production, railroads, or, thanks to Upton
Sinclair, its massive livestock industry.
It’s less recognized for being one of the
dunes. Walking in the city’s wealthy
neighborhoods filled with nannies and
children, I can ignore the fact that these
places are patches in a quilt of inequal-
ity. Standing in Miraflores, one of the
city’s modern seaside districts, I can
see Huaca Pucllana (pictured above), a
pre-Incan ruin that’s at least thirteen
hundred years old.
To live in Lima, despite my move-
ments, is to live where I’ve always lived.
It’s my first home: a place where shad-
ows on the wall are old friends, where
the sound of waves is an ancient lullaby.
I’VE LIVED IN the Bronx, Cusco, Oak Park, Sarasota, and Ithaca.
I’ve kept my books in Houston, Manu,
Tambopata, Harlem, and San José.
I pay rent in Chicago, but the place
where I live is Lima, from the moment
I step out of Jorge Chávez International
Airport and feel the salt of the Pacific
Ocean line my nose.
Lima is a place of contradictions.
Moving through the chaotic rows of
the Villa María del Triunfo fish market,
I can forget that just beyond the vendors’ stalls are miles of silent sand
birthplaces of the science of ecology, and
as the home of more than 540,000 acres
of protected lands and waters as well as
one of the world’s largest volunteer resto-ration-ecology networks.
I’ll do my best by this urban behemoth
as long as it has a hold of me. But I won’t
recycle The Self-Sufficient Life. I’ll let it sit
there, occupying shelf space not so much
for practical application as to trouble my
mind. The book may soon win the stare-
down. If you stumble into my kitchen and
see mason jars strewn across the counter-
top and me hands-deep in wild ramps,
you’ll know the cabin and the city have
found further common ground.
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