Thursday, February 23, 2006

Books (Science): Rats

After our little Christmas rat adventure, a very striking book cover caught my eye. The cover depicted a map of Manhattan, with the island modified to the shape of a rat, with the title Rats: Observations on the History & Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants, by Robert Sullivan.

The title and subtitle suggest the book is about rats -- which it is -- but, as the cover illustration suggests, it's very much about Manhattan as well. Sullivan for some not-entirely-explained reason, had become fascinated with rats, and spent much of 2001 observing rats nightly in Edens Alley in southern Manhattan. These observations lead him not only to a greater understanding of rats and rats' relationships with humans, but also to a lot of Manhattan history. He relates the stories of such fascinating locals as Jesse Gray, who started the tenants Rights movement in New York City; John DeLury, the man behind the great garbage strike of 1968, and Isaac Sears, who led one of the very first battles of the American Revolution not far from Edens Alley. He also tells of the difficulties facing New York's pest control people after the September 11th attacks, which occurred during his year of rat-watching -- Edens Alley is not that far from the World Trade Center site.

There wasn't that much new rat-related information in the book (though we will be using one exterminator's suggestion of mixing steel wool with cement for blocking up rat-holes when we repair our garage). The novel stuff was mostly the material concerning how humans relate to rats, directly and indirectly, and the historical material concerning New York.

Manhattan has always been a fascinating structure. It's hard to really think of it as a city -- it often seems more like a single gigantic building, packing onto its island. Sullivan both reinforces that notion, when discussing the many layers of subways and sewers in the city, and helps dispel it, with his reflections on Golden Hill (now unrecognizable, it used to be a major landmark in Edens Alley's area in Isaac Sears's time).

Early in the book, Sullivan describes Edens Alley (actually two alleys, Edens and Ryders, which form an L shape between Gold & Fulton streets). One thing he mentions is that the alleys contain a single ailanthus tree. Curious about just where in Manhattan the alleys are, I looked them up on Goggle Maps, and discovered that you can not only see the alleys, you can see the tree.

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