A small herd of deer bounded away over the manicured grounds of the Logan Cemetery, tumbled through its faux wrought-iron gateway, and hurdled across empty campus streets. I watched the deer disappear into alleyways between ocher-bricked University buildings, contemplating their explosion of wild life as my city woke to a quiet dawn.
I’ve spent the majority of my life in cities. They have a human element to them I have not yet been able to forgo, but one I sometimes find myself running away from, toward the wooded hinterlands to hide. This experience, though, with the deer in the cemetery, startled back into my memory a truth inherent to our humanity. Our domestic metropolises are just another type of ecosystem for wild beings to populate. After all, we are wild beings ourselves.
An ecotone exists where differing ecological systems meet; and along their shared border, a great wealth of biodiversity abounds- the edge effect ecologists call it. I bore witness to a variation of this phenomenon along the Northern Wasatch urban ecotone on a chilly October morning as a half-dozen deer escaped my advance.
The urban ecotone wears a wardrobe of many styles, the most obvious being the type I’ve described wherein a conspicuously wild ecosystem-my home range of Bear River Mountains in this case- meets a decidedly civilized humanscape- the small city of Logan, UT. We call Logan the “city on the edge” for good reason. It’s the last great bastion of the Wasatch Front’s human imprint before wilderness takes over. From here, our Bear Rivers bear northward into an unobstructed wall of mountains all the way to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. These mountains are, in fact, one of the last intact ecological corridors connecting the northern and southern Rocky Mountains, and Logan sits on the edge of it all, reaping all the wild benefits thereon.
The subtler iterations of this sort of ecological spectacle may be smaller but are no less exciting. Ripping out a conquering crowd of last season’s mint crop in my garden this spring produced a surprised garter snake from an abyss below pungent leaves. The thin serpent slithered quickly away only to find himself upon a barren concrete expanse of patio. It paused for a moment to assess the situation, looked back at me and its former dwelling, then skipped on its belly across a freshly mown lawn and into the bushes adjacent to the creek that runs beside my home. More weeding produced several wolf spiders, a praying mantis, and a plethora of earthworms. I look forward to next year’s garden cleanup now.
Then there are the green spaces: parks and natural areas that make a city worth living in beyond what we humans may more or less bring to it. Indeed, the scientific evidence is clear; those cities, towns, and villages whose urban ecotones are active and robust produce not only a slew of diverse wild species but a slew of wildly content people as well. It seems happy people go hand in hand with happy critters and their accompaniments.
A 17-year study conducted by the University of Exeter Medical School in the UK concluded that, quote, “Findings show that urban green space can deliver significant benefits for mental wellbeing.” In an interview with the UK’s renowned Guardian Newspaper, another researcher is quoted: “We’ve only really had mass urbanisation for the last 200 years, say, out of our hunter-gather experience of 100,000 years.” End quote. Perhaps we have not grown as far from the natural world as we sometimes fear. Even in our cities, these brightly lit harbingers of our species’ growth and accomplishment, we are reduced to our elemental selves by a flash of fur through dawn’s fog. In those moments, we are just animals again.