All cities were wilderness once, and Toronto, younger than many, is still claimed by its past. The Don Valley ravine in the heart of the city is home to coyotes, foxes and other creatures, while mighty buildings are but parvenu growths on a migratory path for birds. Run-ins between the local fauna and human activity mostly inconvenience people—and grievously harm animals.
Fauna (Vintage Canada, July 2011) opens with federal wildlife officer Edal spying a girl picking up a stunned bird near the Canada Trust Tower in downtown Toronto. Edal follows the girl to an auto wrecker’s yard which turns out to house a hidden sanctuary for creatures wounded by the city. An oddball group of animal lovers has coalesced around the yard’s proprietor and sanctuary founder Guy Howell, who offers food and books (he reads aloud; it’s Kipling that day). Each member of the group seeks healing, and nature and nature-themed literature offer comfort when the city fails its inhabitants. Edal, who’s suffered an emotional breakdown, finds herself drawn to the little community, even as she hides her profession from them.
Most of our contact with animals is through companionship, consumption, extermination, and observation from a distance, and we humans wouldn’t dream of interchanging the nature of these interactions, even if blind tests were to prove kittens taste better than cows. York delights in blurring these boundaries—animal companions turn predator, vermin are befriended, and wild animals are cast by some as vermin. More tellingly, the range of voices in Fauna includes those of animals. Now, such narratives are usually aimed at children for good reason—the anthropomorphisation of animals usually alienates the adult reader who is struggling to suspend disbelief. But York’s tender yet matter-of-fact writing captures the natural world without any gimmickry. By placing animals centre stage in her narrative, by breathing poetry into the brutish facts of their existence (a bat’s mad-angled hunt for a “moondust delicacy” of silvery moth was one of a hundred lines that utterly thrilled me), York reminds us that we
humans aren’t as alone—or as special–as we believe.
(This review appears in the Spring issue of Herizons magazine. )