Wednesday, August 19, 2009

Rats by Robert Sullivan

Rats don't get much love from nature writers. Most natural history books are about wolves and condors and such, representatives of some distant and vanishing wilderness. Rats are filthy scavengers, common vermin, and beneath our notice.

If we take the time to look, though, rats are actually pretty incredible. Their front teeth are harder than iron and can chew through concrete. They average about 16 inches long from tip to tail, but they can squeeze through a crack three-quarters of an inch wide.They're excellent swimmers, and the stories about them coming up from the sewers through toilets are astonishingly (or horrifyingly) true.

To write his book Rats, Robert Sullivan spent a year speaking with biologists who study rats and working with exterminators who kill them. He traced how rats went from being symbols of Satan's evil during the Black Plague to being, well, symbols of slum lords' evil during the rent strikes of the 1970s. The heft of his book, though, is observations from an cramped alley in Manhattan, where Sullivan watched a rat colony dominated by a huge corkscrew-tailed male he named, "the Rat King."

Sullivan's alley rats live well off the trash from a Chinese restaurant. They fight and breed, struggle and die, forming an ecosystem only a few blocks from Wall Street. The most incredible thing about rat is--unlike wolves and condors--they're city dwellers. Humans drive off predators and provide a steady supply of edible garbage, so rats have adapted to live wherever we live, their colonies spreading out in the shadows and under the floorboards of our own.

Calling rats and humans "brute neighbors," Sullivan writes, "Rats live in man's parallel universe, surviving on the effluvia of human society; they eat our garbage. I think of rats as our mirror species, reversed but similar, thriving or suffering in the very cities where we do the same."

The best nature writers remind us how big the world is, how wonderful and strange it can be. Sullivan manages it in Rats, revealing a hidden wilderness right under our noses.


Steve Brezenoff said...

This sounds fantastic. Thanks for the recommendation.

Kip said...

I read this a long time ago and it was great. Scary and disturbing...but quite interesting.

Ryan Potter said...

Well, I love NYC and have seen my share of rats scampering through the city, so I'm sure I'll enjoy this book, which I'd never even heard of before finding this review. Thanks!

P.S. I keep thinking about all the amateur videos showing swarms of rats taking over NYC fast food restaurants late at night. Makes my skin crawl!

Adam Wilson said...

Wow...looks like a really interesting book...I think I'll add that to my list!