Urban Wilderness (Fes at Dawn)
I recently found myself alone amongst feathered reptiles above Fes. Simply by going outside before dawn.
The world changes somehow, just before dawn. Once the faint gray or brown light of the still-distant sunrise wards off the stars, but maybe not the moon, nighttime creatures creep or slink or flitter back into their hidden abodes. Because daytime creatures still sleep, perhaps restlessly now, it feels empty.
A couple mornings ago I woke up earlier than usual, having spent the night listening to storm sounds and a rogue rat. Eventually I realized dawn was not too far off, then crawled out of bed and up to the roof with my wool blanket still wrapped around me.
Our roof is my favorite place in all of Fes. On it, we can see all the way to the edge of the oldest part of the city, where ancient buildings give way to hills dotted with occasional olive groves. Most evenings I sit up there watching a shadow stretch over the old city as the sun sinks lower, Venus rises, and the lights wink on in town. There is surprisingly little light pollution here for the population density.
Never before had I come up to the roof very early in the morning. Initially, there were only some small raptors circling the dim gray sky. I felt like the only person left in the world staring out over the buildings, silent but for the wind whooshing through them. Houses, minarets, the oldest university in the world: all still. By 7:00 the occasional cock had started crowing invisibly from within the medina. Behind me over my right shoulder huge storks had started to rise one by one from some distant spot, circling over it higher and higher before swooping a straight line overhead towards distant hills. They disappeared in the dimness before my eyes could follow them to their destination. They had thrilled me twice before, very suddenly, when they flew close overhead in the evening. Seeing them again in a new situation gladdened me. They make me feel small.
Just before the 7:21 sunrise more birds took to the sky, including several flocks of little songbirds and a few wild pigeons. Pigeons contribute some of my favorite parts of the soundscape: their short wings, fat bodies, and resulting inefficiency in flight makes a particularly satisfying swoosh when a flock (or even a lone individual) flies past.
Clouds low on the horizon blocked the sun for the first few minutes after it rose. Car motors rumbled behind me, unseen, coming from the direction of the new part of the city. Stray clanks and bangs nearby hinted that people were stirring. At 7:58 a man appeared on a neighboring roof to feed his flock of domesticated pigeons. No more was I the sole intruder on a bird world.
This hidden urban wilderness exists in other cities. Anthropologist Loren Eiseley wrote of an experience similar to mine in his 1957 book The Immense Journey. After waking up in a New York City hotel room, he leaned out the window to behold the pre-dawn domain of birds.
As I crouched half-asleep across the sill, I had a moment’s illusion that the world had changed in the night, as in some immense snowfall, and that, if I were to leave, it would have to be as these other inhabitants were doing, by the window. I should have to launch out into that great bottomless void with the simple confidence of young birds reared high up there among the familiar chimney pots and interposed horrors of the abyss.
I leaned farther out. To and fro went the white wings, to and fro. There were no sounds from any of them. They knew man was asleep and this light for a little while was theirs. Or perhaps I have only dreamed about man in this city of wings— which he could surely never have built.
Birds helped both of us discover that by looking at our cities in a different way, without our normal assumptions about cities, we can find wilderness there. If we can find some piece of nature in Manhattan or Fes, then there’s hope that even those city folk without the money or time to travel to more pristine wilderness can experience and enjoy something of its spirit from rooftops or city parks. All it takes is slowing down and paying attention.