nonfiction

Book Review: Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson

How often do you notice the nature outside your window, in your own backyard, or right next to your feet? It’s easy to tune out the squirrels, the insects, the birds, the trees and plants, but there are good reasons to look around you and notice. I’m not exactly a huge outdoors person, but I enjoy learning about the world around me, and when my friend Sandy mentioned she was reading (and enjoying!) Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson (Rodale Books, 2016), I knew I had to read it, too. I get so many great book suggestions from Sandy; she’s dangerous for my TBR, but that’s the best kind of friend to have! I don’t think I would have read most of the books I’ve read about nature (with the exception of foraging; I got into that subject all on my own) without her. Find yourself a Sandy. 😉

Nathanael Johnson never really paid all that much attention to the nature around him in San Francisco until his daughter started asking him to name everything around him. He realized that what she was pointing to had a name beyond just ‘tree,’ or ‘bird,’ or ‘plant,’ and he set about learning in order to provide her with more answers. As he inhaled more and more information, the world around him came into deeper focus and he began noticing things that had been in front of him, but unseen, the whole time. Why are pigeons’ feet like that? What is that plant, and can I eat it? What exactly are those ants doing, and what kind are they?

Becoming familiar with the world around you- the stuff you usually dismiss as background noise- helps you to respect nature more fully (thus working harder to protect it!) and helps you live more fully, he argues. You don’t have to get deeply involved with every single aspect of the natural world; if you find you’re more interested in birds than plants, then go with that, but find one subject that draws your fascination and go with it, because if you’re involved and invested in your surroundings, you’ll live a fuller, more engaged life.

There’s a section on invasive species here that helped me breathe a sigh of relief (for more on this subject, you *really* need to read Eating Aliens: One Man’s Adventures Hunting Invasive Animal Species by Jackson Landers), and I found his chapter on pigeons really engaging. We don’t have pigeons here in my town (or at least not by my house, and let’s face it, I haven’t been much of anywhere else for seven months now…), but I’ve always kind of been intrigued by them when I’ve seen them elsewhere. I *did* wish his chapter on plant life in the city was longer, but that’s just because I find the subject of urban/suburban foraging so fascinating. I was happy to see him give a hat tip to Stalking the Wild Asparagus by Euell Gibbons; most writers who even so much as briefly mention foraging end up including something about Gibbons’s work, which I cannot recommend highly enough. I read it two years ago and still think of it often. Don’t let the fact that it was published in 1962 deter you; Stalking the Wild Asparagus reads as though it could have been written yesterday, and it’s fun, and funny, and it’ll have you examining the plants in your backyard in a different way.

I really enjoyed Unseen City. Most of the urban foraging/urban nature books I’ve read have been set in either California or New York; I’d love to see one of these books that deal with the Midwest and all our flora and fauna here. But Nathanael Johnson is as entertaining (and funny!) as he is educational when it comes to illustrating the benefits of developing a deep fascination with the world around us. Read this if you’re interested in taking a deeper look at the things you usually tune out.

Visit Nathanael Johnson’s website here.

Follow him on Twitter here.

2 thoughts on “Book Review: Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson

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