BOOK REVIEW: Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

As a parent to two children who spend a lot of time in nature with me, I am always being presented with questions about this or that thing we see along the trail, in the sky, or under the surface of pond. And more times than not, I don’t know what it is. And that’s okay – one mustn’t be a trained naturalist in order to appreciate nature and reap the benefits of spending time in it. Shelves in my home are stocked with all manner of field guides appropriate for the flora and fauna of our very cool corner of the globe, and my laptop browser has many similarly-useful websites bookmarked for reference if needed. And on my smartphone, I have installed the Oregon Wildflowers app and the Cornell Web of Ornithology’s free bird app Merlin (yes, free!). A few of my favorite books are those that discuss urban wildlife, such as The Urban Bestiary: Encountering the Everyday Wild by Lyanda Lynn Haupt and Field Guide to Urban Wildlife: Common Animals of Cities & Suburbs How They Adapt & Thrive by Julie Feinstein. So essentially I’ve set myself up to likely identify or answer the myriad queries that come my way.

But sometimes I would love to just know the answers right away. I wish time was available to take some natural history courses, to devote time to in-depth study of local flora and fauna. One dad, who lives in the bay area, did just that when confronted with question after question from his young daughter. And then he wrote a book about his efforts to learn more about urban wildlife:


Nathanael Johnson, Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness (New York: Rodale, 2016), 256 pp. $24.99 hardcover.

Publisher’s description It all started with Nathanael Johnson’s decision to teach his daughter the name of every tree they passed on their walk to day care in San Francisco. This project turned into a quest to discover the secrets of the neighborhood’s flora and fauna, and yielded more than names and trivia: Johnson developed a relationship with his nonhuman neighbors. Johnson argues that learning to see the world afresh, like a child, shifts the way we think about nature: Instead of something distant and abstract, nature becomes real―all at once comical, annoying, and beautiful. This shift can add tremendous value to our lives, and it might just be the first step in saving the world. No matter where we live―city, country, oceanside, or mountains―there are wonders that we walk past every day. Unseen City widens the pinhole of our perspective by allowing us to view the world from the high-altitude eyes of a turkey vulture and the distinctly low-altitude eyes of a snail. The narrative allows us to eavesdrop on the comically frenetic life of a squirrel and peer deep into the past with a ginkgo biloba tree. Each of these organisms has something unique to tell us about our neighborhoods and, chapter by chapter, Unseen City takes us on a journey that is part nature lesson and part love letter to the world’s urban jungles. With the right perspective, a walk to the subway can be every bit as entrancing as a walk through a national park.

I think deep down the desire someone has to learn about the nature around them is so that they can share that experience and knowledge with others, whether family, friends, students, whomever. Johnson shows us not only is it really not that difficult to learn more about your environment, but that it’s also pretty simple to change your perspective on what it means to live in a city. Among the concrete buildings and sidewalks are a myriad of organisms doing what they can do to survive. And while we might not always see them, whether because of their desire to be unseen or are inabilities to notice when distracted, they see us and the same environment in wholly different ways. To appreciate these differences can bring us toward an understanding that we share our habitats, that we are all connected. “If humans hope to achieve a more harmonious relationship with the natural world,” Johnson writes, “we will have to see it in full: breathtaking, dirty, and inspiring, and annoying all at the same time.” A downtown rat is just as much part of nature as a less-cringe-worthy rodent spotted on a trail in the far out wilderness.

Johnson tells his readers about pigeons, squirrels, songbirds and their songs, turkey language, ants, crows, and snails, as well as some plants. Each chapter delves into the biology of said critter with the help of those who study them. And peppered throughout are anecdotes from the author about his time spent outside with his daughter and her feelings about the nature around her.

Purchase Unseen City through the independent Powell’s City of Books or Amazon (affiliate links).

Unseen City: Wonders of the Urban Wilderness
Uncovering the Urban Wild


This entry was posted in audio/video, books, neighborhood nature, parenting, Uncategorized, urban nature. Bookmark the permalink.

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