Before I dig into the full book review for Unseen City, I have to provide the full title. It’s long so it doesn’t fit well on images and headings and such, but it is fantastic! The full title is – Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness. Brilliant, right?
I have a favorite hoodie that I wear that says “Indoorsy.” The irony that I have read several books related to exploring, understanding, and appreciating nature is not lost on me.
However, I do find nature fascinating, colorful, calming, beautiful, and a very special place for considering the expansiveness and depth of who God is. So yes, I do deeply appreciate the natural world.
At the same time, I am most comfortable in it when I can observe and be. The touching, feeling, smelling, experiencing, and tasting part of engaging with the great outdoors is not always my favorite way to go.
Nevertheless, I am drawn to books that reveal hiding wonders and hidden mysteries. I still try occasionally to locate a constellation even if I’m never 100% sure about it – and the North Star? Well, they all look bright and twinkly, don’t they? I love the moon, but I can rarely tell you with confidence what phase it is in. The pull of the tides is fascinating.
The behavior of squirrels is both exasperating and entertaining. Birds are beautiful, but man do they poop all over creation. And, bless them, turkey vultures may be the least studied large bird, but watching one suck up squirrel guts like a spaghetti noodle was close enough for me.
Still, there is a constant ebb and flow to my interest in knowing more about the world we live in. So when I saw a book about the wildlife around us – meaning, let’s look at what lives with us instead of only valuing a tromp through a wildlife sanctuary – I requested it immediately from our library.
Book Review of Unseen City by
Nathanael Johnson took his interest in understanding the urban environment around him, so as to more accurately describe it to his questioning daughter, from curiosity to research and interviews to writing a book.
And I am all the better for it.
Unseen City is Johnson’s foray into all nature close and local. Obviously, his location in California yields different wildlife and observation opportunities, but it’s a good start for wherever you live.
So, what are some areas that he delves into? Squirrels, pigeons, weeds, ants and more make an appearance as chapter headings.
His writing reflects a person moving in a relationship from polite interest to full-blown involvement.
About pigeons he writes, “Has any other creature lived so closely with us, while so successfully avoiding the romantic varnish of human imagination?”
Probably not. I’ve definitely not encountered any romantic varnish on pigeons before.
Pigeons in Paris
My first remembered encounter with pigeons was when I traveled to Paris to study for a semester. As I was following my friends, who were definitely more familiar with traveling and big cities, I noticed these gray birds with faint hints of purple and teal on their feathers. What colorful birds! When I pointed them out to my friends they were less impressed. I was embarrassed when one friend flatly stated, “They’re pigeons.”
I had honestly never paid attention to them in any of my other urban wanderings. By the end of my stay I found them as annoying as everyone else, but I didn’t forget my first instinctual response to think there was something delightful about their colorings and movements.
Johnson’s chapter on the birds was intriguing for general pigeon information but also for his analysis of how our evaluation of pigeons has changed over the centuries. Nevertheless, I’m still not a fan of the birds.
But the crow on the other hand! There’s a bird that is 100% fascinating. But I’ll let you read that on your own. Just pay attention to lesson #4.
What I Learned from Unseen City
Since non-fiction lends itself well to learning in a traditional sense, I like to include some of the insights I picked up from a book. Partly because they’re interesting, and it helps pass on some knowledge here and there. Partly to be a teaser so you might be more inclined to look it up.
Here are seven facts, lessons, tidbits, or interesting information that I picked up from reading Unseen City.
- To determine whether a pigeon is an adult or a juvenile, look at their eyes. Juvenile pigeons have brown eyes; adult pigeons have reddish-orange eyes.
- “Squirrels have ankles that rotate 180 degrees. For comparison, imagine a ballet dancer going up on pointe; that’s not quite ninety degrees.”
- In 2008, the number of identified ant species was 12,467. (I couldn’t find a number for 2020, but National Geographic had it at over 10,000 so it seems safe to say we’re still in the thousands.)
- Always be nice, or at the very least, respectful, to crows. They are clever, and they hold grudges. (I found this chapter to be the most interesting and the stories about human-crow relationships were shocking – in good and bad ways!)
- Not much is known about turkey vultures, but what we do know is interesting. They spend most of the daylight, about 90% of it, soaring up to 20,000 feet (which was discovered not by scientists but by unfortunate pilots who had run-ins with the birds at much higher elevations than they do with any other birds). Turkey vultures also have a highly developed sense of smell which is unusual and atypical for birds.
- When trying to learn bird language, don’t stress about connecting the rise and fall of chirps and tweets, rather find one spot to go every day and listen and watch. This will allow you to connect the bird sounds with the corresponding bird and give you insight about what kind of message they are communicating.
- Dandelion seeds came to North America on the Mayflower. (And as far as nutrition value is concerned, they provide more sustenance if you dig up the starchy roots than if you just munch the leaves. Have you tried one before?)
In case you’re wondering, I have tasted a dandelion before. Tastes like any other green, leafy plant.
Book Review of Unseen City: Wrap-Up & Resources
There’s so much in Unseen City to appreciate. It’s not stuffed with technical language – Johnson intentionally stays away from that. At just over 200 pages, it’s not at all overwhelming. It’s easy to set down and pick up again later. His chapters give you just enough to spark curiosity and then move on to another component. His general suggestions at the beginning of the book are incredibly practical for the novice explorer.
This book review of Unseen City ends on a high recommendation for the curious adult, the novice naturalist, any one stuck inside during a global health pandemic, and/or educators. It also makes an appearing on my list for Non-fiction books for Adults who Love the Outdoors (and those of us who like reading about nature from inside!).
If you have kids that you want to get involved in some outdoor appreciation, consider grabbing a gardening book from this list.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll be staring into pigeons’ eyes trying to determine their age.