Prove your humanity

Nathanael Johnson is someone who thinks a lot about how people interact with animals. Usually, it’s within the context of a knife and fork: Johnson writes about food for the online environmental news site Grist. But right now, he’s got wildlife on his mind. And in his new book, Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, he’s taking a fresh look at the animals living among us that most of us just usually ignore. Here’s what Johnson had to say about his latest project.

Nathanael Johnson's new book 'Unseen City' takes a look at the natural mysteries hiding in plain sight.

Nathanael Johnson’s new book ‘Unseen City’ takes a look at the natural mysteries hiding in plain sight.

The Allegheny Front: Well, first off, let’s talk squirrels. You dug up some really cool stuff about squirrels.

Nathanael Johnson: One thing I thought was really fascinating is that squirrels weren’t in cities until people worked really hard to introduce them. There was this ‘city beautiful’ movement that wanted to have young boys and girls feeding them out of their hands in the parks. But the effort failed the first few times. And it really kept failing until the style of parks changed from the neoclassical, staged, austere parks with one perfectly groomed tree over here and another tree over there, to the more naturalistic style that mimicked the habitat that squirrels needed.

AF: And there are a lot of unknowns and discoveries in this book. Did that surprise you?

NJ: Yeah, I was sort of expecting that in this backyard field station that I staked out in the middle of the city, there would be no undiscovered territory. But there are so many mysteries, and you don’t have to push very far until you come to a question mark. There is a recent citizen-science project where people where trapping flies in downtown Los Angeles, and they found a bunch of new species of flies that nobody had identified before. Or just trying to figure out how squirrels remember where to dig up their nuts that they’ve stored underground—these are still mysteries that scientists are working on.

AF: There are so many great descriptions in your book. I’m thinking about when you guiltily put an ant in a jar to study it. You write: “I followed the curve of the head, found the antennae mounted where you’d expect a nose, and to each side, a black multifaceted eye that was perfectly symmetrical, as if shaped by a jeweler…I felt richer for having seen it.” Tell me more about that feeling.

NJ: I’d realized that I’d never seen the eye of an ant before. I’ve seen thousands of ants but never really looked closely enough to see its eye. And it’s this kind of wonderful thing that was right there. I had this experience over and over again with all sorts of creatures. Like, the eye of a pigeon: They have this amazing, shockingly bright, red-orange eye, which was just sort of mind-boggling to me. It was like the ‘Eye of Sauron’—it’s sort of flamelike. And I’d never noticed this before. And every time I see an ant now, instead of just seeing an anonymous, generic creature that is a cardboard cut-out that I go on to smash or ignore, I have this experience of seeing it closely and realizing that there’s something beautiful there. And so there’s this layer of aesthetic depth that the world is simply a more beautiful place now that I have all these triggers of memory that go off for me when I walk to the bus stop in the morning or bike to work.

LISTEN: “Nathanael Johnson talks about his book Unseen City

AF: And, in a way, this book has a co-creator: It’s your young daughter, Josephine, who was constantly asking you ‘what’s that?’—and you had to come up with some answers for her.

NJ: Well, toddlers are naturally good at this, right? They have fresh eyes, unlike adults who learn not to see things. And we learn not to see things for very good reasons: We filter out things that aren’t useful for us to survive on a daily basis. So she was seeing the world in this fresh way and forcing me to see the world in this fresh way. She would get annoyingly distracted by something gross in the gutter, and I would have to go grab her hand and pull her along. And sometimes when I did that, I’d stop and look at what she was looking at. And a lot of times, it would be something fascinating that I’d never seen before.

AF: And so what are you looking at more closely in your neighborhood now? Is there a mystery that you’re solving?

NJ: I walk my kids to daycare every morning, and there is a tree that I pass every single day. And I’ve been watching it, and it looked like it was totally dead over the winter. And it’s sort of stunted, and there’s this huge fruiting-body of a fungus that’s coming off of it. So I was thinking, this thing is really shot. And then as I watched the leaves starting to form, and I was watching the fungus, I saw these little white things—like hairs—starting to appear out of the branches. And I thought, ‘Oh my gosh, the fungus is taking over the tree completely.’ But then, over the next couple of days, I looked more closely and realized they weren’t the fungus. They were these tiny, fuzzy white flies that were growing on this branch. And they got bigger and bigger. So now, there’s half a dozen little mysteries there for me to try and solve.


Nathanael Johnson is a food writer for Grist and author of Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness.