Have you ever wondered why so many pigeons have messed-up feet? It’s true. The next time you see a group of pigeons, check it out: At least one will have a deformed foot or a leg that seems amputated at the knee. Maybe you’ve noticed how those trees planted along your block stink of rotting flesh a couple of times a year. And did you know that turkey vultures, perhaps the nastiest birds in the world, habitually, intentionally poop on their own legs?
It’s in this world of stinking trees and poopy feet that California-based writer Nathanael Johnson found a kind of transcendence. He has just published Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails and other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness. It’s the story of the three years he spent getting in touch with nature in his small patch of suburban Berkeley: getting to know his squirrel neighbors, listening to the birds talk, eating the weeds, and even learning to appreciate the most maligned of all the city’s creatures, the pigeon.
In his book you’ll learn that pigeons’ feet are deformed because a lifetime of shuffling along city streets leaves their legs tangled in threads and hairs that act like slowly tightening tourniquets. You’ll discover that those putrid-smelling trees are actually the highly prized gingko and that they predate the dinosaurs; that smell probably evolved to entice an ancient long-extinct animal. And the turkey vultures pooping on their legs? Well, nobody knows. It remains one of the great unanswered questions in ornithology.
Even just taking a walk around the block with Johnson can be an eye-opening experience. A few minutes out the front door and he might spot a squirrel asleep on a branch hanging over the sidewalk. Think about it: Have you ever even seen a sleeping squirrel before? But Johnson will already be off, bounding across the road, crouching to examine a spray of wildflowers or pointing up into the top-most branches of a decorative evergreen in the yard of a church: “Look! A bird’s nest.”
Experiencing nature like Johnson does can leave you both physically and psychically breathless. City dwellers just aren’t accustomed to that intense level of focus. But that’s the whole point. Unseen City is a kind of paean to paying attention, a testament to the the hidden world going on all around you if you’d just take the time to notice it.
“I want people to love nature, but the whole thing is really about focusing,” he says while scanning the trees in Fort Greene park for squirrels’ nests, “and bringing the focus of your attention like sunlight through a magnifying glass until it burns through what you’re expecting to be there and you can see what’s really there, whether it’s an elm tree or a piece of art.”
Johnson is not a naturalist. If you are looking for a guidebook, he says, you should go and buy one.
He doesn’t know what kind of weeds those are poking up through the sidewalk, but he knows if you look at their roots with the miniature magnifying glass he keeps in his pocket you can see a whole crystalline world of tiny water droplets, pearlescent beetle-egg sacks, and sticky wet flesh — what he calls a “nebula in a seed pod.” He doesn’t know what kind of birds those are, but he points out how they circle and dive into the trash cans on the corner, managing to navigate plastic bags and all sorts of garbage to fly off with a bit of food in less than a second — once you notice birds doing that you’ll start seeing it at trash cans all over the city. And he has no idea what kind of tree that is — “a chestnut?” — but takes the time to feel how its cool-to-the-touch bark splits and buckles as its branches grow.
In Unseen City, Johnson does not explore alone; his daughter Josephine is there with him on almost every page. It’s actually Josephine who’s to blame for the whole thing: A game she would play as a baby, asking incessantly what everything was, is what first got Johnson looking at his surroundings. And the more you look, as they say, the more you see. At the beginning of the book, 1-year-old Josephine can’t get her head around what a tree is, but, by the end, 3-year-old Josephine is helping spot squirrels — which she calls cats — and is better at remembering the names of bird species than her dad. Now she’s 5, and Johnson says she wants to be a “bug scientist.”
Parenthood inspires the book in more profound ways as well. Johnson talks about how so many people walk out of their apartments and are surprised by what they find, a different world all at once: Suddenly the leaves are gone, or all the blossoms have fallen from the magnolia tree. One of the theses of the book is that by paying attention and slowing down everyone can become aware of the changes nature is constantly going through, and experience the world more fully and in real time. It’s hard not to make a comparison to parenthood: the disorienting sensation of your child seeming to age all at once, what Johnson describes as “repeatedly waking up with an entirely different person in your house.” The author’s desire to slow down time and be fully present as his daughter grows provides the beating heart of his book.
Johnson clearly loves nature, but he says one of the most important lessons he wishes he could teach people is to stop revering it. To him, nature is not some distant, pristine, idealized world. It is brutal, violent, awkward, disgusting, and often laugh-out-loud comical. Spend the day with him and you’ll realize things like just how terrible squirrels are at being squirrels. They are always losing their footing, or putting their weight on too thin a branch, sending them scrambling and tumbling through the air.
“It’s like there are these amazing Fellini movies going on at all times,” he says. “There’s this expectation nature should be this kind of church-like experience, but instead I think of it as more this Hollywood movie experience.”
At the end of the walk in a shabby little corner of the park full of dust and broken paving stones he points again at a pigeon. “I always ask people: What color is a pigeon’s eye?” He’s watching a group of three birds picking at the dirt, and their eyes are enough to send chills down your spine: piercing, opalescent, and startlingly blood-red. Once you see them, you can’t un-see them. “You see pigeons every day,” he says, “but its eye is something that, if you saw it in the Brazilian Amazon, you’d take a picture.”