Jessica Leigh Hester is a former senior associate editor at CityLab, covering environment and culture. Her work also appears in the New Yorker, The Atlantic, New York Times, Modern Farmer, Village Voice, Slate, BBC, NPR, and other outlets.
The new book Unseen City makes a case for staring pigeons in the eye.
Nathanael Johnson once ate a pigeon turd—he plucked it off his sweater, mistaking it for a cookie crumb. He quickly recognized his mistake, and started retching in a subway station. “After that, things weren’t so cool between the pigeons and me for awhile,” he writes in his new book, Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails, & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness.
But Johnson seems to have gotten over it. The other day, the author and journalist challenged me to take a closer look at a flock of pigeons bobbing around New York City’s Madison Square Park. “Do you know what color pigeons’ eyes are?” he asked me. I didn’t. I looked over at some of the birds pecking at the pavement. Their eyes were garnet red, flecked with orange. “They’re like flames,” says Johnson. “They’re kind of metal.”
At first, Johnson writes, his interest in pigeons “sprang purely from loathing.” When he did notice their physical attributes, it was with the aim of affirming that the birds were mangy, “utterly revolting beasts.” But then he paged through books about pigeons, and found himself more willing to cut them a break. Actually, he decided, they’re pretty fascinating.
Growing up in Berkley and at the foothills of the Sierras, Johnson says that he quickly learned how easy it is to appreciate nature writ large. The granite rock face of El Capitan in Yosemite, for instance, towers over the landscape. It compels you to gawk. “It’s easy when it’s startling,” says Johnson. The challenge is noticing the more modest captivating stuff that you could encounter as part of your daily routine. Johnson writes that he’s breaking with the conventional narrative of nature writing, which often sees a self-serious person prostrating himself in front of sweeping vistas. Instead, Johnson focuses on toggling between the blinders that we need to wear in order to attend to our daily business, and the inquisitive eyes that notice stuff it’s easy to overlook.
Johnson argues that you don’t have to drill yourself on Latin names and esoteric facts in order to appreciate what you see, and to get something out of the experience. Urban nature serves myriad functions: trees trap carbon and improve air quality; green spaces also help decrease stress, improve overall mental health, and even make us more productive. There are also lower-stakes benefits. “Nature is funny and gross sometimes,” Johnson says. Instead of approaching it with austerity and reverence, he adds, observation can be simply about the joy of looking.
Johnson carries a jeweler’s loupe in his pocket, because you never know when you might see an ant that warrants a closer look. (In California, he says, he often sees Argentine ants; in New York City, he was excited to find an unfamiliar variety in Jackson Square Park.) The loupe is a $35 hand-held lens that offers tenfold magnification. It opens his eyes to the Lilliputian world.
If, at first glance, an environment seems barren, Johnson recommends casting your gaze down, then up. In aggressively built places, “wilderness exists; it’s just small,” says Johnson. “It’s out of scale.” It might be on the ground. “We’re not used to thinking of insects and scruffy little weeds as miracles of nature,” he adds. Look up, and you might find nests or buds. Unexpected elements—mushrooms, moss sprouting through grooves in tree bark—can crop up even in manicured, landscaped areas. “There are always creatures subverting and making their own way,” Johnson says.
The point isn’t to become an expert, he writes, but “to move from perception followed by dismissal, to perception followed by curiosity.” Not only to gaze at the world around you, but to think critically about it. “When idle questions find a spot to stick and germinate, they can grow into full-fledged mysteries,” Johnson writes. And each block and each season present new ones to explore.
Here’s how Johnson recommends cultivating a regular habit of looking closely:
Find a group of like-minded observers. Johnson suggests tagging along with neighborhood bird watchers or volunteering at a natural history museum.
Tag your observations. Post puzzling things on iNaturalist, a project of the California Academy of Sciences that allows users to geotag wonders and answer each other’s questions. This can help you tap into research that other people have compiled, and see what interesting finds have already been documented in the place you happen to be.
Keep a journal. In his field notes, Johnson sketches the spots animals have claimed as their own, pastes seed pods and pressed leaves. Johnson sets the goal of learning about one new species per month. That pace, he writes, “prods me to make an effort, but in a leisurely fashion.”
Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails, & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, $25 at Amazon.