Nature writing is full of men heading off into the wilderness in search of something, but journalist Nathanael Johnson brings the genre into the 21st century with a refreshing, thought-provoking, and humorous father-and-daughter eco-quest.
Johnson goes on urban stroller expeditions, seeking beauty and wonder in the commonplace. The father and daughter (with mom’s blessing) become Thoreaus of the concrete, studying pigeons, snails, crows, and squirrels, and foraging for tangy sidewalk weeds.
Some nature writers brave jungles or forest beasts, but Johnson faced an even more relentless challenge: the need to answer his baby daughter’s constant questions. In the beginning, Josephine points to things and asks “That?” in a tone “both interrogative and imperative.” Soon Johnson moves from one-word answers such as “tree” to explaining the parts of trees.
Trees ultimately lead to mysterious and possibly edible weeds in vacant lots, as well as turkey vultures, ants, and other creatures that city dwellers often ignore, as if they weren’t really a part of nature.
Johnson writes that he sought “the experience of natural wonder without leaving civilization” and that “this, instead, is a book of domestic nature writing.”
“Unseen City” points out that environmental writing and photography often downplay how linked we are to civilization. Thoreau wasn’t really in the wilderness at Walden Pond, and Annie Dillard lived in suburbia when she wrote “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.” While Johnson doesn’t gloss over pollution or the dangers of climate change, he argues that “instead of glorifying only untouched wilderness, we might build an environmental ethic that allows humans and nature to live together.”
Johnson writes beautifully about the various city critters, and also captures the magic of a young girl growing up and viewing the world with fresh eyes and wonder. Josephine moves beyond “that?” to exclaim “whoa” at the sight of young fruit buds, and soon sees details her father missed, like the beautiful green sheen on a pigeon’s neck.
“Unseen City” is a modern classic of nature writing, but also a moving story about learning to be a parent. When Josephine enters a girly phase, Johnson suggests a career as a scientist, but she says that’s not a job for girls. Then, during a trip to daycare, Josephine notices some ants and asks if they sleep at night. Johnson says he doesn’t know but replies, “I can ask my friend. She’s a bug scientist.”
“Your friend the bug scientist is a girl?” Josephine asks. She ponders that for a few minutes before twisting in the stroller and announcing, “I changed my idea, Papa. I don’t want to be a ballerina. Can I be a bug scientist?”
Johnson is a realist: He acknowledges how difficult it can be to celebrate nature amid the pressures of making money, paying bills, and raising a family. But he suggests that “if humans hope to achieve a more harmonious relationship with the natural world, we will have to see it in full: breathtaking, dirty, and inspiring, and annoying all at the same time.” By the end of “Unseen City,” it is hard to disagree.