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Food & Nature in Cities

City Unseen by Nathanael Johnson

Finally! A book that uplifts nature as above/surrounding humans, after a semester centered on humans or food or cities. Nature, we learned this week, is in cities after all. Food appears more rarely, as an incentive to bring the humans and animals closer together (the pecan cookies for the ants, for instance), or in a description of an animal. The narrative exists mostly outside money & power, purposefully trading the typical lenses for opening ones’ eyes to our surroundings. The book regularly reminded me of A Walk Around the Block, a 2020 short-format nonfiction by a similar character, a dad in Minneapolis who begins investigating the systems of city infrastructure around his home. The books overlap on the topic of squirrel-watching.

The book makes the intentional & reasonable choice to not be a guidebook; Johnson describes his need of a dichotomous key for the dichotomous keys of ant species to prove that he’s neither qualified nor interested in offering us a complete species identification guide. However, at many points I wished reading this book magically conferred on me slightly more tidbits to use to identify the nature around me'; I loved the little facts tucked in. for instance, about crow vs squirrel nests. For readers who don’t do the homework of learning about each topic individually, the book leaves us more encouraged to believe in the value of finding out more about our surroundings than with the instructions on how to do so.

The character of toddler Josephine is one of my favorite parts of the book: she inserts her wonder/fascination at moments, her uncaring lollygagging at others, reflecting the varied readers, and regular snippets of absurd humor (suggesting the crows on the roof were eating chocolates, for instance). The author’s wife Beth, meanwhile, pops in rarely, more often as a buzzkill (dishwashing the ant colony jar, discouraging the pigeon expedition), to remind us of the rarity of this open-eyed view on the world. The book could easily be renamed “Dad Goes Outside;” the luxury of writing a simple narrative with an obvious takeaway about the wonders of our surroundings would not be offered to “Mom Goes Outside,” either by the book-publishing industry or readers.