Like many others, one of my top criticisms of living in New York is the lack of access to nature. I grew up on farm—complete with cows, a 30-year-old mule and surrounded by an actual national forest—so I sometimes feel like my wilderness bar’s pretty high.
After recently speaking with Grist’s food editor Nathanael Johnson, though, I’m thinking my definition of “nature” might be unfairly narrow. He’s the author of Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails and Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness, which challenges us urban dwellers to reconsider the ubiquitous natural phenomena that we likely dismiss.
The pigeon mention in the subtitle says it all, and on a recent weekday in Fort Greene, I had the chance to geek out with him about mass extinction, cynanthropes and why we should (almost) always eat the weed. Here’s a condensed version of our conversations that’s been edited for clarity and brevity:
Nathanael Johnson: I just did a 99% Invisible podcast episode with Roman Mars, whose motto is “always read the plaque.” There’s always something [to learn], you know—look closer. To me, he said, “[Your motto] is like: ‘always eat the weed’” because it’s a way of interacting with nature that we don’t do normally. And there’s like tons of crappy little weeds that grow on the sidewalk…
Edible Brooklyn: That we think of as that exactly, right? That we think of as crappy little weeds…
NJ: Right. And they can be these robust edible, sometimes palatable [laughs] things. The sort of bigger picture thing is that appreciating food is about paying close attention, and the whole book is about paying close attention and how they reveal themselves rather than seeing your expectations—and hopefully living a richer life because of that.
EB: Or how about just not holding our phones in front of our faces to substitute one screen for another while we’re outside.
NJ: Exactly. If you need to, you can download a nature identification app and then you can look at your screen and still be looking at nature.
EB: Is there an app you’d recommend?
NJ: I have one that I really like, that the California Academy of Sciences put out called iNaturalist. There’s just like lots of nerds on there so you can take a picture of something and be like, “What’s this?”
EB: Nerds from across the country? So different climates?
NJ: Yea, all over. When you are helping out, you click on your region and it will give you a list of things that people are asking identification for, and then it geotags it, too, so that, in theory (I don’t know if this has been done yet), it can be used to statistically map the spread of dandelions north with climate change or whatever.
EB: Right and where stuff is showing up where it might not have been before, as different hardiness zones change.
NJ: Mhm. Exactly.
EB: So can we back up and talk about how you got the idea for the book?
NJ: Yea. So I’ve always been a nature boy.
EB: Are you originally from California?
NJ: Yea—I was born in Berkeley and my family eventually decided that it was too urban and conservative, so we went off to this crazy little bohemian hippy town in the mountains. Then I moved to the city and I was like, “Oh, this isn’t nature. I’m not paying attention to this stuff.” Then it was really my daughter who gave me this idea that ultimately became the book. We were walking around with her and she’s asking me about everything, like, “What’s that?” [points] “Yes, that’s a tree.” “And what’s that?” “That’s actually the same tree, Josephine.”
It was like that over and over and over again, so the game that I came up with to deal was that I could only say tree once, or whatever it was that she was asking. Then I would have to be like “trunk,” “branch,” “tiny little baby newly emerged leaf.” And then the first time I did this, I was actually looking closer and I noticed these tiny yellow flowers that I had never seen before and that I’d walked past a million times. It was just kind of magical to have this like right there under my nose, to see them go from being invisible to coming into focus out of the ether. I wanted to share that with people and I also didn’t want to teach my daughter that there’s nothing to see here.
A good way to force myself to have the discipline was to write a book about it, and get an editor who expected a manuscript. I need these things in my life [laughs]. Then I was like, “How should I structure this? What should this be about?” At first I was thinking that maybe it would be a guide book, that like lists everything in my immediate 10 blocks. And my editor pointed out that that might be a small market. Also, I’m not that interested in guide books. Like I love guide books, but it’s hard to read them and retain anything because it’s not part of a story, there’s not a context. And a professional biologist should do that—not me.
EB: Someone who spends their time putting these things in categories.
NJ: Exactly, so I needed some kind of limiting mechanism, and so what I started to do was try to focus in on that moment of the invisible becoming visible and look at the species that are so common that we stop seeing them entirely. I wanted to see if I could make them magical again.
EB: Are there any common West Coast species that you’ve seen here as well?
NJ: Yea. It’s amazing how many I’ve seen since I’ve been out here. I thought that I wouldn’t recognize anything, but these species are cynanthropes, which means “together with people.” So wherever people are, there are rock pigeons and there are ginkgo trees and there are Eastern gray squirrels. We just have one type of ant in northern California—the Argentine ant—so it’s been very exciting to be here because I’ve seen some other ants. I’m looking through my little handbook and I’m like, “I don’t know what this is, but it’s different and it’s cool!”
EB: Where’s E.O. Wilson?!
NJ: Yea, exactly. So yea, it’s remarkably similar. You go to any city, wherever there are people, there are these things thriving and adapting and evolving to fit with us.
EB: Would you say that the built environment is kind of conducive to them thriving?
NJ: So, it’s interesting. There are different things that favor different species. I didn’t write about peregrine falcons because they’re too majestic—they’re not invisible. Cities are kind of like big granite mountains, sort of like Yosemite in a way. You have these [artificial] cliffsides and so on, and the things that thrive in those [similar natural] environments thrive in cities. Big flat paved areas are great for pigeons. Lawns are great for crows and robins, as is a weekly trash pickup.
EB: And I would imagine certain things [that do well in the city] do well with limited light. This is actually my struggle with trying to grow different things here—producing a tomato in my shady backyard is wishful thinking.
NJ: Exactly, yes. So my representative for street trees is the ginkgo, which does well in a little bit of light and a little bit of shadow, which is what the sun passing over the concrete canyons gives you. And the ginkgo is crazy because it also does well with pollution in the air and the fact that we bury its feet in concrete. It’s this odd anachronism that was, like, food for a triceratops until every member of its order was wiped out and it was down to like one little valley in China. Then it came back and it just so happens that it is perfectly adapted for this strange new environment that we’ve created.
EB: And found its way to that environment, which is kind of crazy as well.
NJ: Yes. It may not have survived without people. Buddhist monks started growing them and propagating them, and you can see that it spreads from China to Japan, and then the Dutch visiting Japan see it and take it back to Europe. It eventually goes to Philadelphia in 1700 or 18oo something. It’s well adapted to the latitudes where there are big cities, so it’s one of these things that’s like, yeah, all over the world again.
EB: Yeah, I’m reading The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert right now and I’m thinking about all the species that we’re losing, but at the same time, it’s strange that there are some that in fact thrive because of us. I would venture to say that that is a far, far, far fewer number than the ones that are dying out.
NJ: Yeah, I think I’d take away maybe one of those “fars.” I was impressed to find out that it seems like, with us, animals are really in danger. We’re terrible for animals, but plants, we’re bringing them together and they’re cross pollinating. One scientist estimated that in Europe, the number of new plant species that have evolved from people bringing them together in cities is equal to the number of mammals that we’ve lost in the last few decades (you know that’s just mammals, we’re not taking about amphibians). So I sort of became a little bit more hopeful. I read that book, too, and was very depressed, but this made me a bit more hopeful because, yeah, nature keeps on sending its front line and changing and adapting.
EB: Yeah, I think that’s a good point. The question is time: What are we working with here in the face of climate change?
NJ: Yeah, and will it be comfortable for us? There’s all of these creatures that are magnificent and interesting, that would be nice to keep around.
EB: So going back to the book, why do you think we urban dwellers should be more observant of the natural environment?
NJ: I have a couple of different answers to that question. Nature’s my thing and I’m interested in being present, I’m interested in paying attention and having that experience. Maybe for some people it’s history and you start to know who lived in these buildings in the 1700s and it makes life richer in that way. I think that’s totally valid as well, and I may be biased, but I think that there is this sort of biophilia that hopefully all people have to some degree, which is just incredibly fulfilling. There’s always something living to observe. Even as I’ve been walking around in Manhattan, there’s like this one little square, or this poor miserable tree coming up and there are mushrooms coming out from the base that nobody planned to be there. So there’s always these little rewards, and once you spend some time looking closely at one of those things, you’ll see something that you haven’t seen before. There’s this little story there and every time you pass [that place] again, you’ll have a connection to and you’ll check in to see if the mushrooms are coming back up, or whatever it is.
Additionally, the sort of the bigger political side of things is that if we pay attention to nature where we live, it really forces us to be real about it. You can’t romanticize nature when it comes crawling across your pillow, and I think that’s really good and healthy. The problem that’s consistently knee-capped environmentalism I think is this sort of virgin complex we have with nature where it’s like, “Let’s revere it and protect it and stop anything from being done to it, but at the same time, I’m going to drink my coffee and I’m not going to think too hard about where this is coming from and what needed to be taken down to grow it.” I really grew up with nature being my religion, visiting the church of Yosemite every summer and having this reverence, but when I focused on it in the city, instead if it being this incredibly earnest church-like experience, it was like gross and funny and annoying and much more—I don’t want to say human—but, relatable, normal in an approachable way instead of just like this austere experience.
EB: Or even just some sort of “other,” if that makes sense.
NJ: Yes exactly, exactly. It’s here and it’s part of us, and so my hope is that if people paid more attention, we could start to have a more realistic relationship instead of like, “We’ll sign up for the campaign against Folgers,” or whatever the evil coffee company du jour is that’s cutting down the rain forest. Instead, it would hopefully be something like, “How do we use nature productively and sustainably?” or, “Let’s talk to those farmers, let’s have them be our emissaries for dealing with nature instead of just being like, ‘You’re evil, stop.’” We say these things all the time, but very often, it never really connects back to how do we make this a pragmatic relationship that’s more like a marriage instead of revering nature on a pedestal or using it without thinking about it.
EB: One thing I think about, too, and maybe this is related, is how we can feel some sort of visceral connection to the environment. I mean that’s what got me interested in food in fact. Maybe I’m reaching here, but I’m interested in how New Yorkers, for example, can feel a personal connection to what’s going on in the Great Barrier Reef, for example.
NJ: Yep, yep. That’s why climate action is so hard. But maybe those are the baby steps toward that. You know, the environment is not something that’s out there—it’s here, and maybe paying more attention to it is a first step to being like “Oh, I’m part of a regional environment, and I’m also part of this planetary environment.”
EB: Yes. Getting back to some direct food ideas related to your book, have you started foraging? If so, for what and what are you doing with it?
NJ: Yeah. So when I started out writing about foraging, I was like I’ve always wanted to be the kind of dad who like comes home with an arm full of whatever, and be like, “This is dinner tonight!” As I learned about foraging, though, I realized that I’m definitely not that person because so much of doing it is about foraging at any cost. You know, like if you boil this like 10 times, then it will be edible but it won’t taste like anything. I wasn’t interested in that, but I am interested in it just as a way of experiencing nature.
There’s something that happens to your brain when there’s food out there. Before I started paying attention to edible weeds, I’d just see undifferentiated grasses and stuff and dismiss it since I didn’t think there’s a way to ever know the names of those things. But there’s something that happens now that I do know more—I just like snap into focus. Like nasturtium leaves are something that have just that little peppery bite that’s really nice for a steak or just like when I’m walking to pick up my kids from day care. There’s something about experiencing the world in that way. Usually we experience nature through our eyes, and when you put it in your mouth, you know when you eat nature, you’re getting the smell up through your palate. You’re getting the crunch at the taste, and so you have like all of the senses engaged. It just snaps you in to the present. And also I think there’s some part of our brain that’s like, “Pay attention! Is this poisonous or not?!”
EB: We’ve not lost that yet, you mean [laughs]?
NJ: I haven’t. So there’s a few things, like wild onions that grow like weeds, that’s something that I can get out in my yard and just pick one for my sandwich at lunchtime. So there is some that I use in my food, but mostly, it’s just an easy way of tapping into that awareness.