Unseen City


You can find an excerpt here, and buy it here – or see box on the right for places to find it.

Associated Press review:

“‘Unseen City’ is a modern classic of nature writing, but also a moving story about learning to be a parent.” – Kevin Begos

San Francisco Chronicle review:

“If every age produces its own distinct variety of nature lovers, and history seems to show it’s so, then Nathanael Johnson is perfectly suited for our urban century.

“Unseen City” is a gentle, humane call to pay attention to urban nature in this new age.” —Jon Christensen adjunct assistant professor in the history department and Institute of the Environment and Sustainability at UCLA

I am asking people to try a simple exercise: Take one minute to zero in on a bit of your surroundings. Even if it’s something you think you’ve seen 100 times try to look more closely than you ever have before. Then, take a picture of your discovery, no matter how humble, and share it with the tag #unseencity. I’ll be collecting these images here (check them out!) to help prove the point: There’s wilderness all around us, just waiting to be seen.

Praise for Unseen City

“For days, I was reading passages from ‘Unseen City’ aloud and repeating my new discoveries to whoever would listen. But this is more than a trove of facts: it’s a model for city living. Nathanael Johnson’s curiosity is contagious—an irresistible call into the wild world waiting just steps away on the sidewalk. I loved this book.” —Robin Sloan, author of Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore

“This delightful book reminds us it doesn’t matter where you see nature; it’s seeing nature that matters. A great addition to any city dweller’s library.” —Eugenia Bone, food journalist and author of Mycophilia

“A delightful romp through the lives of species we humans (without irony!) dismiss as ‘invasives’–and a very funny guide to how we in fact create our cities together with creatures and plants we barely see or acknowledge. Nathanael Johnson is now officially one of my favorite storytellers.” —Jenny Price, Urban Ranger and author of Flight Maps

“Curiosity is one of the most appealing of human qualities, and the best thing about Unseen City isn’t that Johnson has it — it’s that he makes it infectious.  Anyone can take a close look at snails — or weeds or squirrels or ginkgos — but Johnson, in smart, gentle prose, will make you wonder why you never did.” —Tamar Haspel, Washington Post columnist and co-author of The Dreaded Broccoli Cookbook

“It might seem odd at first to have a book about the wonder of nature focusing on those familiar backyard nuisances such as pigeons and snails. But as Johnson eloquently demonstrates, if we miss what is close at hand we miss something special about what it means to be alive.”—Mark Lynas, environmental activist and author of The God Species

“The city is alive with life, crazy with biodiversity we hardly ever notice. Nathanael Johnson set out to show his daughter the wonder all around her, and here he shares that gift with you. Charming, insightful, and eye-opening – this is a book that’ll rekindle your love of nature, and have you looking at your own city with fresh eyes.” —Ramez Naam, author of The Nexus trilogy

More reviews of Unseen City

Rocky Mountain Land Library

“This is one of the best nature-in-the-city books on our shelves,” says Lee. It’s the story of Johnson and his daughter’s daily journeys through San Francisco. Though Nathanael Johnson’s initial aim is to teach his daughter the name of every tree they pass en route to daycare, the project eventually evolves into a quest of full-blown trivia about the city’s flora and fauna and a reflection on living a more attentive life. The book also becomes a meditation on how nature can shift perspective and how we can find the “wild” all around.

High Country News

Unseen City is by turns heartfelt, astonishing and very funny. It’s much more than a mere collection of curious facts about urban species. Think of it as a sort of naturalist amuse-bouche — a tantalizing sample of the pleasures available to anyone who makes the effort to really look at the species with which we share the urban world.


Johnson brings an easy wit and an insatiable curiosity to his explorations. But this is more than a charming field guide. He’s determined to make a larger point: By paying close attention to the life all around us, we can hold on to a childlike enchantment with nature. Such attentiveness is a reminder that even the most common natural surroundings reveal “a world full of magic.”

Radio & Television:

BBC Outlook: How my daughter helped me notice nature

KQED Forum: Uncovering the Urban Wild

Travel with Rick Steves #469

KALW: Nathanael Johnson discovers the wonders of city wildlife

The Allegheny Front: Ants, squirrels and other unappreciated wonders of the ‘urban wilderness

The Joy Cardin Show: Fun Factoids About Pigeons, Snails And More About Wildlife In Your Neighborhood

Minnesota Public Radio News with Tom Weber: Pigeons: Majestic creatures?



New York Magazine: City Dwellers, It’s Time to Appreciate Nature in All Its Disgusting Glory

CityLab: Up Close and Personal With Urban Wildlife

San Francisco Chronicle: Berkeley urban naturalist sees life-and-death struggles daily

The Daily Dot: ‘Unseen City’ will open your eyes to the hidden natural world all around you

Grist: This book will help you see your surroundings in a whole new light