Wonders of the Urban Wilderness

Sarah Staff Image

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time walking around my neighborhood. It started when we got a puppy a couple of months ago. But the practice has definitely increased as our ability to get out and about elsewhere has decreased.  

My walks have helped me focus, be more aware, and see my neighborhood with new eyes. I’ve walked down blocks I had (embarrassingly) not yet discovered in my fifteen years here. I’ve been able to pay attention to the approach of Spring in many people’s yards, not just my own.  

I’ve become friendly with the neighborhood gnomes and gargoyles. And I have seen more scampering squirrels and rotund robins than ever. 

All this reminds me of a book I read a few years ago: Unseen City: The Majesty of Pigeons, the Discreet Charm of Snails & Other Wonders of the Urban Wilderness by Nathanael Johnson.  Each chapter, engagingly written in a conversational tone, provides fascinating and well-researched information about a different common companion found in our urban environment, such as the squirrel, the crow, the pigeon, and the weed. 

I love a book that constantly has me exclaiming, “Hey, did you know…” or “Hey, listen to this!” to whomever is nearby, and this one is full of those moments.   

Did you know that both the male and female pigeon produce milk for their young?  

Did you know that squirrels only became common urban dwellers after famed landscape architect Frederick Law Olmstead released 68 squirrels in Central Park in 1878? (There were an estimated 1,500 six years later!)  

Did you know that ants communicate primarily via scents?  

The book is much more than just a collection of facts, though. It’s also a memoir of sorts, with charming, poignant, and delightful anecdotes sprinkled throughout. Many includobservations about Johnson’s toddler daughter, whose own curiosity about the world around her inspired his.  

Johnson makes the ordinary fascinating. I now see all of the common creatures that I had learned to ignore with fresh eyes and a new appreciation. I am hoping to convince my family that we should read it together, aloud, so I can share all the wonders inside, and outside, with them, without exclaiming, “Hey, did you know…” over and over again.  

If you finish Unseen City, or there is a wait, we have several similar options, including some for kids (and their grown-ups): 

A Beetle is Shy

A look at the fascinating world of beetles. From flea beetles to bombardier beetles, an incredible variety of these beloved bugs are showcased here in all their splendor.  This title and several other titles in this series, are available as eBooks on Hoopla.

Nature Explorer

Nature Explorer is a compilation of our best titles from the very successful Nature Activities series. Readers learn about rocks and minerals, birds, insects, weather, and more, with DK’s spectacular photography and imagery serving as an informative backdrop.In addition, readers are encouraged to observe, take notes, and do their own experiments in the park, their backyards, even their own kitchens! Easy-to-do activities help teach kids about the world around them. They can observe and track how often parent birds feed their hatchlings, or create a miniature desert and watch the plants thrive, or create a moth trap and get a close-up look at the nighttime insects.This is a unique opportunity for kids to become experts and study the natural world! This title is available as an eBook on Libby/Overdrive.

Nature Obscura: A City’s Hidden Natural World

With wonder and a sense of humor, Nature Obscura author Kelly Brenner aims to help us rediscover our connection to the natural world that is just outside our front door–we just need to know where to look. This title is also available on Libby/Overdrive as an eBook.

Plants Can’t Sit Still

Plants might not pick up their roots and walk away, but they definitely don’t sit still! Discover the many ways plants (and their seeds) move.  This title is also available as an eBook on Hoopla.

Seeing Trees: Discover the Extraordinary Secrets of Everyday Trees 

Focusing on widely grown trees, this captivating book describes the rewards of careful and regular tree viewing, outlines strategies for improving your observations, and describes some of the most visually interesting tree structures, including leaves, flowers, buds, leaf scars, twigs, and bark. In-depth profiles of ten familiar species–including such beloved trees as white oak, southern magnolia, white pine, and tulip poplar–show you how to recognize and understand many of their most compelling (but usually overlooked) physical features. This title is also available on Libby/Overdrive as an eBook.

Still Waters: The Secret World of Lakes

More than a century and a half have passed since Walden was first published, and the world is now a very different place. Lakes are changing rapidly, not because we are separate from nature but because we are so much a part of it. While many of our effects on the natural world today are new, from climate change to nuclear fallout, our connections to it are ancient, as core samples from lake beds reveal. In Still Waters, Curt Stager introduces us to the secret worlds hidden beneath the surfaces of our most remarkable lakes, leading us on a journey from the pristine waters of the Adirondack Mountains to the wilds of Siberia, from Thoreau’s cherished pond to the Sea of Galilee. This title is also available on Hoopla as eAudio.

Suburban Safari: A Year on the Lawn

Equipped with a lawn chair and her infectious curiosity, science writer Hannah Holmes spends a year on her lawn hoping to discover exactly what’s going on out there. Under her examination, the lawn teems with life, populated by a bewilderment of birds, a mess of mammals, and a range of plants that record the history of this little piece of ground. Funny, smart, and refreshing, Suburban Safari introduces us to a world so extraordinary it’s hard to believe it’s been right in front of us all along. This title is also available on Libby/Overdrive as an eBook.

Urban Forests: A Natural History of Trees and People in the American Cityscape

The captivating stories of the founding mothers and fathers of urban forestry, in addition to those arboreal advocates presently using the latest technologies to illuminate the value of trees to public health and to our urban infrastructure. The book examines such questions as the character of American urban forests and the effect that tree-rich landscaping might have on commerce, crime, and human well-being.  . This title is also available as eBook on Libby/Overdrive or eAudio on Hoopla.

Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants 

Richard Mabey, Great Britain’s Britain’s “greatest living nature writer” (London Times), has written a stirring and passionate defense of nature’s most unloved plants. Weeds is a fascinating, eye-opening, and vastly entertaining appreciation of the natural world’s unappreciated wildflowers that will appeal to fans of David Attenborough, Robert Sullivan’s Rats, Amy Stewart’s Wicked Plants, and to armchair gardeners, horticulturists, green-thumbs, all those who stop to smell the flowers. This title is also available as an eBook on Libby/Overdrive.