TAoN No. 132: Ideas from the author of a new book about the "urban wild." Plus a new icebreaker, and more.
Photo by Lucas Pezeta, via Pexels
Often, those of us who live in cities think of nature as something we have to visit — take a camping trip, plot a journey to wild place, delve into wilderness, climb a mountain, or even just trek to the park or a lakefront. Nature is a destination, getaway, or designated attraction.
But of course it’s really everywhere — cities included. This is a theme of Secret Life of the City: How Nature Thrives in the Urban Wild, a new book from Norwegian biologist Hanna Hagen Bjørgaas that Publishers Weekly calls “an enchanting paean to the overlooked marvels of metropolitan wildlife.” I hope TAoN readers who don’t live in cities, and/or are just more attuned to nature in the every day, won’t mind too much if I pursue this urban wild theme a bit.
In short, an unexpected encounter with a thieving crow reset Bjørgaas’ thinking about the line between the built environment and the natural world, demonstrating that it’s a lot more ambiguous than she’d thought. She proceeds to describe her observations of, and lessons from, a surprising array of city flora and fauna — some we take for granted, some we likely overlook. Even lichen gets some love.
I so enjoy Bjørgaas’s spirit in all this that I reached out through her publisher to see if she had any suggestions for a prompt or provocation that might inspire TAoN readers to notice and appreciate the urban wild in new ways. She sent several! I’ll share a couple today. Here’s the first:
“Change your angle: Lay down on the pavement or grass, crawl inside a bush, or climb a tree to get a view of your familiar street from a different angle. (Climbing trees is a general life-enhancing habit. I’ve never regretted climbing a tree).”
This is a fun idea (though I recognize it might not be for everyone; use common sense about crawling in bushes, scaling trees and whatnot). Again it’s the spirit of it that I like: It’s always useful to (literally) change your perspective.
The second idea, actually, is directly related. And it’s my favorite:
“Spend some time imagining how the streets / backyards / city spaces look to the non-human creatures living there. What are their needs and habits, and how is the urban landscape providing them what they need? The streets of concrete and tall buildings might look like landscape of rocks to the common city pigeon (formerly known as the rock dove). The flat roofs of tall buildings may be like isolate islands in the ocean, well suited places for the seagulls to lay their eggs, safe from predators.
“How does your back yard look from the ant’s point of view? A lichen’s? This practice reminds me that the streets are theirs, too, and that in their lives, we humans are unimportant side characters.”
It’s a variation on umwelt empathy, in a sense, but with the added wrinkle of considering how we share (or don’t) the environments we build. I think we’re all aware of nature in the city, but usually it through our own lens: things to control, domesticate, or (like weeds and “pests”) eliminate. Bjørgaas seems more inclined to consider it for what it is.
—> Actually, Bjørgaas had a couple more ideas that I liked, too, but this post is long enough. I’ll share the rest in the next subscriber-only issue, in a few days.
My thanks to Hanna Hagen Bjørgaas! More about her book Secret Life of the City is here.
Noticing is about other people, too. The Icebreaker series aims to help with that. There’s a central collection spot for all the icebreakers to date, here.
Today’s icebreaker comes from reader Leonardo Zangrando, via the comments.
“If you were a postcard, what would it depict?”
I have a feeling I would be a jackalope card. Or maybe that’s wishful thinking? Anyway, Leonardo, who writes One & Ocean, had several other good ideas. My sincere thanks!
Please send your favorite icebreaker (whether you made it up or found it elsewhere) to firstname.lastname@example.org
TAoN is a reader-supported publication. For access to past and future subscriber-only posts, discussion threads — and to keep this free edition alive for all — support TAoN with a paid subscription.
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IN OTHER NEWS
SVA Design Research Summer Intensive is coming, and I’m excited to be part of it with my writing-about-objects workshop! (Deadline 4/15.)
For my Branded column in Fast Company, I wrote about Angel Reese, Allbirds, and SVB.
Latest in the COLOR CODEX series on Semiovox — “the unexpected associations evoked for each of us by specific colors found in the material world” — “the color of a runaway burro.”
Ice-T’s point of view on typography.
Lovely pictures of early skyscrapers.
I have a long-time fascination with courtroom sketch art.
Why we should do more nice things, but don’t.
Here’s an elephant peeling a banana: NYT “gift” link.
OKAY THAT’S IT!
As always, I value your feedback (suggestions, critiques, positive reinforcement, constructive insults, etc.), as well as your tips or stories or personal noticing rituals, things we need a word for, and of course your icebreakers: email@example.com. Or use the comments. —> Or just click the heart symbol. That always makes my day.
And thanks for reading …
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All this by Rob Walker PO Box 171, 748 Mehle St., Arabi LA 70032. Send me mail!
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I wish the comments section would let me post pictures of my daily runs in Miami. Just this week, I took picture of several spider webs, a mother duck and her 9 ducklings crossed a street. I’ve seen roosters (these have disappeared lately), manatees in a canal nearby and even a small alligator.
I am nestled between suburban landscapes and the Hudson River walkways. I was older when I started to understand the joy of hiking or strolling along a lake. I'm almost fifty now. Nature is an emphasis for my poetic journeys. I look forward to our Japanese maple flushing colours around May.
I used to take pictures with a Nikon camera. I marveled at the absolute pureness & simplicity of these landscape photographs. btw Thank You Sherman Alexie. I read your banned book. I intend to locate your poetry collection as well. Above all, Create.