Field Notes from a Hidden City: an urban nature diary by Esther Woolfson
Review by Melissa Harrison.
‘I began to think about wildness in relation to creatures who live in cities, about whether or not we consider them less wild than creatures living elsewhere, or think of them as somehow a lesser part of nature itself. I wondered if the same might apply to humans…’
Increasing numbers of us live in towns and cities, where it’s easy to feel that nature is either not present, or, when it is, an inconvenience: the leaves that clog the gutters, the mice that eat our cornflakes and the bird droppings on the car. Yet when we want to ‘connect with nature’ we take a car or train out into the countryside, as though what we encounter there is something different. It’s a kind of short-sightedness, no less pernicious for being widespread, and it cripples our ability to draw sustenance from our immediate surroundings – not to mention devaluing those plants and creatures clever enough to learn to coexist with us.
It’s this attitude that Esther Woolfson seeks to address in her lovely, erudite book. The passage of a year forms the rough structure around which she hangs diary entries, notes and queries and some longer essays about the urban wildlife she shares her home city of Aberdeen with. The fluid form suits her style, giving her the freedom to make passing observations and brief descriptions as well as to explore some subjects in greater depth, as her curiosity dictates. And she is curious about many things, from spiders to squirrels, and from slugs to jackdaws.
Woolfson is best on the subject of birds – hardly surprising, given her long history of keeping and looking after them. Her last book, Corvus, was a funny, charming memoir of life with a rook, a magpie and a starling, among other feathered familiars, and whenever Field Notes touches on birds it does so with palpable affection. And no wonder: she has twenty years’ experience of the subject, lending those parts of the book especially a pleasing depth and authority.
There is comparatively little in Field Notes about urban plants, but then this is a personal endeavour, a record of the author’s own interests rather than an inclusive guide to Aberdeen’s wildlife. What Woolfson is particularly good on, though, is weather: the bone-deep cold of a Scottish winter, the texture of snow on the streets, the ice-tinged wind on the shoreline. And with those observations comes a quiet, cumulative realisation that things are changing, and not for the better. It creates a sobering and inescapable anxiety that pulls throughout the entire length of the book like a ladder in cloth.
And bound to that anxiety is a feeling of loss – of starlings, of sparrows and other creatures – and what their loss, if they are lost, will mean, both ecologically and culturally. ‘Without a species we lose not only it but its history, its mirror in our own,’ she writes. ‘We lose connections and while we may in future read the words, we’ll understand them less.’ Woolfson is clear that is our greed and depredations that are to blame, and both laments and rages against the ignorance that leads us to imagine that we are separate from nature and fit to pass judgment on our fellow creatures: ‘We are so selective in our loves and our hatreds,’ she writes. ‘We excoriate creatures for behaviour we can barely understand, invariably behaviour that ensures their survival. We admire them for qualities they do not and should not have. We express regret or even anger when they behave in ways that are true to their nature but not to ours.’ Yet the answers are far from clear: reluctantly, she has the rats that live under her home poisoned, despite being a lifelong fan of them as pets.
Field Notes from a Hidden City is a measured, lyrical and idiosyncratic chronicle of a year in Aberdeen – but more than that, it’s a plea to value the everyday richness we have on our doorsteps, and to mobilise against its loss: not, perhaps, by campaigning (though that can surely be useful), but by noticing, and respecting, and perhaps daring to believe for one wild moment that our human needs are not the only ones that count.
Melissa Harrison’s first novel, Clay, was January’s Caught by the River Book of the Month. Buy it here.