Covering a year in Aberdeen, starting in November with the onset of a snowy winter, Esther Woolfson’s Field Notes from a Hidden City takes the form of seven thematic essays punctuating chronological notes. It is not a daily diary and sometimes a couple of weeks go by without comment, but it has the apparently random flavour of a nature journal, with entries triggered by observations or encounters, liberally laced with textbook research. It is also a remarkably personal book, and by its end one is as familiar with the author’s family and friends as with the urban animals who share their lives.
Woolfson begins by finding a fledgling pigeon, fallen from its nest, which she takes home. She feeds and tends it, then sets this ‘wild, city bird’ free again. This inspires a rumination on whether it is possible to reconcile ‘the city’ and ‘the wild’, whether urban animals are ‘less wild than creatures living elsewhere’, which leads to the question which will dominate what follows: ‘I wondered if the same might apply to humans, as if merely by being in a city, not only might our lungs be polluted but ourselves, our minds (and if we have them, our souls), as if urban dwellers must by definition be over-avid consumers of the unnecessary, weakened by purchase, alienated in every way, distanced from a lost, admonitory Eden. Are we, I wondered, living lives remote from all that is natural, beneficial, wild, or are we as much a part of the natural ordering of the universe as the wildest of things, moved by the same forces, as wild as anything else on earth?’
A similar question was raised at this year’s StAnza Poetry Festival, where I joined a panel of two writers, an academic and a painter, discussing poetry and the environment. Some in the audience seemed to be pressing for a clear distinction to be made between wild and managed environments, or more generally between nature and people, while the panelists appeared to be unanimous in our suspicion of any such tidy dichotomy. We are part of nature, neither disconnected physically nor culturally disengaged, as far as one can tell from the flourishing state of ecological arts and the presence of environmental policies in all walks of life. We are natural consumers of nature but our footprints grow larger with every year. As social creatures those footprints tread most deeply where we gather in cities. Urban areas are the places most trammelled by people and the nature of such places has adapted to survive the changes brought about by intensive human use of the land. This is the nature documented by Woolfson.
As a rural dweller, when in cities, I seek out green places. When in Glasgow I make a point of using the corridors where nature dominates, such as the Kelvin River valley (where, on my last visit, an odd trill attracted my attention to a kingfisher which was sitting on a willow branch, then shot off down river, a turquoise avian arrow). In Edin-burgh I loop from park to park. My instinct for tree cover is strong. I go out of my way to find places and routes where birdsong can be heard despite the background of traffic noise, where the musk of a fox can outsmell the petrol and cooking fumes.
So I picked up Field Notes from a Hidden City expecting to be guided into the interstices between the human spaces, to be shown the nature I recognise in the green spaces of Aberdeen. But that is not at all what it delivers. As I read I had a growing suspicion that there’s a vast gulf between the experience of some of those who live in cities, and those, like me, immersed in a rural world. With something close to culture-shock, I realised I was having to open myself up to a different sensibility and an entirely unfamiliar world view. Adopting the fascination of an anthropologist for another culture, I have struggled to glean from this book something of the mind of a person who is comfortable among thousands of others and among the press of buildings, and who shares their home with urban wildlife in unexpected ways.
I see eye to eye with Woolfson on some topics. I share her horror at the trashing of a site of special scientific interest for Don-ald Trump’s hotel and golf course. I admire her analysis of the ethics of animal experimentation. We both consider the worth of all animals to be largely undervalued in our society, and I am intrigued by her suggestion that animals common in cities in particular lose value in many people’s eyes, ‘diminished by the very fact of their being here among us’.
Her way of trying to redress this, and the aspect of the book I most enjoyed, is a series of extended essays in praise of species of urban animals which do not often get much of a good press: slugs and spiders, pigeons, sparrows and jackdaws, rats and grey squirrels. Under Woolfson’s gaze, spiders are creative weavers, pigeons become angels, slugs are little cupids and rats are highly intelligent, cuddly children’s friends. Yet she is candid in her descriptions of some contradictory behaviour towards them. Take rats, for example. As a result of putting out bird food in her garden, rats take up residence and she calls pest control to have them poisoned. Yet her children keep rats as pets and she even has a rat grave in her garden, complete with engraved tombstone.
Although she claims ‘I don’t want my garden to be macabre, or frankly weird’, when she finds a dead shrew while out on a walk, she takes it home to look at it and then bury it in the garden, seeking ‘to choose a site suitable for age and rank’ among the graves of many other animals. I was mystified why she did this, but given that she had told us so much about her various pet birds, among them a rook (called Chicken, about which Woolfson wrote in her previous book, Corvus) and a crow (Ziki) that carries a plastic mouse about, I assumed she was bringing the shrew home to feed it to one of these. Her lengthy discussion of the dilemma of where to bury it comes towards the end of the book, and is the climax of my lack of comprehension of her values and relationship towards wildlife, and wild death.
Those values are at least partly shaped by Woolfson’s Jewish heritage. One of the most intriguing passages of the book is an explanation, following Passover, of her sense of dislocation as a daughter of a Jewish immigrant from Eastern Europe, and the generalisation of this experience to one that has shifted many Jews to urban environments leaving them feeling that ‘the countryside is a place apart.’ The move to the city mirrors the biblical flight from Eden, seen as ‘both adventure, a promise of a better future but also the distancing from innocence.’ Her experience of country living is limited to a time spent on a kibbutz, which she describes as ‘a place set in what at least in theory was countryside, but felt more like a misplaced adjunct to a middle-class Berlin suburb … with the addition of heat and scorpions.’ She is, she admits, ‘detached from the world of the countryside’. We are clearly chalk and cheese.
The way this manifests most clearly is in her desire to intervene with nature in a helpful way, as compared with my wish to leave it as far as possible to its own devices, and in almost diametrically opposed views of the function of a garden. My garden is a fenced area in which I attempt to keep wildlife at bay: much as I love badgers and deer, birds and insects, moles and voles with which we share our croft, I don’t want them in the garden, where my primary interest is food production. The garden’s boundary demarcates where wild animals become mostly pests and wild plants, mostly weeds. I live on an area of land big enough so that the wild others are welcome on the vast bulk of it, and only a small portion is an exclusion zone for cultivation of alien food plants. Woolfson admits at one point, when describing slugs as ‘nibbling holes’ in plants, that she would perhaps not be so ‘sanguine’ about them if she were ‘dependent for food on the plants they ravage’. When she berates gardeners for using slug pellets, I long for more nuanced language that encourages us to use benign, organic methods in our struggle to keep our greens from the slime-gods.
But in Woolfson’s world view, food-growing is not a garden’s function. ‘We make gardens to keep at bay the concrete,’ she writes, ‘to ameliorate what we may see as the hard, bleak harshness of the urban world.’ In her garden, she provides wild birds with houses, food, even alpaca fleece bedding, and must then come to terms with the predators like sparrow hawks that feed on the flourishing population. How to behave towards other animal species is a central issue in Field Notes, and Woolfson struggles with the paradox of wanting to do something good for them whilst not really wanting to intervene too much. ‘Human beings, I’ve come to realise, have no place in this particular system’, she writes, ‘short of providing food or shelter…Our influence is malign in virtually every way, including those we don’t yet know about or understand. But within the limited framework of the artificial spaces of nature we have created, learning to stand back is all we can do.’
FIELD NOTES FROM A HIDDEN CITY: AN URBAN NATURE DIARY
GRANTA BOOKS, PP368, £16.99, ISBN: 9781847082756