On the afternoon that this book dropped through my letter box I had been to lunch with a friend. Over lunch my friend told me of how on her way to the cafe she had spotted a bird, she thought a blackbird, flailing in the hedgerow near the bus stop. When she stooped to take a closer look she found that the bird had become entwined on some barbs and was trapped and distressed. After a few moments of struggling, both from the forlorn bird and my friend the poor creature was free. Gently lifting it from the offending hedgerow my friend gently placed the bird in the field across the road, in the hope that this was where the bird had been heading when it became entangled. The reason I am relaying this fragment of a story is because Field Notes from a Hidden City opens with the writer Esther Woolfson discovering a stricken bird submerged in the snow, drowning. Scooping the distressed bird up she brings it home to care for it until it is strong enough to fly. Unlike my friend Ms Woolfson has in-depth knowledge of caring for birds, and more importantly when to release them back to their natural habitat (though in this case the bird, a blue rock pigeon, decided to leave on its own terms). And so starts the unexpected teachings that I gleaned from this splendid book.
Natural Writing, as the book jacket classifies it, has become more prevalent since we left the 20th Century, and I have noticed that it has become much easier to find these writings in mainstream bookshops of late. In my eyes this can only be a good thing. I grew up in the era of a whispering David Attenborourgh informing the world of the joys and wonders of the African savannahs or Brazilian rainforests, however I rarely saw recordings of the environment or creatures that I was more likely to identify, a city. Thankfully this is changing, especially in a world concerned about climate change and its implications. Esther Woolfson’s book sits directly into this group of recommended reads.
Field Notes from a Hidden City is set in Aberdeen, Scotland, a city not automatically linked with nature and its beauty. Most people hear Aberdeen and think of granite, oil and raucous gulls; this book may cause some people to look again. I am slightly more attune to the natural world than some people due to my work, but even I forget on a daily basis that a city (a terrestrial habitat) plays host to a thriving and intricate biodiversity, this book caused me to look at my local surroundings with open eyes and an open mind.
Field Notes from a Hidden City is written in the format of a diary, for the duration of a year, which lends itself very well to this type of project. Ms Woolfson comments on the changing face of cities and how humans interact or dominate the natural order, animals need to adapt to us never the other way round.
As you may expect from a book written about the natural world in the UK there are more than a few references to the weather, but unlike normal conversations all of these are relevant. Over the course of the year we can see how the weather changes signal the start of life or hibernations. However very early in the book we can see that things are not as some would accept. Ms Woolfson uses many research papers as a way to compare the current conditions with the past. One such cameo is made by Richard Fitter and his son Alastair in a 2002 paper published in Science and from their studies they have found that Oxfordshire plants were flowering (on average) 4.5 days earlier during the last decade of the 20th Century than in the years 1954-89. This may not seem very great but for every day this moves back the closer we come to flipping our accepted seasonal beginnings, i.e. summer will begin at the end of April rather that the start of June and so on. These changes can also be seen in the breeding season disruption that some animals are experiencing currently.
The considerable advantage of this book is the skill with which Ms Woolfson writes. She manages to transfer these startling and important facts to the reader without being dry or preachy. The main obstacles most scientists experience is the glazing over of the eyes of someone who has lost the thread of the conversation, generally because the scientist cannot stop talking in the language of their work. Ms Woolfson beautifully solves this problem. Her prose about spiders would make the most oppressed arachnophobic reconsider the spiders that they so fear. Should these creatures be admired, or should they always be feared without question?
With the lengthening of the evenings everyone who has ever done the dusting consistently will note that this is the time when you start to find more and more spider webs around the house. Ms Woolfson describes the scientific names given to the genus of Tengenaria which are commonly found in the UK and others but then she goes a step further and reminds the reader that she isn’t a scientist on their latest research project;
“By now, in the rest of the house, I know the territory of the behind-the-fridge spider, the study-bookcase spider, the back of the Orkney-chair spider, the stairwell spider and though their homes are visible, their inhabitants are slightly less so, but for all of us, visible and invisible presences we need not impinge of one another’s lives.”
The writer even goes on to describe how everyone has their own idiosyncratic ways of removing spiders, one friend “removes errant spiders with a glass and a Blondie CD… another friend prefers a postcard of I. M. Pei’s Louvre Pyramid at dusk. I use a bookmark of Leonardo do Vinci drawing of the hand of God from an exhibition at the art gallery.” This humanisation and others throughout her writing are the reason why this book was such a joy to read this book.
But as beautiful and eye opening as this book was to me I almost had a very strong sense of loss. “To which moment might we wish to retreat, pull up our drawbridge, erase from memory what we ourselves, or the processes of nature and time, have wrought?”
Our natural world is changing, and rapidly. Whereas in the past shifts would be gradual and go unnoticed by all but those working in the biological fields, today in this time of advancing technologies knowledge and studies are becoming more in-depth (when funding allows!). But even those who don’t work in these fields are noting the shifts. In the last year alone we had one of the coldest winters in a hundred years, moving through to the hottest summer in over thirty years and then back into winter, which saw whole sections of England flood and the rest of the UK endure a very humid and rainy extended winter season. Even as I write this today, there are reports of snow again in the Cairngorms. It is the middle of May. While some people may benefit from these changes, ski resorts with lengthened seasons, most people have to learn how to adapt to the unpredictably we have seen in the last ten years in particular. How will humans fare? Will we be successful or will the animals robustness and ability to adapt out live us all?
Until that day arrives though we have the leisure to be able to read books like Fields Notes from a Hidden City, An Urban Nature Diary. And the urban may become more common than the open fields and countryside that we all love, for better or worse.
“This city is a settlement where people have stopped, stayed, rooted down over what was here, over the foundations of another world, one we might call natural, layering up over time like the visible strata of an ancient tel, the components of which we can’t, even through archaeology, be aware.”
Any Cop?: A beautiful year spent in Aberdeen from the comfort of my home in another part of the world. This book is best read slowly, soaking in the bubble bath of language and images drawn by a writer skilled enough to raise the normal to the levels of extraordinary. And I dare readers to follow Esther Woolfson’s journey and keep a diary of their own local area, it could be amazing what you discover, I will be.
Margaret M. O’ Toole