Reviewed: Field Notes from a Hidden City by Esther Woolfson

Where the wild things are.

Field Notes from a Hidden City: an Urban Nature Diary
Esther Woolfson
Granta Books, 368pp, £16.99

A few years ago, I was poking about in the urban wastelands near Heathrow – sub­tropical jungles by comparison with Esther Woolfson’s austere Aberdeen – when I came across a giant hogweed surrounded by a striped, municipal keep-out tape. It was a great joke: the most architecturally awesome wild plant in Britain, with flowers as big as cartwheels, marked out as a danger zone, even a potential crime scene. I wondered if it was an installation by an eco-graffitist, symbolising the cultural cordon sanitaire we create between wild nature and human comfortableness in the city.

Less honourably, I thought it was a splendid piece of mischief. Giant hogweed was introduced from the Caucasus in the mid-19th century and is one of those detested “invasive aliens”. It can cause blisters if you touch it in bright sunshine and is on Defra’s list of plants illegal to deliberately introduce “in the wild” – it’s a vegetable guerrilla. I was tickled that it was seen as too scary even to dig out. Yet that’s a dangerous fix, leading easily to a dereliction habit and a forgetting of what was there before the ruin.

Woolfson doesn’t go down this path and isn’t of the school of “edgeland” writers who view urban wildness as insurrectionary, a welcome disruptor of urban order and natural historians’ proprieties. She is an acolyte of the saint of Assisi, not Sinclair of Hackney. Her “urban nature diary” is a gentle, often thoughtful reflection on the natural commonplaces that happen to pass through or across her life. For example, she has an infestation of rats, ponders their cultural stereotypes and history at length and calls in the pest controllers. It’s done with regret. Rats have been among the countless animals she has kept as pets: doves, starlings, cockatiels, the rook that was one of the characters in her earlier book Corvus. And she documents her compulsion to rescue and mother creatures – a pigeon caught in a snowdrift, songbirds at her feeding station. (She has a red, plastic trident to shake at marauding sparrowhawks.)

She notes the spivvy oystercatchers (though not their splendid local tag of “oycs”) and loves the way they feed and gossip on every traffic island in the city. She’s especially good on the northern weather and how it seems to have become embodied in Aberdeen’s granitic scowl. A woman in the street says to her, “I’ve so many clothes on I can hardly move. Don’t you find that, in this weather, all pride goes?”

As the book ambles on in this agreeable vein, however, through sparrows, hydran­geas and the elusiveness of the Northern Lights (it has a real Scots lilt, despite the frequent, jarring interjections of Latin names that would have been better in a glossary), I found a kind of torpidity creeping over me. Her diary has no charge, none of the bristling excitement that ought to come from encounters with survival against the odds. She is short on attentiveness, too. There is a passing curiosity for the living presence of things but it too quickly scuttles off to the library.

The chapter on spiders is typical of her approach. It’s framed by some exact observations on the canny disposition of their webs round her house, including a witty Thoreau-like taxonomy of “the study-bookcase spider, the back of the Orkney-chair spider, the stairwell spider”. However, it’s interleaved with so many second-hand references that it’s as if she is working up an essay from a Wikipedia crib: numbers of species on the earth, origins of arachnophobia, anatomy (it’s obvious she’s never looked at one through a microscope herself), research reports from half a dozen universities, Louise Bourgeois sculptures, spiders in folklore, science fiction, nursery rhymes, and so on.

Woolfson is no Miss Muffet and it’s all interesting stuff but it’s more a combination of fireside thoughts and textbook precis than an “urban nature diary”. Indeed, the problem with the book is that it bears little resemblance to the description in the title. It’s as much armchair meditation as a collection of field notes. There is no “hidden city” revealed. It’s not even particularly urban. What Woolfson describes – the habits of slugs, tame jackdaws, tits at the bird feeder – could be witnessed in any house and garden in country or town anywhere in the northern hemisphere.

Perhaps this is her point – that there is quotidian nature in all our lives. If so, she has backed away from one crucial conundrum. How is it that these supposedly wild organisms have so enthusiastically taken to our exclusively tailored habitats and what does this mean about the likely character of “nature” in the future? I’m on her side when she points out the hypocrisy of our “hierarchies of cruelty” and cultural acceptability. The sparrowhawk’s assault on the robin is demonised; the robin’s gulping of the worm made into a cute Christmas image. Nasty, xenophobic undertones seep into the language that conservationists use about bothersome immigrants, while we conveniently forget that Homo sapiens is the most dangerous, invasive species on the planet. There is plenty of such sensible debunking. But she avoids a reckoning with the sheer fact of a thriving urban nature, the implications of which may be prophetic, one way or another, for the future of the biosphere. She might have grasped this if she had ventured out of her study and into her home city more.

Aberdeen is not especially rich biologically but has two spectacular newcomers – “urban adaptors” – in plain sight but unremarked by Woolfson. In the very centre of the city, at Triple Kirks, peregrine falcons have come to breed, using the stone buildings as facsimiles of natural cliffs. In the evenings, while Woolfson is browsing in the Tao, these ferocious raptors are scything through the night sky high above her, chasing down migrating water birds. Before they began nesting in accessible city buildings, nobody knew peregrines were nocturnal hunters or that supposedly weak fliers such as water rail also made great journeys under cover of dark.

Along the shingle banks of the River Dee is one of the great floral displays in north-east Scotland, immense blue sheets of naturalised Nootka lupins. They come from the Pacific coast of North America, were brought over for Queen Victoria in 1847 and escaped from Balmoral into the river system 20 years later, again finding the Scottish shingle an acceptable substitute for their native habitat. Both organisms have made extraordinary journeys, geographically and culturally. They are opportunist, adaptable, mobile, cosmopolitan, the “generalists” that are increasingly moving in as the habitats of highly localised and finicky species are trashed. Aberdeen has one of the latter, an extraordinary liverwort that grows entirely underground in Hazlehead Park, and is disappearing as the damp heather it needs is slowly suffocated by rank grass.

It’s impossible actively to dislike Field Notes from a Hidden City. It is genial, readable, warm-hearted and on nature’s side. Yet it is, in all senses, a tame book. Woolfson likes urban nature to the extent that it comes into her willing embrace. It would have been a braver and more valuable book if she had taken on the challenge of these more wilful, multicultural denizens, which ride into civilisation on our coat-tails but keep a defiant independence. They may increasingly shape the contours of wildness in our overdeveloped country.

Richard Mabey’s latest book is “Turned Out Nice Again: on Living with the Weather” (Profile Books, £8.99)

Woolfson's account explores the quotidian aspect of nature. Photograph: Architectural photography by www.simonkennedy.net

This article first appeared in the 25 February 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The cheap food delusion

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In the name of the father: Patricia Lockwood on sex, centaurs and Catholicism

The author of the viral poem “Rape Joke” talks about growing up with her gun-toting Catholic “priestdaddy”.

“Oh my fricking God. It’s a centaur.” The American poet Patricia Lockwood and I are in the lobby of a Whitehall hotel and she is finding the quantity of equine art distracting. I have already been skipped along a corridor to examine the bizarrely detailed rendering of a horse’s anus in a Napoleonic painting (“They made a point of doing him straight up the butt”) that turns out to be a copy of Théodore Géricault’s Charging Chasseur. Now a statue on the mantelpiece has caught her eye, prompting a reverie on what she saw at the British Museum a couple of days ago: “A wonderful statue of a man kneeing a centaur in the balls. It’s the most important thing to me there. It’s so beautiful.”

The confluence of violence, sex, orifices, animals and mythology runs throughout Lockwood’s work in wild and witty poems such as “The Whole World Gets Together and Gangbangs a Deer” (inspired by the realisation that “Bambi is a puberty movie”) and “Revealing Nature Photographs” (pastoral verse meets porn spam) – and it also colours her new book, Priestdaddy, a deeply idiosyncratic family memoir in which copulation is a go-to metaphor. Her dad’s frenzied, tuneless playing raises the prospect that he might be “having sex with the guitar”; during Lockwood’s teenage depression, she writes, the only thing she was having sex with “was the intolerable sadness of the human condition, which sucked so much in bed”.

Lockwood (pictured at her First Holy Communion) has dark, cropped hair and elfin features, pearly white nails and sleeping cats on her knees (an effect achieved with decorated tights – “Let this be for the stocking boys,” she says). Her voice is deadpan, frequently dipping into laughter without losing her poise. She is one day off her 35th birthday and has been married since she was 21. Her father, Greg, is a priest and, along with her four siblings in a succession of rectories across the Midwest, she was raised a Catholic – thus ensuring, she says, the permanent sexual warping of her mind.

“We Catholics become perverts because of the way sex is discussed in strictly negative terms. I saw pictures of aborted foetuses before I knew what basic anatomy was.”

As a devout teenager, she attended a youth group called God’s Gang and was given a virginity pledge in the form of a business card. The group leaders had a “very hip and young” approach: “We’re going to tell you every single thing you can do, in explicit terms, and just be like, ‘But don’t do it.’”

The ribald humour of her writing – Lockwood is renowned on Twitter for her surreal “sexts” – often contains a darkness. The poem that made her name, “Rape Joke”, takes her experience of being raped at 19 by a boyfriend and metes it out in discrete, increasingly devastating soundbites and images. It was posted online in 2013 and went viral, leading to a publishing deal for her collection Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals.

After the rape, Lockwood was “absolutely insane” for about five years, but it’s not as if she was entirely happy before: at 16, she had attempted suicide by taking a hundred Tylenol tablets. Her memoir recounts, too, being embedded in a church mired in scandal, a claustrophobic situation that hit home when a priest close to her was arrested for having sex with a 14-year-old boy. Such events led to Lockwood abandoning her faith and escaping with Jason, her future husband, whom she met on an online poetry messageboard.

When Patricia was 30, she and Jason ran out of money and moved back to the rectory, allowing her to observe her parents afresh. The resulting portraits in Priestdaddy are larger than life: her mother, Karen, is a hyperactive generator of mad puns and proverbs; her ex-navy father is a self-mythologising, right-wing whirlwind of talk radio, guns and Tom Clancy novels. Married Catholic priests are rare but Greg, previously a Lutheran minister, got the pope’s permission to convert. Usually to be found in his underwear, he wants for no new expensive gadget or guitar, though the family is expected to make sacrifices. In 2001, two weeks before Patricia – who learned to read at three and was writing poetry at seven – was supposed to leave for college, he told her that they couldn’t afford it. He later “changed the story in his mind so that I had said I don’t need to go”.

“Growing up in my household,” she says, “all of these far-right, retrograde ideas of gender roles and the man as patriarch existed from the very beginning. But I didn’t think of my house as a bellwether of what was going to happen.” It came as no surprise to her that Greg and many like him voted for Trump. When she reported on a Trump rally in February 2016, she “moved like a ghost through the crowd. They saw me as one of their own.”

Anger at her father’s selfishness “would be useless”, and Lockwood respects his sense of vocation, which she feels she has inherited. She has believed in her own genius ever since she was writing “mermaids-having-sex-with-Jesus poems” at the age of 19. Jason is her support staff, licking her envelopes and buying her clothes. His offering the previous day was a T-shirt emblazoned with Justin Bieber’s face: it revealed how much she resembles the singer – “a full 90 per cent overlap” – and is definitely not ironic.

“Do you think we only got irony after Christ was crucified?” she wonders, and then spots two black-clad priests in dog collars who have sat down across the room from us. “Ooh,” she exclaims, awed and delighted, and then, in a whisper, ever confident in her powers of creation: “I manifested them.”

“Priestdaddy: A Memoir” is published by Allen Lane. “Motherland Fatherland Homelandsexuals” is published by Penguin

Tom Gatti is Culture Editor of the New Statesman. He previously edited the Saturday Review section of the Times, and can be found on Twitter as @tom_gatti.

 

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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