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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Marching against climate change in the age of Donald Trump

The People’s Climate Movement is as much about politics as science. That's its strength.

Saying goodbye is never easy. But the present generation are facing an awful lot of farewells: to the melting arctic, the dying Barrier Reef, and the general resilience of ecosystems around the world. As Margaret Atwood described it in her essay of the same name: “It’s not climate change, it’s everything change”.

The problem with “everything-change” is that it can be overwhelming. How do you even decide where to start?

The People’s Climate Movement want to begin by making visible the extent of concern out there. This weekend, a coalition of organisations have planned a protest march on the American capital. Between 50,000 -100,000 people are expected to attend, including eco-celebrities Leonardo Di Caprio, Al Gore and Richard Branson.

In London, a group called Campaign Against Climate Change, are co-ordinating a UK-based solidarity event. Protestors will meet at 11.30am in Old Palace yard opposite Parliament, then move to Westminster Bridge, where they will spell out a message to Theresa May: “Trump and May: Climate Disaster”.

For UK campaigners, this is a vital opportunity to raise awareness of the many ways in which action on climate change is under threat. Claire James from CACC outlines the sense of frustration and injustice that many feel with regard to recent government policy: “There have been 12,000 jobs lost last year in the solar industry alone and installation numbers have plummeted. Meanwhile fracking, hugely unpopular, is given determined backing.”

Ahead of the June election, campaigners are using the event to call for specific, cross-party commitments. One, fast-tracking the UK’s delayed Climate Change Plan. Two, ruling out new trade deals that compromise environmental, worker or consumer rights. And three, implementing a fair deal for UK solar and wind industry. “Our action on Saturday is about saying to the government – and to anyone who wants to form the next government – do your policies measure up?” says James.

These concrete political aims are an important way in which the movement differs from last weekend’s March For Science. That protest, inspired by the popularity of the Women’s March earlier this year, kept its message intentionally wide. As one of the London event’s organisers told DeSmog, it placed its emphasis on a generalised “celebration of science”. But this lack of specificity drew criticism from some quarters – for presenting a confusing message about politics' relationship to science.

Generalisation can also risk putting people off joining marches at all. Over the last few months, numerous friends have said they feel uncomfortable joining protests where they’re not sure that the person marching next to them is doing so for the same reasons. They’d feel much happier signing a petition, with a more specific and limited aim, they tell me.

This weekend’s climate marches risk drawing some of the same concerns. “Climate-change has become a synecdoche, a surrogate, for many causes in today’s world – social justice, the protection of nature, the rights of future generations, the defence of science,” says Professor Mike Hulme from King's College London. “Marches such as this give political voice to anti-establishment protest, but they don’t stop the climate changing.”

In addition, not all who want to see climate change prioritised by governments may agree over the exact course of action – with outright opposition to fracking, for instance, or to a third runway at Heathrow.

But this weekend’s movement also appears to have taken these lessons on board. First, they are putting their political aims up front. According the US event’s website, whereas the March for Science strove to be non-political, this movement “believes strongly in the need to call out the politicians.”

The link to the Paris Climate Treaty is helpful in this respect. The People’s Climate Movement traces its birth back to September 21 2014, the eve of the UN climate summit, when 400,000 people marched through New York demanding action on the climate crisis. This gives the movement a clear piece of legislation to both celebrate and defend.

And the London-based event is also attempting to re-think and expand what street-protests can achieve. “We’re doing a smaller action rather than a big march,” explains Claire James, “but we’re trying to have a real focus with the speakers on ‘what next’”. After the protest in Westminster, attendees are invited to join an afternoon of free food, activities and music, hosted by the food waste campaign Feedback. Here there will be even further opportunity to learn about the many ways – from divestment campaigns to local renewable energy groups – in which people can help press for change.

In this respect, public action against the climate crisis promises not to end when the walking does. And while protests won't stop climate change in themselves, joining a march can be a powerful reminder that we are not in this crisis alone.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.

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