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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How power shifted dramatically in this week’s Game of Thrones

The best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry.

Last week’s Game of Thrones was absolutely full of maps. It had more maps than a Paper Towns/Moonrise Kingdom crossover. More maps than an Ordnance Survey walking tour of a cartographer’s convention. More maps than your average week on CityMetric.

So imagine the cheers of delight when this week’s episode, “Stormborn”, opened with – yes, a map! Enter Daenerys, casting her eyes over her carved table map (Ikea’s Västeross range, I believe), deciding whether to take King’s Landing and the iron throne from Cersei or a different path. After some sassy debates with Varys over loyalty, more members of her court enter to point angrily at different grooves in the table as Dany and Tyrion move their minature armies around the board.

In fact, this whole episode had a sense of model parts slotting pleasingly into place. Melisandre finally moved down the board from Winterfell to Dragonstone to initiate the series’ most inevitable meeting, between The King of the North and the Mother of Dragons. Jon is hot on her heels. Arya crossed paths with old friends Hot Pie and Nymeria, and the right word spoken at the right time saw her readjust her course to at last head home to the North. Tyrion seamlessly anticipated a move from Cersei and changed Dany’s tack accordingly. There was less exposition than last week, but the episode was starting to feel like an elegant opening to a long game of chess.

All this made the episode’s action-filled denouement all the more shocking. As Yara, Theon and Ellaria dutifully took their place in Dany’s carefully mapped out plans, they were ambushed by their mad uncle Euron (a character increasingly resembling Blackbeard-as-played-by-Jared-Leto). We should have known: just minutes before, Yara and Ellaria started to get it on, and as TV law dictates, things can never end well for lesbians. As the Sand Snakes were mown down one by one, Euron captured Yara and dared poor Theon to try to save her. As Theon stared at Yara’s desperate face and tried to build up the courage to save her, we saw the old ghost of Reek quiver across his face, and he threw himself overboard. It’s an interesting decision from a show that has recently so enjoyed showing its most abused characters (particularly women) delight in showy, violent acts of revenge. Theon reminds us that the sad reality of trauma is that it can make people behave in ways that are not brave, or redemptive, or even kind.

So Euron’s surprise attack on the rest of the Greyjoy fleet essentially knocked all the pieces off the board, to remind us that the best-laid plans of Mothers and men often go awry. Even when you’ve laid them on a map.

But now for the real question. Who WAS the baddest bitch of this week’s Game of Thrones?

Bad bitch points are awarded as follows:

  • Varys delivering an extremely sassy speech about serving the people. +19.
  • Missandei correcting Dany’s High Valerian was Extremely Bold, and I, for one, applaud her. +7.
  • The prophecy that hinges on a gender-based misinterpretation of the word “man” or “prince” has been old since Macbeth, but we will give Dany, like, two points for her “I am not a prince” chat purely out of feminist obligation. +2.
  • Cersei having to resort to racist rhetoric to try and persuade her own soldiers to fight for her. This is a weak look, Cersei. -13.
  • Samwell just casually chatting back to his Maester on ancient medicine even though he’s been there for like, a week, and has read a total of one (1) book on greyscale. +5. He seems pretty wrong, but we’re giving points for sheer audacity.
  • Cersei thinking she can destroy Dany’s dragon army with one (1) big crossbow. -15. Harold, they’re dragons.
  • “I’ve known a great many clever men. I’ve outlived them all. You know why? I ignored them.” Olenna is the queen of my LIFE. +71 for this one (1) comment.
  • Grey Worm taking a risk and being (literally) naked around someone he loves. +33. He’s cool with rabid dogs, dizzying heights and tumultuous oceans, but clearly this was really scary for him. It’s important and good to be vulnerable!! All the pats on the back for Grey Worm. He really did that.
  • Sam just fully going for it and chopping off all of Jorah’s skin (even though he literally… just read a book that said dragonglass can cure greyscale??). +14. What is this bold motherfucker doing.
  • Jorah letting him. +11.
  • “You’ve been making pies?” “One or two.” Blatant fan service from psycho killer Arya, but I fully loved it. +25.
  • Jon making Sansa temporary Queen in the North. +7.
  • Sansa – queen of my heart and now Queen in the North!!! +17.
  • Jon choking Littlefinger for perving over Sansa. +19. This would just be weird and patriarchal, but Littlefinger is an unholy cunt and Sansa has been horrifically abused by 60 per cent of the men who have ever touched her.
  • Nymeria staring down the woman who once possessed her in a delicious reversal of fortune. +13. Yes, she’s a wolf but she did not consent to being owned by a strangely aggressive child.
  • Euron had a big win. So, regrettably, +10.

​That means this week’s bad bitch is Olenna Tyrell, because who even comes close? This week’s loser is Cersei. But, as always, with the caveat that when Cersei is really losing – she strikes hard. Plus, Qyburn’s comment about the dragon skeletons under King’s Landing, “Curious that King Robert did not have them destroyed”, coupled with his previous penchant for re-animated dead bodies, makes me nervous, and worry that – in light of Cersei’s lack of heir – we’re moving towards a Cersei-Qyburn-White Walkers alliance. So do watch out.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.