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

ALAMY
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Putting the “savage” back in Sauvignon Blanc

This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag, but many varieties are brasher and bolder than you'd expect.

I was once the life’s companion of a man who was incapable of remembering names. This should have bothered him but he’d grown used to it, while I never could. At gatherings, I would launch myself at strangers, piercing the chatter with monikers to pre-empt his failure to introduce me. I was fairly sure that it was the other person’s name he couldn’t remember but I couldn’t discount the possibility that he had forgotten mine, too.

In wine, the equivalent of my bellowing is Sauvignon Blanc. This grape is so easily recognised that it might as well wear a name tag: it tastes of grass, gooseberry, asparagus and, occasionally, cats’ pee. The popularity of its New Zealand incarnation is probably partly a result of that cosy familiarity – which is ironic, given that “Sauvignon”, harking back to its evolution from wild grapes in France, comes from the French for “savage”. Never mind: evolved it has. “Wine is the most civilised thing we have in this world,” wrote the 16th-century author Rabelais, and he was born in the Touraine, where the gently citrusy Sauvignon makes an excellent aperitif, so he should know.

New World Sauvignons are often brasher and bolshier. It is likely that Rabelais’s two best-known heroes – Gargantua, who is born yelling, “Drink! Drink! Drink!” and whose name means “What a big gullet you have”, and Pantagruel, or “thirsting for everything” – would have preferred them to the Touraines. They work well with spice and aromatics, as Asian-fusion chefs have noticed, while the most elegant Loire Sauvignons, Sancerre or Pouilly-Fumé, make fine matches for grilled white fish or guacamole – in fact, almost anything enhanced by lemon. In Bordeaux, where whites principally blend Sauvignon and Sémillon, the excellent Dourthe is entirely the former; 9,000 miles away in Western Australia, Larry Cherubino makes a rounded Sauvignon in a similar style.

Many variations but one distinctive flavour profile – so I thought I was safe asking my best friend, an unrepentant wine ignoramus, whether she liked Sauvignon. Her shrug spurred an impromptu tasting: Guy Allion’s quaffable Le Haut Perron Thésée 2014, from Rabelais’s Touraine; a Henri Bourgeois Pouilly-Fumé Jeunes Vignes; and Greywacke Wild Sauvignon from Kevin Judd. Judd, who was largely responsible for making New Zealand whites famous when he worked for Cloudy Bay, is now putting the savage back in Sauvignon using naturally occurring (“wild”) yeasts that make the wine rich and slightly smoky but are not, by his own admission, terribly easy to control. This was the most expensive wine (£28, although the Wine Society sells it for £21.50) and my friend loved it.

She had expected to prefer the French wines, on the slightly dubious basis that she is Old World: of Anglo-Danish stock, with a passion for Italy. Yet only familiarity will tell you what you like. This is why bars with long lists of wines by the glass provide the best introduction. A favourite of mine is Compagnie des Vins Surnaturels, a Covent Garden joint run by two women, the sommelier Julia Oudill and the chef Ilaria Zamperlin. If the menu – scallops with Worcestershire sauce, croque-madame with truffled ham and quail egg – is delicious, the wine list is fabulous, with at least ten whites and ten reds at 125ml, with prices ascending into the stratosphere but starting at £6.

There are usually a couple of French Sauvignons, although many bottles still don’t name the grapes and the winemaker Didier Dagueneau (the “wild man of Pouilly”), whose wines feature here, preferred the old Sauvignon name Blanc Fumé. Thank goodness Sauvignon, despite its reputed savagery, has the manners to introduce itself so promptly: one sip, and you can move on to the congenial task of getting to know one another.

Next week: Felicity Cloake on food

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war