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

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

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How “cli-fi” novels humanise the science of climate change

The paradox is that the harder climate-fiction novels try, the less effective they are.

When the Paris UN Climate Change Conference begins at the end of November, the world’s leaders will review the climate framework agreed in Rio in 1992. For well over 20 years, the world has not just been thinking and talking about climate change, it has also been writing and reading about it, in blogs, newspapers, magazines – and in novels.

Climate change fiction is now a recognisable literary phenomenon replete with its own nickname: “cli-fi”. The term was coined in 2007 by Taiwan-based blogger Dan Bloom. Since then, its use has spread: it was even tweeted by Margaret Atwood in 2013:

It is not a genre in the accepted scholarly sense, since it lacks the plot formulas or stylistic conventions that tend to define genres (such as science fiction or the western). However, it does name a remarkable recent literary and publishing trend.

A 21st-century phenomenon?

Putting a number to this phenomenon depends, partly, on how one defines cli-fi. How much of a novel has to be devoted to climate change before it is considered cli-fi? Should we restrict the term to novels about man-made global warming? (If we don’t, we should remember that narratives about global climatic change are as old as The Epic of Gilgamesh and the Biblical story of the flood.) If we define cli-fi as fictional treatments of climate change caused by human activity in terms of setting, theme or plot – and accept there will be grey areas in the extent of this treatment – a conservative estimate would put the all-time number of cli-fi novels at 150 and growing. This is the figure put forward by Adam Trexler, who has worked with me to survey the development of cli-fi.

This definition also gives us a start date for cli-fi’s history. While planetary climatic change occurs in much 20th-century science fiction, it is only after growing scientific awareness of specifically man-made, carbon-induced climate change in the 1960s and 1970s that novels on this subject emerged. The first is Arthur Herzog’s Heat in 1976, followed by George Turner’s The Sun and the Summer (published in the US as Drowning Towers) in 1987.

At the turn of this century, Maggie Gee and TC Boyle were among the first mainstream authors to publish climate change novels. In this century, we can count Atwood, Michael Crichton, Barbara Kingsolver, Ian McEwan, Kim Stanley Robinson, Ilija Trojanow and Jeanette Winterson as major authors who have written about climate change. The past five years have given us notable examples of cli-fi by emerging authors, such as Steven Amsterdam, Edan Lepucki, Jane Rawson, Nathaniel Rich and Antti Tuomainen.

Creative challenges

Cli-fi is all the more noteworthy considering the creative challenge posed by climate change. First, there is the problem of scale – spatial and temporal. Climate change affects the entire planet and all its species – and concerns the end of this planet as we know it. Novels, by contrast, conventionally concern the actions of individual protagonists and/or, sometimes, small communities.

Added to this is the networked nature of climate change: in physical terms, the climate is a large, complex system whose effects are difficult to model. In socio-cultural terms, solutions require intergovernmental agreement – just what COP21 intends – and various top-down and bottom-up transformations. Finally, there exists the difficulty of translating scientific information, with all its predictive uncertainty, into something both accurate and interesting to the average reader.

Still, cli-fi writers have adopted a range of strategies to engage their readers. Many cli-fi novels could be classified as dystopian, post-apocalyptic or, indeed, both – depicting nightmarish societies triggered by sometimes catastrophic climate events. A future world is one effective way of narrating the planetary condition of climate change.

Some novelists are also careful to underpin their scenarios with rigorous climatic predictions and, in this way, translate science fact into a fictional setting. Kingsolver, who trained as an ecologist, is the best example of this – and Atwood and Robinson are also known for their attempts at making their speculations scientifically plausible. Also, cli-fi novels, particularly those set in the present day or very near future rather than in a dystopian future, tend to show the political or psychological dimensions of living with climate change. Readers can identify with protagonists. To some extent, the global community is represented in fictional everymen or everywomen. Or, often, it is through such characters that science is humanised and its role in combating climate change better understood.

Can cli-fi lead to change?

Could cli-fi affect how we think and act on climate change? The paradox is that the harder cli-fi tries, the less effective it is. Many writers want to inspire change, not insist on it: the line between literature and propaganda is one that most novelists respect. Literature invites us to inhabit other worlds and live other lives. Cli-fi at its best lets us travel to climate-changed worlds, to strive there alongside others and then to return armed with that experience.

In Paris, the UN will seek a global agreement on climate action for the first time in more than 20 years. There is plenty of climate change fiction out there to help provide the mental and psychological space to consider that action.

The Conversation

Adeline Johns-Putra, Reader in English Literature, University of Surrey

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.