203468Woolfson, E. (2013) Field Notes From a Hidden City Granta ISBN 978 1 84708 275 6

“Our streets, buildings, houses are shared, our gardens and our trees. In one city, there are more cities than we know, hidden cities inhabited by those with whom we share everything we rely on: food and light and air. In differing degrees, we share our vulnerability to the elements that shape and dominate our lives: cold and heat, wind and rain.” pg 8

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I walked past the Wellcome Institute in London today and, whilst thinking about reviewing this book, noticed this quote on a hoarding:

“The more you look into it, the more extraordinary it becomes.”

I couldn’t see a reference for the quote through the streaming traffic but it did strike me as an excellent summary of this strange, urban nature diary.

“It’s a world in miniature. The only way I have to understand it is within a different set of coordinates, to see it close-up, to know what’s near.” pg 15

The two quotes summarise the most effective strand of Esther Woolfson book as she shares her field notes recording her interactions with, and observation of, the natural world in her home city of Aberdeen over a year.

A number of books in recent years have explored the need to appreciate the local, mundane and unfavoured and from it’s study touch the universal. From Paul Farley & Michael Symmons Roberts’s Edgelands via Jean Sprackland’s Strands or Nick Papadimitriou’s Scarp, writers are increasingly shifting their attention to the outwardly banal, urbanised and polluted world that increasing numbers of us actually inhabit.

For Woolfson that world begins at her own back door, or more sepcifically her own back garden.

“There’s nothing mystical about her enthusiasm for spiders, worms, shrews and foxes, but rather a kind of bustling curiosity about their strange and purposeful lives. Some slugs, she reports gleefully, mate by way of what is known even in scientific papers as a “love dart”, a small blade of chitin or cartilage that may have provided the Greeks with the inspiration for Eros’s arrow. Rats, meanwhile, have been proved to refuse to take food if by doing so they cause pain to other rats, a sign suggestive that they, like us, experience empathy.” quote from Olivia Laing’s review in The Observer

You can’t knock her fascination with the worlds within world that exist around us, however it’s what she then does with the knowledge gathered that ultimately made this an unsatisfying read.

“As the book ambles on […] 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.” Richard Mabey review in the New Statesman

There is a genuineness in her writing about our seeming inability to tread light upon the Earth yet despite it being written with the steely precision of an academic and achieving a well-crafted, at times poetic, polemic, its voice remains oddly domesticated and muffled. It becomes dare I say a little same-y, a little preachy… and I began to skip pages.

“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 writing in the New Statesman

 

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