WINTER blows icily through the beginning and end of this compelling book so chillingly that the reader may wish to put another log on the fire and pull the duvet a little higher.
Field Notes From A Hidden City: An Urban Nature Diary by Esther Woolfson
We’re in Aberdeen, coldest of Scottish cities, 57 degrees latitude north. We’re living by the breath-snatching chill of the North Sea in houses of obdurate granite. Esther Woolfson is very good on unremitting snow, the occasional sparks of mica should the pale sun strike the sometimes silver stone, the strange transformation of a now car-obsessed, oil-fuelled city fallen silent under the freeze of winter. But then she is exceptionally good on all natural phenomena, an acute, careful and open-minded observer and thinker.
In truth, this is a work which is so much more than its sub-title. Nature diary it may be – the structure is dated entries interspersed with longer essays. It is a wonderfully affectionate and percipient depiction of her occasionally unforgiving adopted home town: her bird-filled house and fecund garden, full of unruly plants and the remains of past pets (rodents, corvids – none of your cute kittens here). For instance, an extended paean to the rat in all its intelligence and beauty is framed by the pragmatic necessity of having to put down poison, the neighbours possibly not sharing her views on their fascinating desirability. She mentions that Craig and Dod – the “rat men” – are polite, respectful of their adversary and always, in unremarked exquisite irony, bring rubber mice for the family birds.
The pages are packed with such lovely vignettes. She sees gull chicks being lined up in the empty school playing fields by their bossy, careful parents. Intriguing facts are scattered as abundantly as bird seed. This reviewer, for one, did not know that the tiny pipistrelle bat can live for 40 years; that house sparrows (whose numbers are catastrophically declining, down 90 per cent in Edinburgh apparently) like to face east when roosting; that shrews eat their own body weight in a day.
From the start though, it is an ecological and philosophical meditation on the need for calm wisdom and foresight, embedded in direct and informed observations of sparrows, squirrels, starlings, spiders and even slugs. Slugs? The word itself evokes disgust – as indeed does “rat”, unthinkingly used as a term of abuse. Her point? Strip away the accumulations of revulsion (and genuine annoyance at chomped seedlings) and observe these invertebrates not with sentimentality but with equable, non-judgmental interest. “I recognise,” she writes, “that I might have underestimated or simply never have known or appreciated their full, useful virtues and I’d like to make what effort I can to consider even their small decried place in the world.”
Constantly, she challenges culturally embedded notions of human superiority and spurious ranks of animal worthiness, dating back to Plato and Aristotle, through Descartes, to the lazy and toxic headlines of today, pointing out “misplaced scales of value” and the skewed use of language to place human perceptions on the status of living things. “Why do we think one type of creature is more deserving of food, love, protection, life than another?” She quietly guides us towards the notion of the beauty and necessity of every naturally occurring species.
In so doing she draws not only on the evidence of her own immediate surroundings, but on extensive research and reading, wearing her erudition lightly. Seasonal brain plasticity in birds? “Learned helplessness” in laboratory rats? Philopatry – site fidelity – in those crows in your supermarket car park, actually their ancient feeding ground? Through her insights, Woolfson urges a compassionate, open view of our “fellow inhabitants of fragile time and space”, our inextricable interdependence.
This is an illuminating, humane and informative companion, throughout the seasons, in the great tradition of the finest nature writing – even, and especially in, the grey granite grip of a northern winter.
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Weather for Edinburgh
Thursday 23 May 2013
Temperature: 5 C to 10 C
Wind Speed: 23 mph
Wind direction: North west
Temperature: 4 C to 13 C
Wind Speed: 17 mph
Wind direction: North east