One of the books I’ve had on my shelves for a while now (purchased during a long-ago-feeling trip to London in July last year) seemed perfect to wile away some winter evenings with. Field Notes from a Hidden City tells the story of the wildlife, in particular the birdlife, in Aberdeen over the course of a year. That granite city is not all unyielding stone and shipping, plus by reliving her summer months, I was able to keep reminding myself as I shivered under a blanket, that it would come round here again – always hard to believe in early Feb.
Now, I don’t share Woolfson’s fondness for all creatures. For example, I really don’t like pigeons, but I do have a greater tolerance of rats (thanks to an early reading of Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of Nimh) than most people I know. However, I won’t hesitate to trap a mouse. These are not endangered species but ones that positively flourish, hoovering up our crumbs and waste, testing their teeth on our wiring, and I make no apology for it. However, reading her eloquent passages on the previously unremarked beauty of a pigeon’s eye or rat’s gait, I’m more likely to question my instinctive reactions than before. And that’s what every good book should do – make you reconsider yourself.
“In wild animals, violence is not purposeless. (We don’t behave like ‘wild animals’. If we behave badly, we behave as badly behaved humans.) There is always an explanation, even if we don’t appreciate or understand it. What we find difficult is to be witness without judgement.”
And despite my best efforts, I had to skip the passage about spiders. Look, I can admire their cunning and strategy for survival and a dew-beaded web is more beautiful than any diamond necklace, but frankly the descriptions of spidery appearances were too much for my phobia, so I clipped the pages together and moved on to the next chapter.
Where I gelled the most with Woolfson was over her love of corvids. Magpies, crows, jackdaws, rooks. These are so often irrationally seen as harbingers of bad luck, bad news, doom to those who see them and forget to chant the rhyme, cross their fingers or walk backwards over a footbridge. One of the things I miss most from our previous address is my early morning walks past the rookery, watching them wheel and dive above the trees, shout hoarse greetings to one another or race through the sky, screaming with fury at an inopportune buzzard. I have seen a fledgling magpie, feathers like velvet, the blue flash of the wings unsettling in the gloom, and I am as quietly upset as she is when the late-fledgling jackdaw dies.
“In the evening’s heat, the swifts scream over the garden. Towards darkness, we take the jackdaw from his box and hold him and stroke his feathers. He seems content. Bec puts him on her shoulder and as he sits there, his eyes grow heavy. We know that it isn’t the night-time weariness of a busy baby bird. He folds his head under his wing and when we put him in his box, we know that it is the last time we will. “
Woolfson is a skilled and gentle narrator of the year. She takes the truths we hold (grey squirrels bad, pigeons filthy dirty things, rats even worse) and holds them up to the light, carefully pointing out the holes before suggesting there might be another, equally valid way of looking at things. She has the scientific papers and books to back her up as well; this is no woolly do-gooder scattering universal love with lentils, although she does not fail to be sharp when called for, angry in the right places at our obtuseness, our insistence on paving over everything and then being surprised when the birds stop visiting but the floodwaters keep rising.
I still don’t really like pigeons though.
“Days later, I see something high in the branches of the large cherry tree in the next-door garden…it’s a grey squirrel, apparently asleep, huddled in the rain on the top branch of the tree and as I watch it, I think of it all again; of how, as humans, we feel free to treat others, both human and not, and of the ways we find to explain to ourselves what we do, and the ways in which we present and elevate our condemnations or our judgements. I think of the dangers of separating the lives of animals and men, believing them to be irreconcilable or subject to different standards; of assuming righteousness, of the consequences of words once spoken that we can never recall.”