FIELD NOTES FROM A HIDDEN CITY
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Granta Publications, 12 Addison Avenue, London W11 4QR
First published in Great Britain by Granta Books, 2013This paperback edition published by Granta Books, 2014
Copyright Esther Woolfson, 2013
Esther Woolfson has asserted her moral right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act, 1988,
to be identified as the author of this work
Illustrations copyright Mnica Naranjo Uribe, 2013
The text credits on pp. 349350 constitute an extension of this copyright page
All rights reserved. No reproduction, copy or transmission of this publication may be made without written permission. No paragraph
of this publication may be reproduced, copied or transmitted save with written permission or in accordance with the provisions of the Copyright Act 1956
(as amended). Any person who does any unauthorized act in relation to this publication may be liable to criminal prosecution and
civil claims for damages.
A CIP catalogue record for this bookis available from the British Library.
3 5 7 9 10 8 6 4 2
ISBN 978 1 84708 276 3
Typeset by M RulesPrinted and bound by CPI Group (UK) Ltd, Croydon, CR0 4YY
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In memory of my father, and of a great musician,my cousin Eric Woolfson (19452009)
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. . . we would assume that what it is we meant
would have been listed in some book set down beyond the skys far reaches, if at allthere was some purpose here. But now I thinkthe purpose lives in us all and that we fall
into an error if we do not keepour own true notebook of the way we came,how the sleet stung, or how a wandering birdcried at the window . . .
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Snow 11November 24th to December 20th 13
Midwinter 35December 21st to February 19th 37Fellow Travellers 62
Winter into Spring 81March 1st to March 9th 83
Early Spring 103March 14th to March 25th 105Orb-weavers and Wanderers 121
Spring 141April 5th to April 15th 143
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Late Spring 161April 18th 163Angels in the Streets 175
Spring to Summer 193April 26th to May 10th 195The Unlikely Cupid 206
Early Summer 219May 23rd to July 11th 221The Bird with the Silver Eyes 245
Midsummer 257July 17th to July 26th 259Flying through the Storm 268July 28th 283The Fugitive in the Garden 288
Into Autumn 309August 10th to November 2nd 311
Acknowledgements 344Select Bibliography 346Text Credits 349Index 351
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I N T RO D U C T I O N
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It was almost four in the afternoon on one of the oddly quiet days ofDecember. Snow had fallen again, yet another layer to freeze onto theiron-hard strata of thick, packed ice. In less than a month, the city hadbeen turned into a fortress of ice and stone. It was already dark as Iwalked past the church at the end of the lane. A line of bright lightsfrom house windows seemed to catch at the sparkle in the air. Everyafternoon towards dusk, the cold became visible; it fell in a fine mistof ice particles which stung in the throat. By the time it was dark, it hadglazed every surface to an even glitter.
Christmas soon, and a year ending. The year had been one ofsuperlatives the lowest recorded temperatures, the heaviest snow, thewettest summer; in matters economic as well as meteorological, of noless magnitude and equally unassailable. It seemed a year designed totest every certainty, to bring the stirrings of disquiet, to make youwonder what might be next and when.
Illuminated by a streetlight, something in the lane moved in thesnow, a frantic patch of thrashing darkness, a flail and panic of blue andgrey. Whatever it was, I ran clumsily towards it, impeded by paddingsof clothes, socks and boots. It was a bird, almost submerged, drown-ing in snow. I scooped it up from the drift in both hands; a youngpigeon, still small with the pink, moist-looking beak of a recent fledg-ling. He was feathered but his feathers were drenched and he carriedone wing awkwardly. There were no other birds around. It was past
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roosting time, too late and too cold for them. I folded the wing care-fully against the birds body and held him. Id been about to go to thecorner shop but suspected he wouldnt be welcome there. There wasnothing I could do but carry him home, beyond immediate danger. Itwas only as Ive done with generations of the avian needy before him.
As we walked, the bird peered from between my hands, a feralpigeon, a blue rock pigeon, Columba livia: future street-dweller, serialpavement-picker, underfoot obstacle, as familiar and ubiquitous as our-selves, one of the latest generation of the birds who resolutely populatethe cities of the world, a parallel presence to our own, knowing, able,urban survivors, accepted and decried in varying measures. I could feelhis fast, panicky heartbeat, even through thick gloves.
At home, I wrapped the bird in a towel to dry him, carrying himswaddled under my arm as I lined a box with newspaper. When he wasdry, I put him in and he settled immediately. I put the box in thevestibule, where it was just warm enough the bird had his fullplumage, and now that he was dry, hed be able to keep himself warm.Later, Id think about all the possible problems of raising him but firstI had to go and finish my shopping.
Walking back down the lane, past garden walls tessellated by blownsnow, I realised that the birds parents must have been roosting amongthe stone buttresses of the church near to where I found him. Pigeonsbreed at unlikely times although that moment seemed even less judi-cious than most. I wondered how hed come to be there fallen,pushed, lost. With birds, you never really know.
On my way back home again, I stopped a moment. The place where
FIELD NOTES FROM A HIDDEN CIT Y
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hed been struggling was now a patch of compacted snow, ridged andimprinted with the broad zigzag indentations that must have beenmade by the tyres of the Range Rover that had driven slowly past us inthe lane as we walked home together.
Over the next few days, the bird stayed contentedly enough in hisbox. I would wait until the wing was fully healed and then let him go,return him to the wild.
As I fed and took care of the bird, I began to think more about theexpression return to the wild, the words we use to describe setting acreature free to return to its own environment, to live its life among itsown, a natural life. The wild in this case would most probably be thelarge sandstone church at the end of the lane, a neo-Gothic buildingof step-corbelling and intricate stone finials, around whose tall centralspire crows and magpies engage in glorious aerial combat on windydays. It would be the roofs and gardens of this district, the handsomeVictorian villas, long-established trees and wide, quiet streets only ashort walk from the centre of the city. Hardly wild.
For all that, this was a wild bird a wild, city bird although thewords wild and city seemed difficult to reconcile. I began to thinkabout wildness in relation to creatures who live in cities, about whetheror not we consider them less wild than creatures living elsewhere, orthink of them as somehow a lesser part of nature itself. I wondered ifthe same might apply to humans, as if merely by being in a city, notonly might our lungs be polluted but ourselves, our minds (and if wehave them, souls), as if urban dwellers must by definition be over-avidconsumers of the unnecessary, weakened by purchase, alienated in
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every way, distanced from a lost, admonitory Eden. Are we, I won-dered, living lives remote from all that is natural, beneficial, wild, or arewe as much a part of the natural ordering of the universe as the wildestof things, moved by the same forces, as wild as anything else on earth?It seemed to me that if Im representative of my species, the bird wasrepresentative of many more, of all the other birds, beasts and smallerlife forms, seen and unseen, who populate our cities, who make theirlives among us and were often there before us adapting to ourhabits, sharing with us the triumphs or follies of our building policies,our tendencies to destroy and pollute or to engage in the ecologicallycatastrophic. Their presence may be the only contact many urbanpeople have with the natural world but our relationship with themseems changed by proximity, diminished by the very fact of their beinghere among us. As Id passed the compacted snow where Id picked upthe bird, I had begun to think of the value of any creatures life and ofthe ways in which we make judgements or calculate worth, of the com-plex gradations we apply to other species, the ones we use to approveor to condemn.
I passed the bird on the way in and out of the house, checking onhim often to make sure that he was eating and roosting. In the mornings, I went downstairs with the usual trepidation, the kind youalways have when youre looking after a rescued bird when you wonderif some unknown disease or frailty has ended its life in the night. Butevery morning he was there, alive.
A wild bird but a