Chilly Aberdeen, Scotland, may seem an unlikely place to investigate the natural world, but Woolfson (Corvus: A Life with Birds, 2009) offers a vivid portrait of birds, animals, insects and plants—and her place among them—in the city where she has lived for decades.
Located at 57 degrees north latitude, Aberdeen is cold, damp and stark, with changeable weather that “flits and blows, defies forecast and forecasters” to emerge as “several seasons in a day, only some of them recognizable….” Weather is a frequent topic of conversation, and adverse weather, many believe, is a punishment for hubris or, perhaps, too much joy. “Our climate is sombre,” Woolfson writes, “our mood, our stone, our mode of building against the weather.” In a gesture of hopefulness, she planted roses in her garden, but along with her clematis, it died during a cold spell. But other species flourished: rooks and jackdaws, gray squirrels and butterflies, oystercatchers and bluebells. Some were labeled pests: Woolfson called an exterminator to get rid of rats living under her house, and the city took measures to circumscribe starlings. The author cautions against intervening: “[W]ithin the limited framework of the artificial spaces of nature we have created, learning to stand back is all we can do.” Taking us through a year in Aberdeen, Woolfson closely observed changes in bird life and animal visitors, soil and sky: “different kinds of wind, different kinds of snow, different kinds of twilight.” Interwoven with diarylike entries are longer meditations on spiders, pigeons, jackdaws, sparrows and the complexities of the slug, who shoots a “love dart” as part of its mating behavior—a phenomenon, Woolfson speculates, that’s possibly the origin of Cupid’s arrow.
Woolfson is an elegant, precise writer, and this transcendent memoir conveys exquisitely the vibrant world she inhabits.