This post is part of a series called Small Rain, exploring the history of urban nature writing.
W.H. Hudson’s The Shepherd’s Life has been on my ‘to read’ list for a while, so I wasn’t expecting my first foray into Hudson’s work to be a book about London’s birds. The stated aim of Birds in London is to furnish an account of the London wild bird life. The book begins with an overview of various birds in London, including chapters on London’s corvids (crows, jackdaws, and rooks), recent colonists (wood-pigeons, moorhens, and little grebes) and London’s small birds (including sparrows, blackbirds, and robins). Hudson then goes on to give a detailed overview of London’s parks and their wild bird life. Lastly, there are chapters on how London’s parks could be improved to increase the number of birds breeding in them.
I found the many passages about London’s sparrows particularly poignant. As I mentioned in my previous post in this series, London’s sparrows have declined dramatically over the last few decades. But the London that Hudson inhabits is still one of abundant sparrows.
So common are the sparrows that Hudson imagines them to be his accomplices in writing the book:
At times the fanciful idea would occur to me that I was on a commission appointed to inquire into the state of the wild bird life of London, or some such subject, and that my fellow commissioners were sparrows, so incessantly were they with me, though in greatly varying numbers, during my perambulations.
Indeed, he states that the sparrow …will always be more numerous than all the other species together…
Perhaps just as poignant are the various birds he mentions that are now rare, not just in London but across the country, such as the corncrakes he says are occasionally heard on Hampstead Heath, the cuckoos in Battersea Park and the nightingales at Streatham Common.
What do we lose when bird species leave the city or their numbers decline? Hudson believes we enjoy birds for their song, their aerial displays and the sense of wildness they imbue the city with. But he also has an interesting notion of how birds enhance our appreciation of the built environment. He thinks that the presence of birds helps us to notice the build environment in a way that we wouldn’t otherwise. For example, he comments on the effect of the ecclesiastic daw on the great cathedrals:
I have often thought that it was due to the presence of the daw that I was ever able to get an adequate or satisfactory idea of the beauty and grandeur of some of our finest buildings… How much would be lost to the sculptured west front of Wells Cathedral, the soaring spire of Salisbury, the noble roof and towers of York Minster and of Canterbury, if the jackdaws were not there!
This passage reminded me of sitting in a café in Manchester’s Piccadilly Gardens early one winter’s morning. I was still in university at the time and I was waiting with my mum and her friend to catch the train back to Scotland. As we sat there drinking tea, I watched a flock of pigeons flying from sunlit rooftop to rooftop. Piccadilly Gardens is a space I usually move through without stopping and I don’t tend to pay attention to the buildings that surround the gardens. Those pigeons forced me to look up and to notice all the old buildings above the shop frontages. They’re not particularly attractive and their architecture is not especially noteworthy, but even to have looked at them and noticed them made me feel a new sense of awareness of my city.
The Urban Birder’s motto is ‘Look up’ – in doing so, it may not just be birds we notice, but our own cities too.
As well as providing us with enjoyment and enhancing the built environment, birds and London’s parks in general, have a positive effect on the health, physical and moral, of the people. The idea that nature is good for our physical (and mental) health is now common and widespread and has been researched repeatedly, but I found the notion that nature could also have a moralising effect intriguing. I came across the idea again when reading the Wikipedia page about my former local park in Manchester, Alexandra Park. The park opened in 1868 and its intended purpose was to deter the working men of Manchester from the alehouses during their day off. I wonder how successful it was? I also wonder whether we still think of nature in moral terms?
Nature may provide us with health benefits, but it is not just any old nature we need. Hudson expresses a strong dislike for artificiality and the marauding, ever prettifying, gardener. Chief among the plants, the rhododendron bares the brunt of his opprobrium (at one point he refers to it as the monotonous rhododendron, that dreary plant the sight of which oppresses us like a nightmare) and Hudson calls for more native plants in London’s parks:
It would make a wonderful difference if in place of so many unsuitable exotic shrubs (especially of the ugly, dreary-looking rhododendron) we had more of the always pleasing yew and holly; also furze and bramble; with other native plants to be found in any country hedge, massed together in that charming disorder which men as well as birds prefer, although the gardeners do not know it.
Hudson’s dislike of rhododendrons reminded me of Jefferies’s aversion to the foreign plants that have replaced native trees and shrubs, which he writes about in Nature Near London. He directs his ire in particular towards the large semi-country houses that surround the outskirts of London, the grounds of which are all planted with the same trees and plants, including laurels, planes and rhododendrons:
To those who have any affection for our own woodlands this is a pitiful spectacle, produced, too, by the expenditure of large sums of money. Will no one break through the practice, and try the effect of English trees? There is no lack of them, and they far excel anything yet imported in beauty and grandeur.
Such narratives – of the foreign, invader plant or species – sound dangerously close to the kinds of narratives that surround immigration. As Jefferies puts it: the foreigners oust the English altogether. No one can deny the devastating effect that invasive plants and animals have had on native ecosystems (though some are taking a more positive view of these invasive species) and the benefits of native species. The problem with such narratives is that they are tied in with a troubling ideal of Englishness, where particular plants come to stand in for those qualities considered English.
Referring to the plane tree, Jefferies states: it is unsightly. It has no association. No one has seen a plane in a hedgerow, or a wood, or a copse. There are no fragments of English history clinging to it as there are to the oak. That word ‘clinging’ is telling, what history is it exactly that ‘clings’ to English trees? Jefferies believes that there should be more filbert (hazel) walks planted:
Up and down such walks men strolled with rapiers by their sides while our admirals were hammering at the Spaniards with culverin and demi-cannon, and looked at the sun-dial and adjourned for a game at bowls, wishing that they only had a chance to bowl shot instead of peaceful wood.
Later on when talking about the hawthorn, Jefferies states:
Of all the foreign shrubs that have been bought to these shores there is not one that presents us with so beautiful a spectacle as the bloom of the common old English hawthorn in May… The hawthorn is a part of natural English life – country life. It stands side by side with the Englishman, as the palm tree is pictured side by side with the Arab.
The hawthorn comes to symbolise Englishness, and creates a caricature of Englishness, just as the Arab under the palm tree is a gross caricature. The men playing bowls and dreaming of war and the Englishman with his hawthorn probably excluded a lot of what it meant to be English in Jefferies time (half the population, for example).
Hudson’s aversion to the rhododendron is not quite so saturated in the narrative of invading foreigners as Jefferies. Hudson finds artificiality and prettiness ‘cloying’ and the rhododendron seems to typify this cloying artificiality. Instead, he calls for wilder spaces in the city, ones where trees and shrubs are allowed to grow and even left to stand once they start to die. Such spaces, he believers will not only provide birds with the breeding sites they need, but will also be better for the city’s human inhabitants:
There is no doubt that a vast majority of the inhabitants of London, whose only glimpse of nature can be had in the public parks, prefer that that nature should be as little spoiled as possible; that there should be something of wildness in it, of Nature’s own negligence. It is infinitely more to them than that excessive smoothness and artificiality of which we see so much. To exhibit flower-beds to those who crave for nature is like placing a dish of Turkish Delight before a hungry man: a bramble-bush, a bunch of nettles, would suit him better.
I particularly like Hudson’s phrase Nature’s own negligence, as though Nature might choose to neglect her duties. But what this passage also suggests is that an urban park can ultimately never be considered Nature, only nature. London’s parks may imitate Nature’s wildness and negligence with well placed bramble-bushes, but they can never attain the status of true Nature-with-a-capital-N. This distinction between different kinds of nature comes up in ‘The Problem With Nature Therapy‘ by J.B. MacKinnon, an essay exploring the many studies that have been carried out into the health benefits of nature, or nature’s medicinal qualities. The essay identifies a troubling trend in this research:
Research in the field typically exposes study participants to environments in a nature condition versus a human-built or non-nature condition. That doesn’t mean, however, that the nature involved is of the mud-on-your-boots variety, Often, it’s “nature”.
This “nature” can have restorative effects that have been measured through many experiments, but: what is harder to measure is the “instorative” experience acquired by people who regularly venture into the backcountry. This experience forges skills and traits, like self-reliance and self-confidence, that stick with people and help them cope with life’s future demands.
A walk in the park, according to MacKinnon, is never going to forge the same level of self-reliance as hiking in wilderness: though I’d say as a woman, feeling confidant enough to walk in the park on my own has made me feel much more self-reliant. And when I feel that hunger, that need for green and wild life, I go to my local park and often leave feeling very sated indeed.
On more than one occasion Hudson associates tree-lined walks with this trend towards artificiality. On the one hand, I can see his point: trees don’t tend to naturally grow in a neat line. But my former local park, Alexandra Park, has a lime tree walk and it is one of my favourite parts of the park. The black and white picture below shows the trees in 1910 when they were still quite young and the lime walk doesn’t look that impressive.
But that tree-lined avenue in Alexandra Park is now mature and the trees tower over the path, meeting in the middle to form a canopy. As children my friend and I would cycle round the park and when we got to the tree-lined path, I remember looking up to see the sunlight shining through the green leaves. That memory feels like freedom, the very feeling Hudson associates with wild nature.
Where does this impulse towards tidying or prettifying nature come from? At Bishop’s Park Hudson once again encounters the prettifying gardeners at work: as might be expected, they have been improving in accordance with the aesthetic ideas of the ordinary suburban tradesman. Artificiality is suburban, so should urban nature instead imitate the rural? Hudson does seem to admire those parts of London’s natural spaces that look most like rural spaces. On Hackney Marsh he mentions an island in the River Lea where a white house stands: it is a pretty place, standing alone and white on the green level land, surrounded by its few scattered trees, with something of the air about it of a remote country inn, very restful to London eyes.
Hudson also seems to favour those parts of London that offer solitude. Of Richmond Park he states:
There are roads running in various directions, and on most days many persons may be seen on them, driving, riding, cycling, and walking; yet they all may be got away from, and long hours spent out of sight and hearing of human being, in the most perfect solitude. This is the greatest attraction of Richmond Park, and its best virtue.
Yet, I don’t consider solitude to be a prerequisite for urban nature. In fact, one of the things I like most about walking in the park is how democratic it feels. In the park citizens exercise their right to exist and be visible in a public space and people of different ages, races, ethnicities, and religions cross paths. Some people come to the park to socialise, others to exercise, some simply want or need a place to sit and rest. The park allows for all of these and for me, that is its best virtue.
Despite being a book about birds, it is Hudson’s exploration of London’s parks that most piqued by interest and got me thinking – about parks I’ve know, my local park and about the sort of nature cities should aspire to. But I’ll end on a birdy note.
Hudson’s book feels seeped in loss, but he is also hopeful that despite the decline he notes in many of London’s birds, other species will start to colonise the city: Even now there may be some new-comers – pioneers and founders of fresh colonies – whose presence is unsuspected, or known only to a very few observers. Reading that passage, I can’t help but think of one of London’s most visible and vivid new arrivals: the ring-necked parakeet. I wonder what Hudson would have made of London’s recent pioneer? I suspect he would have enjoyed them despite himself.
 I was reminded of Hudson and his sparrow helpers this week when I read a news article about pigeons with backpacks that are being used to track air pollution in London. Read about it and follow the pigeons on Twitter @PigeonAir!