The quite excellent naturalist Helen Macdonald, whose two books to date rank amongst my favourite nature books, calls James Aldred’s Goshawk Summer: A New Forest Season Like No Other ‘magical and transporting’. If I wasn’t already fascinated in Aldred’s subject – the goshawk – Macdonald’s quote alone would have drawn me to pick this up.
Aldred is the author of one previous book, entitled The Man Who Climbs Trees, and has worked as a wildlife cameraman and documentary filmmaker since 1997. He has worked with the likes of the legendary David Attenborough, and has won awards for his work. As one would expect, for a filmmaker skilled particularly in filming from heights using aerial equipment, Aldred has worked all over the world. In early 2020, he was located in East Africa following a family of cheetahs.
Then, Covid spread, and lockdown happened in Britain. Aldred was granted a special dispensation to film, and spent much of the first period of lockdown in the south of England’s New Forest, following a pair of goshawks as they hatched three chicks. Aldred was often the only one in the woods; this, he says, gave him ‘a once in a lifetime opportunity to keep filming’. He stationed himself in a treetop hide between April and June, filming the goshawks: ‘From up here the wood became a three-dimensional landscape of dense foliage and distant glimpses. The understorey below was an open colonnade of vertical trunks, but level with the nest the branches closed in and I saw corridors of approach that remained invisible from the ground. A labyrinth of shifting parallax. For a predatory bird able to curl, tuck and swerve through the smallest of gaps, that discreet canopy would be paradise.’
Goshawks are unpredictable birds; it can be incredibly difficult to locate them, as they do not like to be seen. Aldred comments: ‘Some are skittish; others brazen. Some like low and stay put; others slope off the nest and melt away the moment anyone steps foot in their wood.’ They more often than not nest in the same place, returning year after year; they can use the same physical nest for up to a decade.
Alongside his documentary filming, Aldred decided to keep a written record – a field diary – about his experiences. He spent an extended stretch of time in a place so devoid of people, but filled to the brim with different species, some of them rare. He writes, early on, ‘Amidst the fragility and the fear, there was silver moonlight, tumbling fox cubs, calling curlew and, of course, the searing goshawks.’ This record became Goshawk Summer. Goshawks are, of course, the focus – both of the book and of his documentary – but he also writes about other species which he comes across: foxes, curlews, pipits, and pine martens, to name but four.
The New Forest is a place which Aldred knows intimately. He speaks, very early on, of his deep affection for the region: ‘To this day, part of my heart remains in the forest, dwelling in the quiet rides and woods of my childhood. Even the smell of the place stirs deep currents of longing within me.’ Later, he discusses that although he knows stretches of the woods as well as he can, and has such good memories of cooking stews with his friends, and sleeping outside as a teenager, there are other parts of the New Forest which he knows not at all.
I was struck throughout by the power and visceral beauty of Aldred’s prose. He writes almost like a poet, placing such emphasis on using precise and beautiful vocabulary. Goshawk Summer begins in the following, quite breathtaking way: ‘A loud call shatters the peace. Not the blunt mewing of a buzzard, but the piercing cry of something infinitely more predatory: a wild goshawk. It echoes through the woods around me. Strident, commanding, forceful. A regal sound for a regal bird.’ He continues: ‘The goshawk. Steel grey, the colour of chainmail. Sharp as a sword. A medieval bird for a medieval forest. A timeless scene.’ Throughout, Aldred is highly adapted to, and aware of, his surroundings – whatever they may be.
There is something so meditative about nature memoirs written during, or since, lockdown. Goshawk Summer is no different; in fact, I would go as far to say that it is the most thoughtful one which I have read to date. Along with showing joy at the way in which nature flourished in the New Forest during the first lockdown – ‘Nature’s been given the space to unfurl her wings and they are shimmering’ – Aldred laments about the behaviour of many people when the first restrictions were lifted, destroying fragile habitats, and leaving the national park strewn with litter. The pandemic is never far away from his commentary, but he finds solace in the natural world, and having a focus during what was an incredibly strange and difficult time.
I highly appreciated the opportunity which Goshawk Summer gave me; to read a book from a perspective which I haven’t been immersed within to this extent before. I love watching documentaries about wildlife cameramen, and I am in awe at the sheer amount of time and patience which it takes to film just one or two scenes. Often, though, these are relative snippets which have been tacked onto a longer documentary. Being able to read Aldred’s expansive work, and his musings about his own filming, is a privilege. I found it fascinating to learn about the many preparations which he has to make before he even begins to film, such as locating a suitable filming site, whilst having a constant awareness of others close by in case something goes wrong. It is a much more intricate process than one expects.
Goshawk Summer is such a valuable addition to the canon of nature writing. Aldred has an excellent attention to detail, and I can only hope that he brings out another book very soon. This expansive and honest memoir, from a markedly different perspective, is sure to be of interest to so many readers, and I cannot recommend it enough.