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What birds teach us about being human

Helen Macdonald’s 2014 memoir, ‘H Is For Hawk’, offers lessons on loss, perception and sharing space with other creatures

John Tenniel’s illustration of Dodo in ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Image: Wikimedia Commons
John Tenniel’s illustration of Dodo in ‘Alice In Wonderland’. Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Ten years ago, on 20 December 2013, the UN general assembly decided to mark 3 March as World Wildlife Day. Although well-meaning, the measurable outcome of such gestures does not always live up to expectations. Species continue to be endangered or on the verge of extinction.

Robust policies, public awareness and proactive action plans can go a long way in safeguarding wildlife habitats. And yet, for these strategies to have an impact, there has to be a far deeper, humane force driving them. For many naturalists, that push comes from a deep-rooted consciousness of loss, an omnipresent grief for the plants and animals vanishing around us.

As a thoroughbred urban child, my early exposure to wildlife was almost entirely through books. Like millions of children around the world, I traversed a predictable path of discovery. Bill Martin Jr and Eric Carle’s Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See? led to an enduring fondness for teddy bears. Aesop’s fables piqued my curiosity about the non-human presences around us, especially the murder of crows who came over, unfailingly, every lunchtime for the scraps served to them by my mother. Then came Alice In Wonderland, with its menagerie of real and imagined creatures, which, without a doubt, was a major turning point in my emotional history as a reader.

Among the intriguing feelings spawned in my child-mind by Lewis Carroll’s masterpiece was the discovery of the reality of extinction. Growing up in 1980s Kolkata, I wasn’t indoctrinated into the cult of dinosaurs that my six-year-old nephew and his peers seem obsessed with. For me, the introduction to ancient, disappeared creatures happened through “Dodo”, the wise counsel to Alice, believed to have been a caricature of the author himself.

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In John Tenniel’s illustration, the Dodo appears in the section on “A Caucus Race And A Long Tale”, holding a cane like an elderly gent, the first creature to appreciate Alice for who she is. To then learn that this stately bird once actually walked the earth and was erased during the Dutch colonisation of Mauritius in the 17th century was a sobering reality check.

For a child, the idea of extinction may be tinged with awe and wonder, perhaps also a mild sense of terror and heartbreak. But for adults, such reckonings bring in their wake existential questions, a mourning for the world, as well as for the self, that is being lost with every passing day. Which brings me to this month’s book, H Is For Hawk, by British writer and scholar Helen Macdonald.

Published in 2014, this marvellous cross between memoir, nature-writing and historiography tells the story of Macdonald’s attempt to tame a goshawk—a notoriously elusive creature, resistant to human control and discipline. As a young girl, Macdonald had been interested in the avian species, a pursuit encouraged by her photojournalist father, Alisdair Macdonald. Her absorption in the archaic, and predominantly male, art of falconry had led her to T.H. White, the English writer best known for his Arthurian novels and his treatise on falconry, The Goshawk (1951).

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Published in 2014, this marvellous cross between memoir, nature-writing and historiography tells the story of Macdonald’s attempt to tame a goshawk
Published in 2014, this marvellous cross between memoir, nature-writing and historiography tells the story of Macdonald’s attempt to tame a goshawk

All these strands come together luminously in H Is For Hawk, written in the wake of the death of Macdonald’s father in 2007, while she was battling depression and looming penury. A critic in The Guardian described the book as a “misery memoir” but the term, with its connotation of navel-gazing self-indulgence, doesn’t even begin to capture the complexity of Macdonald’s work.

To begin with, though the ostensible purpose of a falconer is to tame a ferocious bird of prey, for Macdonald, it was never about gaining power over the regal goshawk she called Mabel. For, despite her fears and frustrations over this moody creature, Macdonald had a deep desire to understand its mind to get closer to Mabel’s inscrutable way of being, thinking and thriving in the world. She wanted to draw succour from the bird’s unique, often unflinchingly ruthless, personality—“solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”. Later in the book, Macdonald would admit, having spent weeks with Mabel, “I was turning into a hawk.”

It may be tempting to scoff at such statements as being anthropomorphic, the result of a mind addled by grief. But there is, in Macdonald’s affinity, indeed near identification, with Mabel a truth that has touched anyone who has spent long spells, in the wild or at home, with a non-human companion. So many childish, as well as adult, fantasies are woven around dreams of flight. Think of the number of times you have looked at your pampered pet and wondered what it was thinking.

Humans commonly forge their relationship with animals on the basis of a perceived difference from the non-human world. Whether we are saviours or destroyers of wildlife, most of us tend to build barriers, not bridges, between Us and Them. It’s only the exceptionally finely tuned, like the American poet Mary Oliver, who are able to transcend these boundaries and build a visceral kinship with the natural world.

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Last year, I had written about Oliver’s relationship with the wild, where she didn’t just see herself as a benign Wordsworthian presence amidst nature but also, at times, as an aggressor of sorts. In a memorable incident, she steals 13 eggs from a turtle’s den and prepares a delicious meal out of them. “I ate them all,” she wrote in an essay, “with attention, whimsy, devotion, and respect.” Wildlife, here, becomes a source of nurture, one with the body and mind, intimately linked to the cycle of life, death and well-being.

In a similar spirit, Macdonald moves beyond the human-animal binary by putting herself and Mabel in the continuum of natural and supernatural beings. “My heart jumps sideways,” she writes, looking at Mabel. “She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water.” In the end, taming this magnificent bird isn’t only about gaining mastery over its regal presence. For Macdonald, it’s also a process of healing emotional scars . If there is one case to be made for the protection of wildlife, it is perhaps this—without their presence, be it the terror or the love they inspire in us, we cannot achieve our full humanness, our ability to live the best life we can.

Somak Ghoshal is a writer and editor based in Delhi.

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