About Watching: Identification and the Animal

ECOCRITICISM NOW: The essays, reviews, and poetry collected in this thread trace responses to the interlinked terms nature, ecology, and ecocriticism, all of which have come to occupy increasingly important roles in a number of everyday and academic discourses over the last few decades. The “now” of its title is therefore not only a mark of the interest of certain contributions in the development of ecocritical theory (ecocriticism at this moment in time), but also an injunction, a call for more. This thread is co-edited by Tom White.

Review by Dan Eltringham

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Vintage, 2014)

Hen Harrier Poems by Colin Simms (Shearsman, 2015)

Due North by Peter Riley (Shearsman, 2015)

Poems 2004-2014 by Harriet Tarlo (Shearsman, 2015)

There is a short story by Julio Cortázar in which the narrator becomes obsessed with several axolotl in the aquarium in the Jardín des Plantes in Paris. He visits the tank daily and stares at the salamanders’ pink, baby-like form and absent grin for hours at a time. He consults sources on the obscure creature in the library Saint-Geneviève, and begins to visit several times a day, perplexing the person checking tickets. The salamanders have golden eyes and little Aztec faces, which is how the narrator knows that they are Mexican. He is fascinated by their stillness, the way they collapse time and space by their insistent immobility. Pressing his face against the glass, wanting, he says, to penetrate the mystery of their otherness, he slips through it, into the tank, and becomes an axolotl. Now, he can see himself looking in. But as time goes by he visits himself less often:

at first we continued to communicate […] But now the bridges are broken between him and me, because his obsession is an axolotl, other to his human life. I think that at the beginning I was capable of returning to him in a certain way—ah, only in a certain way—and of keeping alive his desire to know us better. I am an axolotl for sure now, and if I think like a man it is only because every axolotl thinks like a man inside his pink stony visage. [trans. mine]

The narrator’s loss of self seems to warn of a danger that is ever-present in relations with the non-human – that of trespass and the impossibility of pulling back, that the posed, detached observation of the ‘human’ will slide into a more amorphous and unpredictable territory of interaction. It is at this tipping point that Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk is poised. The book is an intense, multi-layered memoir detailing the year after her father’s death. Macdonald, already an experienced falconer, decides to train Mabel, a female goshawk, notoriously the most unpredictable and recalcitrant of hawks. Early on, the distance between the hawk’s world and that of the human seems to proffer solace and, paradoxically, also the bridging of that gap, the possibility of losing one’s self in avian inscrutability. At that juncture, driven to the ritual of the goshawk by grief, ‘The hawk was everything I wanted to be’, explains Macdonald, ‘solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.’

Perilous over-identification is in part a component of a training process that is so intense and intimate that a great degree of affinity is developed between hawk and human; they spend all their time together, largely isolated from other company, until

The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own. You are exercising what the poet Keats called your chameleon quality, the ability to ‘tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment’.

Macdonald’s invocation of Keats’ principle of negative capability is anticipated on the previous page when, wearied, she remarks, ‘my arm aches and a damp tiredness grips my heart’, seeing her falconer’s sore arm through – what else? – the opening lines of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, whose song is the curative mead for Dr. Keats’ malady (‘My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains / My sense’). Literary allusion is part of a wider hinterland of bird-writings; just as the narrator of ‘The Axolotl’ goes straight to the library to contextualise his obsession, Macdonald soon realises that so much of what Mabel means is ‘made of people’, textually constituted. Above all, Mabel is seen through the lens of The Goshawk, T. H. White’s brutal and unsuccessful struggle with his ‘Gos’, whose wildness he fails to tame. White is constant and tragic parallel thread running through H is for Hawk, an example of how not to proceed, but also a source of sympathetic human identification. The undertow of sorrow that motivates both White and Macdonald to undergo the ‘rite of passage’, as one chapter heading has it, of training a goshawk is shared, albeit with different results. Macdonald’s own journey is to a more sustainable accommodation with Mabel’s irreducible otherness than White’s, but no less fraught.

More problematically, Macdonald finds the lexicon of falconry she had obsessed over as a child to be permeated by centuries of manly and aristocratic received wisdom that inculcated the assumptions of elite hunting culture. She is surprised, for instance, when Mabel plays with her, poking her beak through the other end of a rolled-up paper telescope. Nothing in the books had told her about this, and it leads to the suspicion that the goshawk’s reputation for bad behaviour is in part a masculine projection. The falconry writers of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries describe their (female, larger) goshawks as ‘sulky’, ‘contrary’, ‘moody’. ‘Like women, Goshawks were inexplicable. Sulky. Flighty and hysterical. Their moods were pathological. They were beyond all reason.’ The seventeenth-century authorities are better. But nonetheless, this existence in print and history is at odds with the goshawk’s appealingly ahistorical stance, immune to artificial change because ‘there are no breeds or varieties, because hawks were never domesticated. The birds we fly today are identical to those of five thousand years ago […] History collapses when you hold a hawk.’ Keats in fact said something similar of his ‘immortal Bird’:

The voice I hear this passing night was heard
In ancient days by emperor and clown

                         (‘Ode to a Nightingale’, ll. 63-4)

The collapse of history through contact with a bird that is in a sense also made of history, of falconry’s language of jesses and creances, bating and rousing and manning, is a neat touch, and another way to lose the self. It is not unrelated to the more commonly practiced pastime of bird watching, whose observance had prepared Macdonald for the more intense watching required in order to ‘man’ a goshawk:

It’s part of being a watcher, forgetting who you are and putting yourself in the thing you are watching. That is why the girl who was me when I was small loved watching birds. She made herself disappear, and then in the birds she watched, took flight. It was happening now. I had put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, and as the days passed in the darkened room my humanity was burning away.

H is for Hawk is published by Vintage, and has reached a very large audience. This is heartening, for it is far superior to most of the natural-history-and-place writing currently in vogue. Macdonald describes a comparable ‘pastoral craze’ in the 1930s, when rambling clubs organised night walks in the South Downs, and walkers and writers were ‘looking for a mystical communion with the land; they walked backwards in time to an imagined past suffused with magical, native glamour’. Fleeing the present, ‘pre-industrial visions that offered solace and safety’ were nourished by and themselves fed ‘a burgeoning market in countryside books’. How much the present trend should be considered in these terms is left unsaid. Perhaps Macdonald’s other life, as a poet and researcher in the Department of History and the Philosophy of Science at Cambridge, insulates her own writing from credulity about ‘the countryside’. Her poetry is characterised by similar pin-sharp precision, as in this superlative view of merlins, miniature falcons that

                 tip and fall into a carrying wind, scoring a sixty foot drop into starlings
and out into the channel below, chittering with satisfaction or annoyance or fear
turning to present eight toes to a conspecific rival image & the sky is darkening. [1]

Macdonald’s poetry shares affinities with that of Colin Simms, Harriet Tarlo and Peter Riley, all of whom have recently published major new work. It is Simms, though, who has most to say about the intersecting practices of spotter, conservationist and natural historian. Commenting on the supposed ‘disappearance’ of his most recent object of study, the hen harrier, Simms writes in a grumpy preface to Hen Harrier Poems that the fact that

most people, the vast majority, don’t recognise such birds seems safely ignored. ‘The birds are coming back from their winter haunts’ (they are absent from our hills in winter!). This sort of statement is quite wrong. There are more hen harriers on our hills in winter than in summer…
   The RSPB must know this and so what they fed, or feed, the local media has to be propaganda; perhaps hoping ‘twitchers’ and other bird-aware people will concentrate on getting out early in spring to find ‘returning’ harriers and let the RSPB know about them…

colin-simms-hen-harrier-poemsSimms lives in the Pennines and is speaking from a first-hand, long-elaborated observational knowledge of the hen harriers’ habitat, not that gleaned from surveys conducted by those only wishing to linger in the more picturesque corners of the harriers’ upland hunting grounds. ‘Clear-felled and newly planted new “forests” up to several years old are often amongst their best hunting grounds, but rarely attractive to bird watchers, or indeed ramblers’. Hugh MacDiarmid called Simms’ work ‘proper scientific stuff’, and it is in the experience of sustained encounter with one species that he has struck his richest veins of work, first with Otters and Martens (2004), then Gyrfalcon Poems (2007). The form, collating field notes on a taxonomic branch in the form of poems in the tradition of his friend Basil Bunting, is a peculiar sort of data presentation. Simms writes, modestly, of the Bunting connection that his ‘work is not poetry on his [Bunting’s] level but it is something else as new; a fresh genre of natural-history verse-making dealing with experience of a single species’. This sense of ‘something else as new’, an awkward phrase that itself refuses categorisation, results in a charmingly uncurated mass of poems. In the single instance of ‘Foddering on the Fell (Forster’s, 1960)’, clipped couplets blend dialect expressions,

Oh, she’ll mebbe bide yonder, you know
whee old cussenberry stands in snow

observed details in a technical and poetic register,

under the cirrus’ lace, these graces in space
but underwings showed twice a hunger-trace

and the presence of the human observer in the field, open about the necessity of record in time and place (the poems tend to be date-and-location stamped) for the effective gathering of data that can then be re-presented as a register of change or persistence:

when I watched near enough from behind my dyke
the assembly at roost, not again there to see the like.

The inclusion of non-standard English, the notation that thinning underwing feathers are a sign of poor hunting, and the simple, superfluous pileup of ‘ace’ sounds combine with disarming coherence, because they are part of the same body of knowledge, a consistent plurality of ways of looking at Simms’ single object, the hen harrier.

peter-riley-due-northAs in Simms, the Pennines run like a spinal column through Peter Riley’s Due North, shortlisted this year for a Forward Prize. It is a return, in a number senses, to what the title of one of its canto-like sections calls ‘A Lost Patrimony’, building on the disenchanted alienation of The Glacial Stairway (2011) to a form a coherent critique of the southern England in which he had lived, the drily academic university culture of the poetry circles he frequented (‘priest academics chanting etymological curses’ is direct enough), blended with a longer-view perspective on the decline of northern industrial identity and community throughout the twentieth century. Sometimes the cantankerous tone can grate, but mostly it is bracing in the best way, speaking of longue durée historical deception and resistance, the Mass Trespass on Kinder Scout in 1923, and a collective riposte to ‘feudal dues’ and

                   conscription, bleeding the land dry.
 We saw Ireland again, green and fertile river vales
fenced off, the people condemned to grow oats on stones.

Riley’s concern with the erosion of ‘group rights […] in favour of individual “freedom” which / we laughed at down the pub / and eventually the entire public world dismantled’ is consonant with what he sees as more rhythmically attuned relations with non-human life, domesticated and wild. Looking back to a discussion in The English Intelligencer in the late-1960s, Riley sees transhuman cultures, before we ‘farmed ourselves into the next generation / and rolled down the hillsides to the town’, as responding to some very contemporary stimuli by

                          bearing the location with us
advance built into the structure of settlement. Not “travel” –
there were needs, and displacements

Later this connection between human community and animal herding, driven by necessity ‘to the high pastures with the beasts every year’, is reprised bathetically by the journeying of the contemporary subject:

                                                         under the kestrel’s path we moved
out and back, seasonally or daily,
                                                         going to Marks & Spencer’s for a shirt
well beyond the northern limit of the nightingale.

Riley’s insistent use of the first person plural is distant from the way it was used to signify artistic and political community amongst the poets of the Intelligencer in the 1960s, stretching its meaning to encompass decades of complicity and betrayal since then, but the possibility of collective hope it holds out, against all odds, remains unaltered.

Harriet Tarlo’s work, as a general principle, does not play the identification game, preferring a linguistically maintained independence for the objects that inhabit the open-field texts collected in Poems 2004-2014. They might be gulls or oystercatchers, but equally rail announcements or warning signs (‘Use of Promenade is at Own Risk’, ‘(vii) St Bees’), the phenomena that present themselves to a body being-in-place bumping up against one another. But nonetheless there is a kind of observance at work, and a subject, who is more, or less, erased. Traces of an observing presence are most evident, as with Simms, through tags indicating place and time, a spare experiential grounding. These poems are field notes to landscapes whose obliquity is a sort of chart, rewriting sites of picturesque beauty. For instance, in the fine sequence ‘Particles: Cumbrian Coast, 2008’, the traces of industry normally omitted by Wordsworth are admitted, and post-industrial remains are placed in a more ancient historical context of remnants:

six linked tin sheds
built on buried dry docks
high over brick back-to-backs
as abbey once dwarfed village

(‘(i) Barrow’ )

9781848613591_CVR.inddPalimpsest is the easy descriptor for this method, but it is not quite right. It does not fully account for the relationship between seeing and not seeing, on the one hand, which can be contingent on all kinds of chance confluences of surface-traces and perspective. On the other hand forms of non-visual apprehension – the buried dry docks, and possibly the abbey too – may, as former presences, owe as much to an overlay of reading or knowledge garnered by the more general conditions of the visit or tour suggested by the sequence’s progress along the coastline, and so are not simply ‘seen’. The poem gives scant detail beyond the role of the ‘six linked tin sheds’, which recur three times and which ‘block / Barrow from sea, from Walney, the far side of / Duddon Sands’. The tin sheds that organise the text, beginning each stanza, also then block the content of each with their ‘linked’ functional lines; the further insight of the site’s importance as a port and a monastic centre may be inferred visually from this anti-Wordsworthian prospect on the wrong side of the Duddon’s mouth, but the emphasis on lines of sight that are blocked, or intercepted lower down by another horizontal line of ‘brick back-to-backs’, suggests otherwise.

The absence of auxiliary verbs, too, is characteristic, and one of the main ways the human observer is written out of the action. In ‘6.30am, 15 Oct 2011 (Clapham, N. Yorks)’, main verbs conjugated in the indicative or as gerunds allow the non-human world to filter through and ‘materialise’ with the dawn, where in the first stanza it had been apprehended aurally as ‘water / falling, woodpecker tapping, pheasant / wings sing down land / lighten-ing’. There is a minimalist attention to ‘nettle tops’ that close up ‘under single / limestone drips’ – from the roof of ‘Inglebrough Caves’, where we are told this dawn-song takes place– before a final line that extends the frame of reference: ‘light wind, fading moon, kestrel slide’. The failure to finish off the verb balances the falcon’s flight on a doubled edge between a compound noun, a kestrel-slide, a sidereal transit through thermals, and a kestrel that is about to slide, poised at the point of that possibility, but has not, and is consequently still a presence at the edge of the poem that has not yet slid out of its field, into the broader sky.

The fear that the hawk will do just that, fly out of the visual field rather than return to the austringer’s aching arm, is what makes falconry so stressful. The first time Macdonald lets Mabel off the creance, or line, to fly freely and calls her back is a test of learnt loyalty and temporary affiliation between species. Every time she returns to the glove afterwards (and she doesn’t every time) is a benediction, meaning ‘I choose to be here […] I eschew the air, the woods, the fields. There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning.’ But there are limits to the goshawk’s connection with its human. Macdonald, like most, stops before becoming the object of her attention. She is held back by an invisible barrier which, unlike the aquarium glass Cortázar’s magical realist mode permits his narrator to trespass, keeps her from Mabel and, moreover, Mabel from her human world. ‘Living with a goshawk is like worshipping an iceberg, or an expanse of sliprock chilled by a January wind. The slow spread of that splinter of ice in your eye. I love Mabel, but what passes between us is not human.’

[1] from ‘Monhegan’, in The Ground Aslant: an Anthology of Radical Landscape Poetry ed. by Harriet Tarlo, Shearsman 2011.


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