I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing - not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen The rarer they get , the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an item of extinction. There’s little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss? …… I know that some of my friends see my keeping a hawk as morally suspect, but I couldn’t love or understand hawks as I do if I’d only seen them on screens. I’ve made a hawk a part of a human life, and a human life part of a hawk’s, and it has made the hawk a million times more complicated and full of wonder to me. ….. She is real. She can resist the meanings humans give her. But the condor? The condor has no resistance to us at all. I stare at the attenuated, drifting image on the gallery screen. It is a shadow, a figure of loss and hope; it is hardly a bird at allThis seems to me to be making an important point about the way we respond to nature. It is interpreted to us in programmes on television showing creatures most viewers will never encounter, not just in faraway places but in our own lands. In many ways our lives are not their lives and it is inevitable that we objectify them. This in turn can lead to sentimentality and a concern for them based on a lack of understanding about what it is like to live as part of nature. To many in cities the whole of nature is a sort of art installation. And often those who do still live close to it are regarded as barbaric and intrusive, like vandals trying to sabotage the art. This is understandable and we are all prone to it wherever we live as urban values characterise the life styles of most modern humans, even those who do not live in towns or cities. So it might seem that we have no choice but to see nature as other. Perhaps this is true. Helen Macdonald’s relationship with her hawk might be little more than a gesture towards contact with wildness. But if so, as she observes, the world is diminished; and so are we.
Hawks and Wildness
I’m currently reading the book H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. It is a powerful combination of autobiography, biography and nature writing being a narrative about the death of the author’s father, her decision to train a young goshawk and her references to a book she first read in childhood by T. H. White about his attempt to train a goshawk. It is an imaginative compilation of these overlapping themes and narratives, beautifully written and engaging to read. But it is an aside to these main narratives that I want to notice here. She is invited to review an art installation so leaves the hawk at home and goes to the art gallery. The main feature is a life-sized reproduction of a bird observation hide, the original of which is in California. Visitors enter the hide and can go to the viewing window to see a projected film as if they are looking across the valley in California where the hide is situated and watch the nearly extinct Californian condor flying across the view. Part of her response to this is as follows: