This article is taken from the December 2020 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering three issue for just £5.
When Helen Macdonald was growing up, she found herself in an environment rich with peculiarity. The “little white house” in which she lived with her parents was situated behind a motorway in Camberley, Surrey, on “a 50-acre walled estate owned by the Theosophical Society”.
Her parents had no interest in Theosophy. But they liked the house and the estate, and were attracted, one suspects, by many of their fellow residents — Theosophy having been banned in Nazi Germany — being refugees. Those who were not refugees tended to be outsiders of another kind: “the black sheep of good families: elderly women… who had refused the roles society had reserved for them”; and a salad of “spies, scientists, concert pianists, members of the Esoteric Society, the Round Table, the Liberal Catholic Church”.
In the midst of this array of “luminous eccentricity”, Macdonald’s “notion of what was, and wasn’t, normal took a battering from which it has never recovered”. And provided her with a model for living a life. The model carried two elements that function as the central moral intelligence of this lavishly ennobling collection of essays.
The first pertained to the importance of the registering and honouring of the importance of the various. The second to the love of the natural Wonderful call of the wild world. Granted the liberty to roam the landscape of her childhood, Macdonald was a “state-school kid running free in crumbling formal parkland,” often to be found knee-deep in a pond looking for newts, ambling around adorned with an enormous grass snake, or harnessing ants to facilitate her acquisition of the skeletons of dead birds. “I didn’t know how unusual my freedom was,” she writes, “but I knew what it had given me. It had turned me into a naturalist.”
But a naturalist of a particular kind. An “odd” and “solitary” girl, often unhappy and often bullied, Macdonald found herself assailed by an “all-consuming compulsion to seek out wild creatures” in search of escape, connection, identity, friendship. In yielding to the compulsion it is possible, she now speculates, that she was also reacting to “the unfinished business of losing my twin at birth: a small girl searching for her missing half, not knowing what she was looking for”.
Accordingly, as she records in the wonderful concluding essay of the volume – “What Animals Taught Me” – she went about establishing a personal menagerie with an enthusiasm that would see the family home dominated by aquaria and vivaria full of insects and amphibians; an orphaned crow; an injured jackdaw; a nest of baby bullfinches; and a badger cub.
It was an enterprise she now regards as selfish. “Rescuing animals made me feel good about myself; surrounded by them I felt less alone … I began to use animals to make myself disappear.” Eventually — after a period in which her assumption that animals were “just like me” prevented her from recognising that “I might not understand the things an otter might want” — Macdonald came to see that by regarding creatures as a mirror of herself and attributing to them her own desires and needs, she had engaged in a collapsing of difference that was damaging to both parties, denying the singularity, the purpose, the autonomy and the value of each.
It is a mistake that, following the sudden death of her father when she was in her thirties, Macdonald would come to repeat when, shattered by grief, she decided she wanted to “become” a goshawk and duly isolated herself with one — Mabel — at her home in Cambridge (the record of their relationship is chronicled in her brilliant memoir, H is for Hawk).
But it was her time with Mabel that also helped her to dispense altogether with her anthropomorphic error, and imbue her fully with the conviction that the great lesson, and the great moral imperative, of our relationship with our fellow creatures (avian, human, arboreal, amphibian) ought to be predicated on the valuing of difference.
This is a position that unites almost all of the pieces (diverse as they are) assembled in this astonishing collection, in which the reader will find reflections on the discrete journeys of migrating birds and fleeing humans; the lineaments of mortality and the consolations of friendship; the traumatic experience of a refugee; high-rise Manhattan as a site of natural wonder; the pleasures of accurate classification; the instructive behaviour of murmurations — termed in Danish, as we discover in one of the innumerable fascinating details scattered throughout this book, sort sol: black sun.
Macdonald delivers all of this in prose that, despite the occasional cliché, is full of resonance and beauty (“you get the whole compass of the watered-silk sky”), apposite delicacy (“the unbearable fragility of small flesh”), memorable evocations (“[the boar] sank on to his knees, nose to the ground, then, with infinite luxury, sat and rolled on to his side”), and moments of devouringly affecting apprehension:
I spoke through the shell to something that had not yet known light or air, but would soon take in the revealed coil and furl of a west-coast breeze … and spire up on sharp wings to soar high enough to see the distant, glittering Atlantic. I spoke through an egg and wept.
To be in the presence of such a voice is to encounter a sensibility that, in its relentless curiosity, its precision of expression, its sensitivity and tenderness, is capable of enlarging our sympathies, refining our natures, augmenting our attentiveness — and of awakening our beings to the edifying textures of the fathomless realm of the various.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe