Talking about animals

You know how it is when you’re a young goshawk gripping the gloved fist, carried into the urban outdoors for only the second time in your life…

“Cars and buses rattle fumily past, and when the food is gone she stands staring at the strange world around her. So do I. I’ve been with the hawk so long, just her and me, that I’m seeing my city through her eyes. She watches a woman throwing a ball to her dog on the grass, and I watch too, as baffled by what she’s doing as the hawk is. I stare at traffic lights before I remember what they are. Bicycles are spinning mysteries of glittering metal. The buses going past are walls with wheels. What’s salient to the hawk in the city is not what is salient to man. The things she sees are uninteresting to her. Irrelevant. Until there’s a clatter of wings. We both look up. There’s a pigeon, a woodpigeon, sailing down to roost in a lime tree above us. Time slows. The air thickens, and the hawk is transformed. It’s as if all her weapons systems were suddenly engaged. Red cross-hairs. She stands on her toes and cranes her neck. This. This flightpath. This thing, she thinks. This is fascinating. Some part of the hawk’s young brain has just worked something out, and it has everything to do with death.”

That’s from Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk, an entertaining account of life with a vicious killer.

When we live among animals, and enjoy their presence, we come to talk about them as personal familiars. Like they’re humble deities we can rub along with, spirits from another realm licensed to roam the margins of our lives.  We may work them, house them, feed them, and even become deeply attached to them, but we know and I think appreciate the fact that we’re not obliged to fully understand them. We’ll never see through their eyes, or walk in their paws, or live inside their fur or feathers or scales.

But trying or pretending to know what’s up with them is always fun.

In some families that conversation about what the animals are up to never ends. It’s a noncontentious, enjoyable topic, one that young and old can join in equally well. I imagine it’s a conversation we’ve been having since the time when we were all of us hunters, and hunted too, when all of us decorated ourselves in bone and hide and sketched out herds in ashes on a rock face. When knowing how to think like an animal could mean life or death. 

We don’t have animals in my flat, humans aside, but we cultivate surrogate pets in this leafy suburban street — the kids are on good terms with all the neighbourhood cats while I’ve become another bit more like my Dad who, bless him, never passed a dog in town or country without stopping to address it and when necessary give it a scratch behind the ears. And I increasingly enjoy observing birds — untamed dinosaur descendants flitting among the gardens and then, when the urge takes them, migrating between hemispheres! 

So much easier than people, in some ways, who we (misguidedly?) expect to be able to understand. I think we’re drawn to animals partly because of that — because there’s less complexity in that small zone where their lives overlap with ours. But also because they’re proxies, even in their tamer guises, for our wilder selves.

4 Replies to “Talking about animals”

  1. Yes, exactly… you know how it is… wonderful.

    I have a theory that what Freud was talking about with the unconscious was just our wild selves, still hanging on despite everything, sending us dreams and messages.

    1. That’s an appealing idea about dreams.

      As lights dim across the prefrontal cortex every night, a wild soul steps from the shadows…

  2. Good post. Timely too in that I saw a northern goshawk (Accipiter gentilis) yesterday in a place (and time) I did not expect up above my house in Utah. Goshawks are inveterate high mountain forest dwellers here who moreover usually travel south for the winter. It was an unexpected god; the best and lasting kind.

    Of all the stuff that’s written about raptors and predators generally what I come back to, and what the Macdonald quote above nicely limns, is that they are wonderful observers. Their lives depend on it. They notice the world. There is no thing but to watch, and then the interstices of flying something down, killing it, and eating it. The lesson, of course, is that our lives depend on watching too. There is unassailable joy and sanity in noticing what Hopkins called “the dearest freshness deep down things”. Watching is the root of meditation, literally and metaphorically. We would do well to mimic the hawk more in our dailies.

    For the finest prose about what it means to notice with a raptor’s vigorous and unjudgemental attention I recommend JA Baker’s The Peregrine. Baker makes each sentence nearly unbearable in its unflinching distillate of detail and savage watching. It’s as close as I’ve come to trading places with the raptors I love so much, at least in my waking life.

  3. Thanks Andrew. The JA Baker book earns high praise including from Helen Macdonald – I’ll look out for it.

    Raptors in particular seem to fascinate and inspire eloquence from certain writers.

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