Nature writing is the new romanticism, as is bioethics; both flutter an eyelash at science. Two recent and celebrated books, Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk and Karen Joy Fowler’s We Are Completely Beside Ourselves, discuss the captivity of wild animals in suburbia. Macdonald’s book won the Costa Book Award in 2014 and Fowler’s novel was short-listed for the Man Booker Prize in 2014. The first is a memoir of a woman recovering from a depressive illness and the second is a treatise on animal rights and rubbish research methodology.
Over dinner my vegetarian thirty-something-year-old daughter-in-law Mimi asked:
“What are you reading?”
“A book about training a hawk.”
“Oh. Where is it kept? In a cage?”
“No, in this case, on a perch in the sitting room of a college-owned heritage cottage in Cambridge.”
“How is the hawk kept on the perch?”
“Well, there are manacles called jesses that the falconer makes of soft leather. And there is a hood.”
“When do you use the hood?”
“When you want the hawk to sleep or when travelling to the hunt. In the field, the hawk goes into ‘hunt mode’ when the hood is removed.”
“How do you keep the hawk from returning to the wild?”
“By two methods: the hawk is kept light in weight so it can’t range widely and the falconer must locate the quarry no further than 400 yards away. The hawk cannot find its own game.”
“What happens to the game? Does the bird retrieve the quarry?”
“No, birds don’t retrieve. The falconer must run to the kill. In Macdonald’s case, she breaks the rabbit’s neck, hacks off a leg, distracts the hawk, stuffs the game in the back pocket of her hunting vest, gets the hawk back on her fist and gives it the rabbit leg. All in one graceful movement.”
“What happens to the game? Does she eat it?”
“There are no descriptions of skinning, plucking and hanging. No rabbit casseroles, not even a Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall game pie with sliced liver.”
“What does she eat then?”
“Her freezer is stuffed with quartered day-old chicks for the hawk and pizza for her.”
Mimi brightened at the appearance of a couscous sprinkled with pine nuts and chervil.
“Do hawks ever attack their trainer?”
“In this memoir, Mabel, the goshawk, had been fed too much quail and she became unsettled and neurotic.”
“How is neurosis revealed in a hawk?”
“Mabel sank one talon into Macdonald’s forearm and overshot her fist to plunge another between her eyebrows.”
“Macdonald crawled back through the hedgerows, washed the wound and applied a plaster to her third eye. Mabel’s diet was changed to less rich food.”
“How often are trained hawks, er, exercised?”
“It depends on the weather, but one must have access to open fields and generous neighbours. And not if they are moulting; Mabel was delivered to a large purpose-built aviary in the Dorset countryside. Possibly near Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s River Cottage café.”
Gloom thickened. The arrival of a plate of artichoke petals arranged around a central choux calyx with truffle oil and snipped chive flowers helped immensely.
Elegantly written, the book has prompted debate from nature writers Mark Cocker and Robert Macfarlane. The arguments loosely fall into “Nature plus Conservation” and “Nature plus Re-Enchantment of the Landscape”. Cocker scoffs at the romantic writings of those who stumble out of Cambridge over a long weekend and into a fen. We should be alarmed, he says, we shouldn’t be distracted from the true state of the countryside. Michael McCarthy, whose The Moth Snowstorm laments the changing ecology of the British landscape, is a supporter. The prudent Macfarlane points out that there are many who share the landscape in Britain—ramblers, lido swimmers, film-makers and poets.
“That’s an odd group,” said Mimi.
“I threw the poets into the mix because I like John Clare’s verse. The swimmers are the oddest. Who would want to swim with weeds?”
“I recall Adam Foulds’s novel on the poet, The Quickening Maze.”
“That novel has as much to do with nature writing as Macdonald’s Hawk. It brought renewed interest in Clare. ‘Autumn met plains that stretched them far away / In uncheckt shadows of green brown and grey’.”
A slight frown.
“What about the film-makers?”
“The most recent remake of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd in glorious Wessex countryside was by Thomas Vinterberg with Carey Mulligan as Bathsheba Everdene.”
“Do you remember how tiny her waist was? She needed severe corseting, I’m told. And she fell off her horse.”
“Consider the difficulties with the saddles …”
“Oh yes, she started with a sidesaddle, flung her leg across and ended by reclining on the horse’s flank or croup or, well, rump.”
“Hardy seems to have had trouble with that too. It is not clear in the text. Still, lying on the horse, Bathsheba looked as if she were one with nature.”
“Are there other memorable films with nature in the foreground?”
“If one considers gardening as controlled nature then we could include A Little Chaos, Alan Rickman’s film about André Le Nôtre, the designer of Louis XIV’s Versailles landscape. The idea was that Le Nôtre, tiring of restrictive orthogonals from Louis’s bedroom, was seduced by a woman entranced by the non-linear designs of nature.”
“How was that idea shown?”
“First, she moved a pot plant to an asymmetrical position, and second, she pruned some bracken to expose the structure of a tree.”
“The viewers understood that?”
“Oh yes. She clearly saw the advantages of the English landscape garden before Capability Brown.”
Mimi gazed out of the window at the fuchsias.
“I have a surprise for you. An Infiniment Vanille, a tart devised by Pierre Hermé made with vanilla beans from three origins in seven stages. In the past I have only managed five.”
I could see an exquisite pale form close to our table. Suddenly there was a hail of silver cachous followed by a hushed flutter of gold-leaf rain. It shimmered.
“What do you think?” A silver beauty spot clung to her lip.
“Beyond nature,” I said.
Jane Sutton, who lives in Melbourne, wrote on postcolonial literature in the April issue.