Sunday Morning

The natural world is not, to me, a fabric of stuff that gleams with revelation of a singular creator god. Those moments in nature that provoke in me a sense of the divine are those in which my attention has unaccountably snagged on something small and transitory – the pattern of hailstones by my feet upon dark earth; a certain cast of light across a hillside through a break in the clouds; the face of a long-eared owl peering out at me from a hawthorn bush – things whose fugitive instances give me an overwhelming sense of how unlikely it is that in the days of my brief life I should be in the right place at the right time and possess sufficient quality of attention to see them at all. When they occur, and they do not occur often, these moments open up a giddying glimpse into the inhuman systems of the world that operate on scales too small and too large and too complex for us to apprehend.

—  Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights (Grove Press, August 25, 2020)


Photo: Mand. “We had hail one day and I noticed that one hail stone managed to get trapped on a single web strand.”

Sunday Morning

I never cared much for swans until the day a swan told me I was wrong. It was a cloudy winter morning and I was suffering from a recently broken heart. I sat myself down on a concrete step by Jesus Lock and was staring at the river, feeling the world was just as cold and grey, when a female mute swan hoist herself out from the water and stumped towards me on leathery, in-turned webbed feet and sturdy black legs. I assumed she wanted food. Swans can break an arm with one blow of their wing, I remembered, one of those warnings from childhood that get annealed into adult fight-or-flight responses. Part of me wanted to get up and move further away, but most of me was just too tired. I watched her, her snaky neck, black eye, her blank hauteur. I expected her to stop, but she did not. She walked right up to where I sat on the step, her head towering over mine. Then she turned around to face the river, shifted left, and plonked herself down, her body parallel with my own, so close her wing-feathers were pressed against my thighs. Let no one ever speak of swans as being airy, insubstantial things. I was sitting with something the size of a large dog. And now I was too astonished to be nervous. I didn’t know what to do: I grasped, bewildered, for the correct interspecies social etiquette. She looked at me incuriously, then tucked her head sideways and backwards into her raised coverts, neck curved, and fell fast asleep. We sat there together for ten minutes, until a family came past and a toddler made a beeline for her. She slipped back into the water and ploughed upstream. As I watched her leave something shifted inside me and I began to weep with an emotion I recognised as gratitude. That day was when swans turned into real creatures for me, and it has spurred me since to seek out others.

—  Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights (Grove Press, August 25, 2020)


Photo: DK’s Swan. Sept 11, 2020. 6:15 am. The Cove, Stamford, CT

Walking. With the World all right again…

It’s been a month.  I first wrote about them in a post here: Walking. One Short. From Wing to Wing.

Each morning I look for them, and I just see her.  And the heart sinks a wee bit… Was he hurt? Predators? I shudder to think…

See her above. That’s yesterday morning. Alone. Head down. (And her Head is blurry. That’s not her tears. That’s the idiot photographer who still can’t get it right, but it’s the best shot of her that he had.)

For most of the last 30 days, she’s off on her own on the edges of The Cove, mostly sleeping. Grieving, I’m sure.

So, this morning, I’m off on my walk, expecting a replay.

I’m halfway on my 5-mile loop, and my eyes scan the water for the snow white coat.  [Read more…]

none of us can bear too much reality

Thinking about swifts has made me think more carefully about the ways in which I’ve dealt with difficulty. When I was small I comforted myself with thoughts of layers of rising air; later I hid myself among the whispers of recorded works of fiction. We all have our defences. Some of them are self-defeating, but others are occasions for joy: the absorption of a hobby, the writing of a poem, speeding on a Harley, the slow assembly of a collection of records or seaside shells. ‘The best thing for being sad,’ said T. H. White’s Merlin, ‘is to learn something.’ All of us have to live our lives most of the time inside the protective structures that we have built; none of us can bear too much reality. We need our books, our craft projects, our dogs and knitting, our movies, gardens and gigs. It’s who we are. We’re held together by our lives, our interests, and all our chosen comforts. But we can’t have only those things, because then we can’t work out where we should be headed.

—  Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights (Grove Press, August 25, 2020)


Photo Salvi Danes, (Barcelona) (via Your Eyes Blaze Out)

Lightly Child, Lightly

I worked at a falcon-breeding center. In one room were banks of expensive incubators containing falcon eggs. Through the glass, their shells were the mottled browns of walnut, of tea-stains, of onion skins…These were forced-air incubators with eggs on wire racks. We weighed them each day, and as the embryo moved towards hatching, we’d candle them: place them on a light and scribe the outline of the shadow against the bright air-cell with a soft graphite pencil, so that as the days passed the eggshell was ringed with repeated lines that resembled tides or wide-grained wood. But I always left the incubation room feeling unaccountably upset, with a vague disquieting sense of vertigo. It was a familiar emotion I couldn’t quite name. I finally worked out what it was on rainy Sunday afternoon. Leafing through my parents’ albums I found a photograph of me a few days after my birth, a frail and skinny thing, one arm rings with a medical bracelet and bathed in stark electric light. I was in an incubator, for I was exceedingly premature. My twin brother did not survive his birth. And that early loss, followed by weeks of white light lying alone on a blanket in a Perspex box, had done something to me that echoed with a room full of eggs in forced-air boxes, held in moist air and moved by wire. Now I could put a name to the upset I felt. It was loneliness.

That was when I recognised the particular power of eggs to raise questions of human hurt and harm. That was why, I realised, the nests in my childhood collection made me uncomfortable; they reached back to a time in my life when the world was nothing but surviving isolation. And then. And then there was a day. One day when, quite by surprise, I discovered that if I held a falcon egg close to my mouth and made soft clucking noises, a chick that was ready to hatch would call back. And there I stood, in the temperature-controlled room. 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 cloud of a hillside in one easy glide at sixty miles an hour, and spire up on sharp wings to soar high enough to see the distant, glittering Atlantic. I spoke through an egg and wept.

— Helen Macdonald, Vesper Flights (Grove Press, August 25, 2020) 


Notes:

  • Photo: Incubator
  • Post Title & Inspiration: Aldous Huxley: “It’s dark because you are trying too hard. Lightly child, lightly. Learn to do everything lightly. Yes, feel lightly even though you’re feeling deeply. Just lightly let things happen and lightly cope with them.”

I imagine how the press of cooling air might feel against its wings

For some weeks, I’ve been worried about the health of family and friends. Today I’ve stared at a computer screen for hours. My eyes hurt. My heart does, too. Feeling the need for air, I sit on the step of my open back door and see a rook, a sociable species of European crow, flying low toward my house through gray evening air. Straightaway I use the trick I learned as a child, and all my difficult emotions lessen as I imagine how the press of cooling air might feel against its wings. But my deepest relief doesn’t come from imagining I can feel what the rook feels, know what the rook knows — instead, it’s slow delight in recognizing that I cannot. These days I take emotional solace from understanding that animals are not like me, that their lives are not about us at all. The house it’s flying over has meaning for both of us. To me, it is home. To a rook? A way point on a journey, a collection of tiles and slopes, useful as a perch or a thing to drop walnuts on in autumn to make them shatter and let it winkle out the flesh inside.

Then there is something else. As it passes overhead, the rook tilts its head to regard me briefly before flying on. And with that glance I feel a prickling in my skin that runs down my spine, and my sense of place shifts. The rook and I have shared no purpose. For one brief moment we noticed each other, is all. When I looked at the rook and the rook looked at me, I became a feature of its landscape as much as it became a feature of mine. Our separate lives, for that moment, coincided, and all my anxiety vanished in that one fugitive moment, when a bird in the sky on its way somewhere else pulled me back into the world by sending a glance across the divide.

~ Helen MacDonald, excerpt from “What Animals Taught Me About Being Human” (The New York Times, May 16, 2017)


Photo: Gregory Colbert (Thank you Sawsan via Last Tambourine)

H is for Helen

Helen-macdonald-hawk

Q: What moves you most in a work of literature?

A: Honesty, vulnerability, moments of forgiveness and redemption, and a recognition that we are all small and our lives so short.

~ Helen Macdonald: By the BookThe author of a 2015 Best Book of the Year“H Is for Hawk” 


Notes:

  • Inspired by: “Read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read, read.” — Werner Herzog
  • Photograph: thetimes.com

Sunday Morning: We have an imperative. A duty.

little-swift-bird

Helen Macdonald teaches at the University of Cambridge and her most recent bestselling book, ‘‘H Is for Hawk,’’ has won numerous awards. In this week’s NY Magazine, she writes about Judith Wakelam who rescues baby common swifts, “birds so exquisitely aerial that they eat, sleep and mate on the wing and spend the first two or three years of their lives migrating between Europe and Africa in continuous flight.”  Macdonald calls on wildlife rehab experts to explain why people rescue wildlife:  “…there’s something inside humans when they’re faced with a helpless creature. We have an imperative. A duty…I believe most people, especially children, simply cannot see an animal suffer…The Lindsay rehab center receives everything from bobcats to snakes, ducklings to songbirds, brought in by concerned members of the public who have driven many miles to deliver them…rescuing animals draws out ‘‘raw emotions that unleash our deepest insecurities about our humanity, mortality and place in the natural world.’’ Macdonald then closes with an evocative description of Wakelam releasing rehabbed baby common swifts back into the wild:

It stares into the wind. Then it starts shivering. Nothing has visibly changed, but something is happening. On Wakelam’s open palm a creature whose home has been paper towels and plastic boxes is turning into a different creature whose home is thousands of miles of air. It is as extraordinary a thing to witness as a dragonfly larva’s crawling out of the water and tearing itself out into a thing with wings. Then the swift decides. It hunches itself forward on its wings and drops from her flattened palm. ‘‘Up! Up! Up!’’ calls Wakelam. I’m terrified it will hit the ground. But it does not. For five or six seconds it flies with halting, unaccustomed wing beats a foot above the grass, then hitches and pulls into gear and starts to ascend, flickering upward until it becomes a remote pair of winnowing wings among all the other swifts up there. For weeks it has sat in a plastic box preening and snuggling with its foster siblings. Now it is gone, and Wakelam’s hand is its final memory of earth, the last thing it will touch for two years.

Don’t miss Helen Mcdonald’s full essay here: Rescuing Wildlife is Futile and Necessary


Image Source: Margaret Westrop – “Little Swift

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