When I was young we had a ginger cat named Vincent to whom I was passionately attached. His mother had bred with one of the feral cats on the farm and he was a muscular and unlikeable creature. I spent hours trying to understand him and win him over. For the most part that was fruitless, but sometimes he’d deign to sleep in the curve of my back as I lay on my tummy on my bed.
I can’t remember if my interest in animals started with Vincent, or if it was because I grew up on a farm and, while my father and uncles worked, I watched the way sheep bustled in a herd; how hipbones jerked beneath the skin of our cows as, in the evening, they were jostled to the milking shed; or the large, liquid eyes of my aunts’ horses.
When I began researching the history of the deaf, I found, people with disabilities have long been regarded as closer to animals than humans. Deaf people, for example, were seen as subhuman because they could not hear the word of God and because they couldn’t speak clearly.
Which is why I loved reading Helen McDonald’s H is for Hawk, her memoir about training a goshawk in the wake of her father’s death. Aside from the originality of the subject matter and the poetry of her writing, it brought up many interesting questions about the relationship between animals and humans, between wildness and domestication, and where the line between the animal and human really lies.
Hunting with her hawk, McDonald writes, ‘took me to the edge of being human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all. The hawk in flight, me running after her, the land and air a pattern of deep and curving detail, sufficient to black out anything like the past or the future, so that the only things that mattered were the next thirty seconds … I crept and walked and ran. I crouched. I looked. I saw more than I’d ever seen. The world gathered around me. It made absolute sense. But the only things I knew were hawkish things, and the lines that drew me across the landscape were the lines that drew the hawk: hunger, desire, fascination, the need to find and fly and kill’ (195).
I paused after reading this passage, considering it with some suspicion, as humans are animals, and the division between us largely — I think — comes down to culture. In 1747, Carl Linneaus, who developed a system for classifying plants and animals (still in use today), defended his decision to separate apes from humans as thus: ‘if I had called man an ape, or vice versa, I would have fallen under the ban of all ecclesiastics. It may be that as naturalist I ought to have done so.’
Nor does heightened perception make one more animal that human. People with disabilities have extraordinarily developed senses – a person who is blind, for example, will be remarkably attuned to sound and touch. To see like a hawk does not necessarily mean that one is becoming like a hawk; it means that a human is developing their sense, rather like becoming better at the piano through practice. I think we need to widen our understanding of what it is to be human, to include those who have what seem to be extraordinary abilities. One might think that I’m writing of savants, but really, it’s anyone who operates in a way that’s different from the norm. If ‘human’ becomes more inclusive, then we can do away with the category of ‘disability’ and its concomitant inspiration porn, as Stella Young described it.
McDonald continues, ‘every time the hawk caught an animal, it pulled me back into being a human again … hunting makes you an animal, but the death of an animal makes you human’ (196), for she killed the animal to put it from its misery. This was interesting. Again, is it culture that makes McDonald act this way? Can it be said that it’s grace that makes us distinct from animals? Or do other animals behave this way as well?
While these passages made me question things, there were other parts of McDonald’s work that were gorgeous – her nature descriptions, her magical thinking, her tentative but developing relationship with Mabel, the hawk. And this passage:
‘I am beginning to see that for some people a hawk on the hand of stranger urges confession, urges confidence, lets you speak words about hope and home and heart. And I realise, too, that in all my days of walking with Mabel the only people who have come up and spoken with us have been outsiders: children, teenage goths, homeless people, overseas students, travellers, drunks, people on holidays … I feel ashamed of my nation’s reticence. It’s desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn’t entirely normal.’
McDonald and Mabel are a paean to difference, to flight, to the permeable boundaries between ourselves and other creatures.