I write this in response to Helen McDonald’s ‘The Forbidden Wonder of Birds’ Nests and Eggs’ [https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/sep/09/helen-macdonald-birds-nests-eggs] piece on nests and birds’ eggs, which I found one of the most offensive and duplicitous articles about ‘nature’ I have ever encountered. It epitomised that Western-colonial genre, ‘nature writing’. The self-mythologising, self-centred, and anthropocentric cues of the piece aside, it is ultimately a piece of Thanatos-driven (her Eros?) colonialism that needs challenging and showing up for what it is. The internal colonisations of Britain are well attested as a driver for the colonial project of the English, and later the British in general, regarding the rest of the globe, but what is missed so often is the fact that the collector side of the naturalist is one of the key underpinnings of possession and consequent dispossession. The rewriting of the ‘observed’ and surveyed into a gridwork of imperial control is possibly an unconscious characteristic of the article, but it is demonstrably evident.
The young MacDonald, as described in the older MacDonald’s article, might have formed her collection of specimens from the natural world to enhance her own understanding and sense of connection with ‘nature’, but her present-day uncritical consideration of her drives and needs, and the vatic incorporation of this into her self-mythologising of connectivity with nature, shows an uncritical trajectory and a deep belief in her moral right. Any questionings we encounter are of manners and self, not of the broader impacts of what she is saying on the biosphere. The sense of the self as both part of nature and a controller of nature (for its benefit) is an extension of the romantic project of assimilation: what matters, in the end, is the self, not ‘nature’.
Written with that oozing, sickly fluidity of so much neo-colonial cross-referential ‘nature writing’, which seeks to historicise experience as knowledge from which definite conclusions about the right and wrong of human interaction with nature might be drawn, the article leaves us with the ‘experience’ of encountering the author’s encounters and epiphanies. Such encounters are sold as wisdom and science, and art. We are supposed to learn more about ourselves by learning about her self and its relationship to nature, specifically to birds, and their nesting/nests.
We are offered a personal rebelliousness that segues into a desire for class transgression which, rather than destabilising class, reinforces it. An us and them is created. Most telling in this is her glib usage of the ‘national’ in terms of the protection of birds, nests and eggs after the Second World War, and the displacement of soldiering, carnage and national identity onto the natural world in literature and film and civilian life in general. The contradiction begins with the ‘gloriously eccentric’ that is wholly British — as soon as you see the word ‘eccentric’ deployed you know you have cosy familiarity and contempt working hand in hand, but even more salient is the exclusivity of ‘we can laugh at ourselves because we are omnipotent in our knowledge’. The glory of the empire. Excelsior. Breaking the taboo, reaching into the forbidden, is violation imagery as rebellion, when in fact it is compliance with colonial brutality.
There’s something more than subtextually ‘Brexit’ about sourcing an argument of national character to refute a controlling nationalism, defining attributes of Britishness per nature as opposed to any other take on nature. The issue is further entrenched through the use of the term ‘elites’, a particular clarion call of the right with regard to a belief in bigoted populism, which is as much a propaganda construct as any reality. MacDonald’s nervous anxiety about her ‘failure’ to intrude in the way she now sees as regrettable is like the dissembling surrounding the bigotry that is actually core to Brexit discussions. It goes against the grain to relinquish moral control, to leave the birds’ nests to their own devices. To gain control over the right of intrusion, of judgement, to guide and shape nature, to understand through invasive ‘science’, are essentially being sold as a natural right, a natural justice.
The only unselfconscious part of this mellifluous piece of control writing is the somewhat vicarious connection MacDonald makes between herself and those ‘factory workers’ and ‘poachers’ and nest-robbers who wander the outskirts on land they don’t own, and their points of contact with nature. They probably won’t tell her what they’re doing now because she represents ‘authority’/control? She looks at their less privileged positions wistfully? Desiring what she doesn’t have? This is class elitism of the most repugnant kind. Their (now they are the ‘other’ for MacDonald?) interaction with nature is legitimised (as, essentially, natural), though for one who doesn’t recognise the ownership of property (as I don’t), the deployment of the idea that a more equitable relationship to nature is formed by those who pillage and kill and don’t have property, as opposed to those who do, seems a form of class system protectionism.
In fact, classification is at the root of MacDonald’s argument — the identification of individual birds and families of birds, to file within a system of shared understanding. That shared understanding is a colonial one, and in the same way that she can now see her home as being within her — as mobile as Western privilege allows, a privilege built out of dispossessing entire peoples and plundering habitats to build the picture of interconnection and belonging, where every difference finds its way into the imperialising nomenclature — she can see ‘nature’ as being available. So, one is more connected by stealing birds’ eggs, raiding their nests? And it’s worse than this; the vicarious desire to have been informed by direct pillage wafts around her self-ideation: the regret that she wasn’t born of a different generation when she could have got away with such invasiveness, could have been one of the proto-colonialists rather than one who lives in the aura of its rewards.
MacDonald’s article invites people to respect those who are not in, say, a Cambridge elite, to go out and take a bird’s egg. Maybe a single egg from a nest? Really, what’s the damage. I mean, if you have triplets in hospital and someone takes one and places it in a collection, embalmed, what does it really do to the order of humanity? Who will miss it, really? She has written ‘A Modest Proposal’ without the satire. So, the unhatched bird speaks through its shell out of the incubator to the human child of the incubator? The symmetry of it all — the natural way of it all?
My anger isn’t just the outrage of a vegan anarchist pacifist animal rights and environmental activist, or any other descriptors we might want to throw in that will tilt objections towards bathos — O the power of language, eh. Rather, it comes through being one who lives in a land colonised by the British (and the Irish, and in my case, Irish driven out of Ireland by the British!), a land still in an ongoing colonial state-of-being, where Aboriginal people are still struggling for their rights and their land. It is an anger come of being subjected to a nation that holds allegiance to the Crown of England, where the collecting of specimens by European, especially British, naturalists in the eighteen and nineteenth centuries set a pattern in place that included people, and was as violent as any act of war.
What MacDonald is talking about is warfare against nature — a just war, a war we have to have to secure our place in nature, rendering the nest a repository of human feelings, of extending the human into the most private of realms. The nest is not hers. We too, living at Jam Tree Gully in the Western Australian wheatbelt, watch birds and record their activities every day we are here. But we do not mess with nests, nor see it as our right to. Nor do we seek to control the birds, outside restoring habitat. We try to interfere as little as possible with their lives, and we still learn about them and ourselves in approaching it like this. We are no less ‘connected’ for such an approach, and, in fact, given our invasive presence as living on Noongar land without proper means of restitution in place, we might consider ourselves especially lucky. The control of birds, and all animals, for imperial-colonising personal and collective subjectivity, to perpetuate an ongoing mysticism of Enlightenment, is simply a case of possessing and dispossessing, of control. It is not admirable that birds have to make do with cigarette butts to make nests, but a statement about capital and intrusion by human profit-drives.
The condescension behind those on the ‘edges’ of the naturalists’ control-desires, the ‘real’ people of the land (‘tooth and claw’?), and those factory workers who surely need the tactile engagement of raiding birds’ nests, is the utterance of privilege, which MacDonald’s deployment of ‘beautiful’ (to quote many a response) language shows with every paragraph.
Sorry, mate, but even out here, you know, where the absentee landlords of Britain profited from the abuse of country, a few ‘eccentrics’ (how marvellous) among them, even those who go around blasting everything to shit with their high-powered rifles, know the wrong they are doing, and do it because it’s wrong. Death is control, and they want control over death. Often they can tell you what they’re shooting, and give a defence for it, but the blood-rites celebrations are those. Do they collect? I don’t know, maybe, maybe not. But death is death, and we all know what that is in this space where efforts to ‘decolonise’ are met with a cascading colonialism of British literature sold as ‘authentic’ and at the core of the language itself.
We weep too. We weep for the capturing, the training, the collecting, the building of your knowledge bases upon which you can find who you are, your identity. MacDonald is wistful for a form of abuse, for a molesting of the natural world. How insulting is it to imply that the less well-off (than her? her readers?) gain by interfering with nature, with abusing it. That they are part of nature and understand it all the more for the interference in it? The appropriation of a synecdoche with country is characteristic of so much imperial borrowing, syncretism of indigenous spirituality and law stolen in collective efforts. And this from peoples who now refuse refugees and migrants when they are a nation built on the exploitation of the world for their own leisured or profitable movement/traversal — as is modern Australia — is repulsive.
For in opposing control over people’s interface with the natural world, MacDonald is either overtly or inadvertently suggesting a naturalism of rapacity; that a balance will be made if it is left to those who are ‘out there’. Well, your Australian experiment shows otherwise. And the liberty is actually a form of deep nationalism, a nationalism of creature and person, of land and rights, of the Western self. How we ‘belong’ to a place is connected to the respect we show place, and place includes all who inhabit it. The temporary visitor, the newly arrived migrant, the person whose family have been there for generations, all have the ability to respect place, to treat it fairly and justly.
Abusing the nests of birds to satisfy the collector’s need or curiosity, to display the pickings and to make of it some kind of pantheism or scientific wish-fulfilment, is obscene. As we read translated from another colonial language (or other colonial languages) with its fair share of literary-science dissemblers (as cited by Stendhal): ‘Language was given to people to hide their thoughts’, and this abuse of language is a propaganda designed to whitewash the abuse of nature, including humanity itself.
John Kinsella, poet
Professor of Literature and Environment, Curtin University
Fellow, Churchill College, Cambridge