This morning we’ve had the first snow of the year. Lovely blobs and lumps falling on to white trees, fields, and hills. I had to restrain the urge to go out and play though. I’ve strained some muscles in my back – ones that turn out to be needed when pulling socks on unassisted, or putting weight on my right foot – so I’ve been gritting my teeth and chewing over something that happened on a memorable walk back in late November.
On that day an old friend drove us out to a West Pennine reservoir. We followed a circular route, and met Nuthatches, Goldcrests, and a juvenile Grey Heron. By the time we got back to the car park it was mid-afternoon. The low winter sun was already setting. I was pleased to have spotted a flock of Fieldfares in the bare branches of some distant trees, when I suddenly noticed a dark ball of ‘energy’, hurtling towards my face. I ducked instinctively to my left, just in time for a Thrush in full flight, and pursuing Sparrowhawk, to whoosh past my head in a thunder of wing muscle. The whole thing happened too fast to register much visual detail, but as they vanished into the adjacent wood, I thought I heard a brief death yelp. Phew!
What to make of this? After the drama of the moment had subsided, my first thought was that the theme of power and violence had been ‘in the air’ that afternoon. My friend, for example, had been talking about his research into Conscientious Objectors during the First World War, many of whom were tortured. Putting my astrological hat on (bear with me), I found that the event had coincided quite closely with a Lunar Eclipse. My initial reading of this was that the ‘Full Moon’ had drawn the energy of nature to a tidal peak in that location, and that the chance to witness this drama at unusually close quarters was, for me, its particular gift (see footnote). I wasn’t sure why, but at the very least this felt like a vivid reminder that we humans and birds are part of a greater animate whole.
I then found myself wondering in what sense the birds engaged in that life or death struggle were other-than-human-people? Irving Hallowell’s term, expressing the Ojibwa notion that any communicative individual, regardless of species, indeed any conversant entity or phenomenon, is a person, has been quite widely adopted by contemporary animists. (see Graham Harvey, 2005 pp17-20). In the heat of the moment, however, for various reasons that I’m still trying to unpack, I found myself wanting to disqualify those two birds as people, the category that conventionally defines my kind, and think of them instead as other-than-human-beings. They seemed completely other. This moment of questioning was, I’m sure, partly due to the gravitational pull of linguistic habit, but the prospect of Westerners en-masse adopting a broader non species-specific understanding of people has never struck me as entirely unproblematic. (pauses to scratch head). The assumption that people are human is not easily unlearned, so Hallowell’s term tends to be heard as other-than-human-humans.
Graham Harvey points out that the animists he has had conversations with are pragmatic about the need for many other-than-human-people to eat other people in order to survive. I have some difficulty, however, with his concluding evocation of a ‘community of life’, in which, as I understand it, the rules of killing and eating are somehow reconciled with an all-encompassing ethic of inter-species dialogue and respectful relationship. Although many indigenous hunters undoubtedly have a respectful attitude towards their prey, I’m not sure how far the notion of respectful relationship can be extended into the realm of other-than-human predation, where the manner of death often appears cruel, and the predator radically dissociated from the personhood of their prey. Think, for instance of that Thrush being squeezed and torn to death by the hungry Sparrowhawk. Scenes like this, when enacted in the domesticated space of private gardens, inspire much vitriol against the species. Those who describe Sparrowhawks as ‘sneaky killing machines’ often seem unmoved by the abundant ecological evidence that raptors are not responsible for the steep decline in song bird populations.
To represent, let alone judge, the lives of ‘birds of prey’ solely in terms of these occasionally public and visible moments of killing, makes about as much sense as representing meat-eating humans solely as ‘apes of prey’. Sparrowhawks are people too, insofar as they are willful, communicative, sociable beings, whose lives include private and tender moments. Furthermore, given that humans have persecuted birds of prey and poisoned them on an industrial scale (due to the use of organochlorine pesticides between the mid-1950’s and mid-1970’s) causing countless equally horrible deaths, there would be considerable irony in excluding raptors from the category of persons on the basis of their capacity for ‘cruelty’, especially since, for these birds, inflicting mortal injury is an unavoidable by-product of their means of survival. A quick glance in the rear view mirror of history should suffice to remind us that humans are in no position to claim moral superiority, particularly when it comes to intra-species violence.
Mary Midgley and others have described an exaggerated and markedly gendered sense of difference between ourselves and other species that pervades the political ecology of Western culture. But there has also been a paradoxical tendency to naturalise patriarchal violence. ‘Man the hunter’ sets out to control wild nature, but is also said to be predisposed towards aggression, competitiveness, and territoriality. Bob Connell writes that despite a considerable body of research evidence refuting biological determinism, ‘the endocrine theory of masculinity, like brain-sex theory, has passed into journalistic common sense’. We don’t need to believe in a simple overarching schema of progress, surely, to acknowledge the importance of challenges to patriarchal culture, and the associated pandemic of violence, that in terms of scale, motivation, and function, differs markedly from predation in the natural world. One of my initial reservations about referring to members of other species as people was that this might encourage misplaced identification with predators, and thereby undermine attempts to foster a culture of non-violence amongst men.
The devotion of naturalists towards the objects of their affection can be something to behold. Sparrowhawk-phile Dave Culley has constructed a 50 metre tunnel and 38 foot tower in order to film a pair that share ‘Sparrowhawk Island’ with him, and feed images back to monitors in his house. This extraordinary exercise in high-tech surveillance has produced footage of hitherto unknown aspects of Sparrowhawk life, including a possible courtship dance performed by the male. I say possible, as various nay sayers have claimed that the clip only shows a wash and brush up routine. I hope they’re wrong, but either way the male Sparrowhawk undermines traditional associations between Hawks and military masculinity (the Hawk fighter jet; the Hawk of May, all-seeing bird of solar light, linked with the English patriotic warrior St. George, clearly a Falcon in modern ornithological terms, not one of the secretive Hawks). In all birds of prey the female is significantly larger than the male, but in the case of the Sparrowhawk the weight difference is greatest. So great that, according to Ian Newton, males are an ideal sized prey item for females, and quite often killed by them. We might expect him to be circumspect around her, then! In the ‘courtship display’ he bows, picks at his talons, fluffs himself up, and fans his undertail coverts, giving the impression of a miniature burlesque dancer. Or perhaps he’s just sprucing himself up for her benefit.
From a human perspective, another potential downside to importing a wider conception of personhood into contemporary Western discourse is that, rather than extending agency, subjectivity, and rights, to other species, it could open the floodgates to a sentimental anthropomorphism that denies the ‘engulfing difference of biodiversity’. Laurel Kearns and Catherine Keller write that ecological difference confronts us with the possibility of encounter with an infinity of non-human others. Quite apart from opening up a mind boggling array of ethical dilemmas, this teeming multiplicity and vertiginous intensity of difference is fundamental to the dynamism of living systems. Val Plumwood, in her critique of deep ecology, famously informed by the experience of becoming prey to a Saltwater Crocodile, makes a similar point. Those of us working against the grain of hyper-separation from nature should be careful not to overcompensate by exaggerating similarity and empathy. ‘We must attain solidarity with the other in their difference’. In the concluding chapter of his study of Yukaghir hunters in northeastern Siberia, entitled Taking Animism Seriously, Rane Willerslev also stresses the power to differentiate. ‘What defines power in the Yukaghir world, where all beings continually mirror and echo one another, and where the various boundaries between self and other are permeable and easily crossed, is the ability not to confuse analogy with identity.’
We humans are people in the sense that we have a pronounced capacity for reflexivity, and for engaging in purposive social and ecological change. As a collective we live far more differently from even our recent ancestors than do Sparrowhawks. There’s much to debate here, but we, surely, are people in some very particular ways.
Returning to my close encounter, the astrology of that Lunar eclipse may have held the key to avoiding the horrible sciatica I’ve been struggling with over recent weeks. To appreciate this you would need to step beyond the dualistic (subject/object splitting) epistemology of scientific rationality, and acknowledge a universe of meaningful contingency. Geoffrey Cornelius writes ‘where the omen comes unbidden, the gods speak in a space of their choosing, blessing or touching events … ‘. Such omens have participatory significance. The eclipse chart pointed unmistakeably towards my natal Mars (the eclipsed Moon falling only 19 minutes of arc from ‘square’ that point). Amongst other things, Mars signifies muscles and all the stuff we use them for. Yet I was resistant to reading the event as an omen. I’m not keen on the tendency to see an omen in every puff of wind, but there could hardly have been a more dramatic way of drawing my attention to the eclipse. I should also say, by the way, that I’m not suggesting that those birds were cognisant of the potential human meaning of the strange blessing they delivered.
It so happens that at the time of a Lunar eclipse, intuitive embodied knowledge tends to get overshadowed by rationality and purpose. Alas, I didn’t pick up the cue, let alone work effectively with it. But at least I’ve enjoyed thinking through some of the implications of that dramatic moment. Are Sparrowhawks people? I think I might reserve other-than-human-people for times when I want to emphasise their similarity to ourselves, and opt for other-than-human-beings (or non-human others) when focusing on our differences.
Rane Willerslev, Soul Hunters; Hunting, Animism, and Personhood among the Siberian Yukaghirs, University of California Press, 2007.
On Sparrowhawk ecology see the RSPB’s page ( June 2011):
Graham Harvey, Animism, Respecting the Living World, Hurst and Co, 2005.
Bob Connell, Masculinities (second edition), Cambridge University Press, 2005.
Ian Newton, The Sparrowhawk, T. and A. D. Poyser, 1986/2011 and The Sparrowhawk, Shire, 1987.
Kearns, L. and Keller, C. Ecospirit, Religions and Philosophies for the Earth, Fordham University Press, 2007.
Val Plumwood, Environmental Culture; The Ecological Crisis of Reason, Routledge, 2002. also, her essay: Being Prey ( available online as a PDF ).
ref the Lunar eclipse, see Geoffrey Cornelius, The Moment of Astrology, Wessex Astrologer, 2003 ( e.g. pp132-133 ) for an account of astrology as divination, including unbidden omens. The chart included a Mars-Pluto conjunction, these being the two most likely candidates in any astrological picture of predation, and highlighted Chiron, the ‘wounded healer’, opposing natal Mars. As Chiron closed to around one degree opposite natal Mars, around New Year, sciatica struck.
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“Just read your description of dramatic encounter. Astonishing. You must be a magnet!” Chris Drinkwater.