The following beautifully written extract sprang to mind in the aftermath of the EU referendum. Whilst the Brexit slogans are mere ersatz echoes of Nazi propaganda, they do nevertheless signal a shift towards previously marginalised political leanings. The quotation follows a conversation Helen MacDonald has had with a couple she has met whilst walking with her goshawk, Mabel. Upon agreeing on the beautiful sight of the fallow deer, the husband comments:
‘Isn’t it a relief that there’re things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left despite all these immigrants coming in?’
Whilst Helen is too embarrassed to retort, or cannot summon the words to reply eloquently enough, as is so often the case when greeted with such ugliness of mind, her written rebuttal is sublime.
‘I think of the chalk-cult countryside and all its myths of blood-belonging, and that hateful bronze falcon, of Goring’s plans to exclude Jews from German forests. I think of the Finnish goshawks that made the Brecklands home, and of my grandfather, born on the Western Isles, who spoke nothing but Gaelic until he was ten. And the Lithuanian builder I’d met collecting mushrooms in a wood who asked me, bewildered, why no one he’d met in England knew which were edible, and which were not. I think of all the complicated histories that landscapes have, and how easy it is to wipe them away, put easier, safer histories in their place.
They are only safe for us. The fields where I fly Mabel back in Cambridge are farmed organically, and they are teeming with life. These are not. The big animals are here, it is true: the deer, the foxes, the rabbits; the fields look the same, and the trees, too, but look more carefully and this land is empty. There are few plants other than crops, and few bees, or butterflies, for the soil is dressed and sprayed with chemicals that kill. Ten years ago there were turtle doves on this land. Thirty years ago there were corn buntings and enormous flocks of lapwings. Seventy years ago there were red-backed shrikes, wrynecks and snipe. Two hundred years ago, ravens and black grouse. All of them are gone.
Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings. It is a place imagined by people, and people do not live very long or look very hard. We are bad at scale. The things that thrive in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.’
From ‘H is for Hawk’ by Helen MacDonald, pp. 264-265, Vintage, 2014