Monday, January 25, 2016

Maya L. Kapoor on Helen Macdonald: M is for Mosquito

M is for Mosquito

A small paperback, H is for Hawk fits in most bags. For a time it turned up in my purse, my plane carry-on, my backpack, after I packed for some task or trip and it occurred to a secret part of my brain that I might want to bring those strong, durable, well-wrought sentences along too. I steadily attempt to foist this book upon friends and acquaintances. It’s not just the sentence-level craft that explains why I’ve read it three times since its 2014 publication. In a Salon interview about H is for Hawk—a book reviewers and sellers have been hard pressed to categorize easily by genre—Helen Macdonald says, “I think grief shatters narratives, and that’s what I was trying to do.”

H is for Hawk
has been described in reviews as “genre-defying, “nearly feral,” a “misery memoir.” It also has been described as environmental writing. I dislike environmental writing. In short literary biographies I identify myself as an environmental writer. My genre confusion stems from my problems with writing that valorizes a particular relationship with place. For centuries writers have interpreted the wild in ways that reaffirm their beliefs about themselves and their worlds. These interpretations have brought wonder, adventure, solace to countless readers. They’ve also hurt people—women, communities of color, and other marginalized groups—by imagining them, their stories, right off of the land.

In Macdonald’s book, environmental writing means something different. Macdonald does not write nature as paradise lost, nature as spiritual journey, nature as adversary. She writes the city park. The stubbled farm field. The thorned brambles. The wild places she encounters while flying her goshawk, Mabel. One evening, as Macdonald walks home with Mabel, she encounters a retired couple she knows. They chat about the lovely landscape, the herd of fallow deer that have just fled across the chalk landscape below into the forest. The kindly-seeming older man asks her, “Isn’t it a relief that there’s still things like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in?” The deer were introduced by the Romans, but that’s not what disturbs her about the man’s comment.

Old England is an imaginary place
, she writes.


I read H is for Hawk for the first time at a biological field station in northern Arizona. Outside, hummingbirds zipped between pine trees growing above tawny grasses. At night I read by light of my headlamp in my sleeping bag on the bottom bunk of a knotted pine bed in the corner of the women’s quarters. At lunchtime, on warmer days, I scooted a plastic chair into the sun and read through my sunglasses. Shotgun-peppered road signs. Air-delivered nukes inside grassy tumuli. Wet fens and parched sands. Halfway through the first page, which is all one paragraph. Nothing much has happened. Macdonald’s describing a landscape she loves. I’m tangled in her grassy tumuli. I look up tumuli.

I’d traveled to the field station to write for a few weeks. I was writing about desert organisms, but the inferno where I lived—Tucson in the summertime—made it difficult for me to want to have anything to do with the desert. What’s more, the uninvited organisms inside my home—mosquitoes—were driving me crazy. Adding insult to injury, one of my essays in desperate need of revision was about mosquitoes. I was out of ideas. I’d done the right things: observations, interviews, historic and current research. The interviews included one with a renowned expert on climate change and mosquito-borne disease epidemiology. The observations were acute, personal, bloody. The research was thorough, including both moldering personal journals by famous explorers in mosquito-infested tropical jungles and academic papers on modern-day globalization and disease transmission. I studied The Encyclopedia of Plague and Pestilence. I wrote about the slave trade. I wrote about my apartment. The essay was a shambles. I’d run out of things to say, but all I’d really said was: Mosquitoes were driving me crazy, and they’d driven some other people crazy a while back, too. And, in case you were wondering, if you lived in Tucson you probably wouldn’t get dengue fever.

Tucson, in its own way, is an imaginary place. Tucson’s identity politics are complex. In writing about mosquitoes, and in other essays, I delved deep into local history. Who imagined the Tucson where I lived? Whose story did I tell when I wrote about Tucson in one way and not another? Whose stories were impossibly tangled with that of the mosquito?

Still, I could find no resonance from which to build an essay about mosquitoes—until I read Macdonald’s meditation on falconry. Questioning the meaning that rare animals can have for humans, when all they are associated with is rarity, Macdonald explains that interacting with Mabel makes the hawk real for her in a way that wild creatures are not. I did not experience a paradigmatic shift in my compassion levels for mosquitoes after reading this. But I did consider what mosquitoes could mean to me in the larger framework of my life. I thought about the past few years of my life, chronic illness, an inability to leave town, a garden overrun by mosquitoes, confusion about how to make contact with unpaved landscapes. I searched an invasive bloodsucking species in an urban desert environment as a clue into the most tender truths of my life. And then I revised again.


Maya L. Kapoor holds an MFA in creative writing from the University of Arizona and an MS in biology from Arizona State University. She is writing a collection of essays about nature in the urbanizing West.

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