In late September this year, planning permission was granted in the village of Penkridge, South Staffordshire, in the UK, for a new £6m (US$7m) animal factory owned by Pillaton Foods to house 500,000 chickens in eight battery sheds. When built, there will be 60,250 birds “stored” in each shed, which will measure 125 metres by 25 metres, and will be 6 metres tall. The local decision-makers voted nearly unanimously (one dissent) in favour.
South Staffs’ planning department ignored an online petition of 70,000, a hand-delivered local petition of 4,000, and 31 detailed objections. Councilor Len Bates said resident’s concerns did not “accord” with his “personal view”: “I went along to the one at Gailey Lea Lane,” he told the local paper on visiting the company’s sister site, “and I have to say it was state-of-the-art and I was most impressed in the way the chickens were housed.”1
What art is there to battery the chickens in cages? When did storage become housing? How did it become normal, natural – impressive even – that our social relations to the chicken are shaped by such overwhelming dominance and abuse? And what role does art have to play in normalizing such relations? These are questions I have long grappled with, along with a concurrent guilt; why sit at a desk analyzing the texts of culture, when I could be at the gates of the battery farm bearing witness to the conditions in which the chickens’ are incarcerated? (I can, of course, do both.) As Erika Cudworth suggests, one answer to this set of questions is that “human relations with nonhuman animals need to be considered as a system of social institutions and practices that have their own conceptual repertoire. This involves different degrees of domination of other animals by humans.”2 Cudworth uses the concepts of oppression, exploitation, and marginalization in order to describe this domination. One social practice that wields such concepts in the repertoire of human domination is discourse: the texts of culture that shape how we see and think about the other, human and nonhuman. Our media, films and fictions must be critically assessed through an animal liberation lens and constantly challenged where they seem to reproduce the power relations that lead to the abuse of nonhuman animals.
Critical Animal Studies (CAS) is the relatively new field of scholarship most closely aligned with this goal, and is part of the process of animal liberation. CAS sets out, write Amy Fitzgerald and Nik Taylor, to “analyze normalization discourses surrounding the consumption of animal products” so that the ways in which “power plays out and manifests itself through discourse” is revealed.3
This article aims to do that, and latches onto the brief appearance of a day old chick in one of the most popular narratives of the past few years. In doing so, this article also becomes a contestation of the genre in which that narrative appears, known as the ‘new nature writing’; I ask of this genre: why are only the lives of some animals worth protecting, and not others? It places the fleeting appearance of a chick in a non-fiction narrative alongside the decision made by the South Staffs councilors; not as coincidental, but integrally related. The reason why the chickens of Penkridge are now joining over 50 billion of their brethren on the insane conveyor belt of state-of-the-art slaughter to provide meat for human consumption, is because we have come to an accord, through shared social narrative, with the relations that allow this to be so.
The ‘new nature writing’ is itself a contested term (as is ‘nature writing’) but can be pinned to the masthead of Issue 102 of Granta magazine in summer 2008 as the moment it became a genre. ‘New nature writing’ breaks with traditional writing about the environment and the human place within it by challenging previous practices: of decrying, as Becky Ayre writes, “earlier nature writing’s belief in nature as a wholly redemptive force.”5
Another familiar trope of the ‘new nature writing’ is the (often traumatic) emotional experiences of the author: here is Helen Macdonald’s grief at her father’s death in the award-winning H is for Hawk (“one cannot think of this new genre without recalling that book” writes Ayre); here, in Being a Beast, is Charles Foster’s not-quite-admitted-guilt at once being a prolific hunter; here, in Feral, is George Monbiot’s “ecological boredom” and the desire to live a rewilded life; here, in Great Tide Rising, is Kathleen Dean Moore’s anger at climate devastation, the loss of wildlife and habitat that her grandchildren may never have the pleasure to discover.
There is much to champion across the field of ‘new nature writing’ even if many authors refuse such a label. In the anthology Zoomorphic6, for example, issues faced by the nonhuman in a world of human rapaciousness are foregrounded tirelessly by editors Susan Richardson and James Roberts, with sensitive non-speciesist attention. “All of the many ways of approaching nature ought to be admissible,” writes author Tim Dee. “None will offer the last word.”7
Yet the contrast between these laudable aims and the failures of much ‘new nature writing’ to take all nonhuman life into account makes me question why these writers ignore deeper questions of animal otherness. This ‘new nature writing’ generally fails the abused, exploited, eaten and tested upon nonhuman at the expense of the exotic, and so falls short of its potential: to reveal the full range of entanglements we have with a nonhuman world. The environmentally-responsible actions these narratives urge us towards are weakened by this failure.
Feral: the opening page sees Monbiot pick up the larva of a cockchafer. “I watched it twitching for a moment, then I put it in my mouth.”
Great Tide Rising: Dean Moore laments the sickening of starfish, is shaken by the Stanford Scientists who call for all nations to take immediate action against fossil fuels, takes her family home for dinner, and, ignoring industrial agriculture’s carbon footprint, cooks them roast beef.
Being a Beast: Foster lives like five nonhumans: a badger, an otter, a fox, a swift, and a deer. “Red deer are victims,” he writes, erasing the other side of that asymmetric equation. “Their landscape is the landscape of victims, and invisible except through victims’ eyes.”
H is for Hawk: “Come on, Mabel!’ writes Macdonald. “I’m kneeling on the carpet and holding out a dead day-old cockerel chick. My freezer is packed with their sad, fluffy corpses, by-products of industrial egg production. Mabel loves them.”
Macdonald’s H is for Hawk has held readers in thrall since its publication in July 2014. The book won that year’s Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction and the Costa Book of the Year award. It has spent months on bestseller lists both sides of the Atlantic, and propelled Macdonald into the glare of global writerly popularity. Not bad for the diary of a blood sport.
Of course H is for Hawk is much more than that; but it is also that. My disheartened stance may seem in bad faith when held up against Macdonald’s processing of her father’s death; but Hawk is also the usual tale of human dominance, the privileging of some animals and the subordination of others. It is the breaking of a wild goshawk, Mabel, and their subsequent trips into the countryside to kill. Macdonald and Mabel hunt rabbits and pheasants. (“I was never bloodthirsty,” claims Macdonald.) I wonder if Macdonald would have been so rewarded if she’d mounted a horse to chase terrified foxes. Yet the stalking and beating of birds such as pheasant goes (largely) uncontested. As does the setting of Macdonald’s book in the crown of middle-class literary works of nature writing in the 21st century.
Macdonald’s narrative repeats and reasserts particular social relations to other species: here, either exotic addendum (the hawk), wild victim (pheasant, rabbit), or domestic product (dead day old chick). Such repetition is the basis of identity formation—our identities, and the identities of others—and how such identities relate. It’s not wholly Macdonald’s fault, of course, circumscribed as she is by a speciesist structure of perception. How Macdonald relates to others is (as for the rest of us), suggest sociologists Matthew Cole and Kate Stewart, strictly controlled by societal pressures and norms, especially in childhood, channelling our experiences of other animals into precise categories: vermin, wildlife, pets, companions, food.8
But it is not good enough to uncritically reinforce these categories through discourse; this is perhaps especially the case when an author uses their (in this case, highly successful and widely read) narrative to call for taking greater responsibility for ‘nature’. “One of the biggest themes of my book is the way we think about the natural world,” Macdonald told the Washington Post. “We use it as a mirror of ourselves. It’s important to consider how and why we do that. We must look past that and see the world itself.”9
But which world? Which nonhumans are allowed to appear in the mirror? The duplicity here is that H is for Hawk is the flag bearer for this ‘new nature writing’ while fetishizing some animals into categories worthy of our love and protection, and at the same time reinforcing and naturalizing the subordination of other beleaguered nonhumans. This matters, and not only when such absence of attention to these subjugated forms of nonhuman life undermines the explicit environmental message of the author and text.
But sometimes these other creatures won’t stay silent. A bird has already appeared in Hawk quite literally by a sleight of hand, as if the author doesn’t want us to see it, and certainly not take note of herself. But we do see it, and it betrays Macdonald’s failure of vulnerable nonhumanity. It is the abject object of human hubris and the hell of domestication par excellence: it is a dead day old chicken.
In numbers, the chicken is the most abused land animal in history. ‘Broiler’ chickens live to only 45 days old, their bodies pushed beyond limits to grow at a rate that maximizes bodily flesh at the cost of suffering from broken limbs and other ailments. Other chickens get to live less than one day. These are what Macdonald calls “by-products of industrial egg production”, the male chicks who are economically useless because they cannot lay eggs. Many are macerated for pet food or fishmeal. Others are gassed in plastic bags or left to die in bins. One outlet the industry has found for them is as food for exotic pets such as snakes, other reptiles, and birds of prey.
“When [Mabel’s] head is up swallowing a mouthful of chick,” writes Macdonald,
I tug its remains through my palm and spirit it away. She looks down, then behind her, then at the floor. Where did it go? I persuade her to step back onto her perch. Then I hold the chick out once more, and further away. Instantly I feel that terrible blow. It is a killing blow, but there is something about the force of it that reminds me that I am alive.10
Macdonald hides the chick behind her back to train Mabel to take food from her hand, as a way of controlling Mabel for hawking. This process is called manning a bird: “it reminds me that I am alive”. Later when Macdonald has manned Mabel and they go out to hunt, the act spurs Macdonald to reflect on the acts of killing. Hunting is “not a ‘high-intensity birdwatching’ […] What I had done was nothing like birdwatching. It was more like gambling, though the stakes were infinitely bloodier. At its heart was a willed loss of control” (177). But who loses in this gamble? They chase a rabbit that gets away. Macdonald is, “crestfallen too. It’s not that I’m baying for blood. But I don’t want Mabel to get discouraged”11
Mabel finally makes a kill:
I stare at the hawk as she grips the dead pheasant, and her mad eyes stare right back at me. I’m amazed. I don’t know what I expected to feel. Bloodlust? Brutality? No. Nothing like that. […] I look at the hawk, the pheasant, the hawk. And everything changes. The hawk stops being a thing of violent death. She becomes a child. It shakes me to the core. She is a child. A baby hawk that’s just worked out who she is. What she’s for. I reach and start, unconsciously as a mother helping a child with her dinner, plucking the pheasant with the hawk. For the hawk.12
A few pages later, Macdonald adds:
I hate killing things. I’m loath to tread on spiders and get laughed at for rescuing flies. But now I understood for the first time what bloodthirstiness was all about. […] Hunting took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn’t human at all.13
This is the heart of the book. But here also is the canker. In our speciesist social practices, Macdonald has found her avatar in the goshawk Mabel to do her killing for her. This is not only a metaphor for the way that humans live in the destructive Western world: we do have proxies do our killing for us, be they pigs, cows, ducks, pheasants, or chickens. Macdonald is smack in the middle of a ‘meat paradox’—how we often claim we “hate killing things” and yet outsource our killing in efforts to assuage our guilt over what we eat. We do not want to be seen as killing animals (in both senses).
The point is that Macdonald takes no responsibility for the killing of the chick. It’s a “by product,” as if her responsibility for this consumption—Macdonald is a meat-eater, the same as Mabel—stands outside of her considerations in how we can ‘protect nature’. In fact, her use of the term “by-product” suggests that no one needs take responsibility for the killing of the chick at all. Is the chick, then, not nature? How does this sit with Macdonald’s assertion that we (re)discover our connections with nature as a means of understanding our place in the world and therefore, she hopes, our willingness to protect it?
As she concludes:
Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there—rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly. They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world. In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.14
But the stretch of Macdonald’s imagination is limited by her speciesist practices. What is most problematic about Hawk, common across this ‘new nature writing’, are the tears which Macdonald sheds “for the pheasant, for the hawk, for Dad and for all his patience, for that little girl who stood by a fence and waited for the hawks to come home”15 while the dead day old chick arouses nothing about the value of ‘nature’ or ‘wildness’ or the ‘nonhuman’. No tears. No questioning of why the day old chicken is held behind our backs when we look in the mirror of nature. The dead chick is the absent voice in this story, hidden twice, first by Macdonald’s sleight of hand, and then by her sleight of words.
This matters beyond the chick’s own life. As the 2006 UN report Livestock’s Long Shadow clearly identified, animal agriculture is the leading contributor to dangerous climate change. For Hawk to bring the “by-product of industrial egg production” into the narrative, only to spirit it away again behind the back, lets neoliberal capitalism, and animal consumption, off the hook for its destruction of our ecological niche on this planet. That is, to bear no responsibility for the dead day old chick undermines H is for Hawk’s environmental call-to-arms. Despite her claims to look beyond the mirror, Macdonald glamorises two species—the hawk, and the human—while actively killing or ignoring others, seemingly blind to the threat that a continued abuse of nonhuman others poses to the animals themselves, and our planet.
Perhaps H is not for Hawk at all, but for Hypocrite.
It is more radical and ecologically sound for our common future to look at such imaginative limits through the concepts of the emerging field of animal liberation and Critical Animal Studies. Earlier, Macdonald writes that,
To train a hawk […] You are exercising what the poet Keats called your chameleon quality, the ability to “tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another character or another environment.” Such a feat of imaginative recreation has always come easily to me. Too easily. It’s part of being a watcher, forgetting who you are and putting yourself in the thing you are watching. That is why the girl who was me when I was small loved watching birds.16
Such a claim is hubristic when placed against the image of Macdonald blithely reaching into the fridge freezer to pull out the bag of frozen chicks. Instead, Macdonald turns herself into the victim; it is her vulnerability as a young girl that feeds her ability to watch, bond with, write about, and profit from, the birds. But which birds? Those she watches: wildlife, the hawk. But not the chicken. It is not the little girl who has disappeared, I argue, but the suffering of the chicken behind the adult’s back; whom she never looks at. Why is the chick worth so little of her imagination? Her empathy? If Macdonald is practicing empathy here, it is lacking of what philosopher Lori Gruen calls “entangled empathy”17, a kind of moral attention enthused with what long-time animal activist Kim Stallwood has called “The Magical Connection”— an altruistic love for nonhuman individuals, allowing us to recalibrate the categories into which we place other species18
On these grounds, I strongly refute Macdonald’s claim she finds the ability to “tolerate a loss of self and a loss of rationality by trusting in the capacity to recreate oneself in another” “too easy” at all. In fact, I’d argue, she finds it incredibly difficult to do this outside the safe and prescribed categories she has inherited, repeats, and reinforces.
In Macdonald’s discourse, Hawks are worth our imaginative work and protection. Chickens, it seems, are not. And this is a hypocrisy always worth questioning.
In an interview with Electric Literature, Macdonald responds to the question Is wildness what is not human? by suggesting, “Ultimately, yes, but in that sense, a chicken is wild. I think pretty much everything that isn’t human is a wild thing.”19 This abrogation of the chicken’s tendencies and desires for life in a derogatory comment that pits humanity against wildness is a complicated and yet depressing synecdoche of all that is wrong with the way we have normalized the un-wildness of the chicken and the un-wildness of the human. I want to take Macdonald to see the “wildness” of the chicken as she is caged with 500,000 of her sisters in the new Pillaton batteries; remind her that the objects she took from her freezer without much thought were those chickens’ younger brothers; that these day old chicks provide supplementary value for the capitalist who is, at the bottom of it, destroying Macdonald’s beloved nature; and ask if she’d like to take a chicken home with her. A living one. I will ask if she still finds the imaginative leap into the mind of other birds “too easy” or if the chicken is not exotic enough, in the end, as a metaphor for her grief.
“There is no lust for blood in my heart,” writes Macdonald. “I have no heart at all”20
Banner photo: Cover image of George Monbiot’s Feral: Searching for Enchantment on the Frontiers of Rewilding, Allen Lane, 2013
- Cudworth, Erika. 2014. “Beyond speciesism: Intersectionality, critical sociology and the human domination of other animals”, in The rise of critical animal studies: From the margins to the centre. Edited by Nik Taylor and Richard Twine. London: Routledge, pp. 19-35
- Fitzgerald, Amy, & Nik Taylor. 2014. “The cultural hegemony of meat and the animal industrial complex”, in The rise of critical animal studies: From the margins to the centre. Edited by Nik Taylor and Richard Twine. London: Routledge, pp. 165-182.
- For ‘new nature writers’ such as Alice Oswald, Kathleen Jamie and Robert MacFarlane, this thing called ‘nature’ and by extension the ‘nonhuman’ is often ambivalent, brutal, something that we cannot know even as we are charged with reconnection. In his forthcoming study The New Nature Writing: Rethinking Place in Contemporary Literature, Jos Smith argues that ‘new nature writers’ are rebelling against the homogeneity of modern urban life, engaging with what is outside the human to “recreate a resourceful and dynamic sense of localism in rebellion.”4Smith, Jos. 2017. The New Nature Writing: Rethinking Place in Contemporary Literature. London: Bloomsbury.
- Cole, Matthew, & Kate Stewart. 2014. Our Children and Other Animals. London: Routledge.
- Macdonald, Helen. 2014. H is for Hawk. London: Jonathan Cape, p 108
- Macdonald, Helen. 2014. H is for Hawk. London: Jonathan Cape, p 179.
- Macdonald, Helen. 2014. H is for Hawk. London: Jonathan Cape, p 184
- Macdonald, Helen. 2014. H is for Hawk. London: Jonathan Cape, p 195
- Macdonald, Helen. 2014. H is for Hawk. London: Jonathan Cape, p 275
- Macdonald, Helen. 2014. H is for Hawk. London: Jonathan Cape, p 184
- Macdonald, Helen. 2014. H is for Hawk. London: Jonathan Cape, p 86
- Gruen, Lori. 2015. Entangled Empathy. New York: Lantern Books.
- Stallwood, Kim. 2016. “Animal Lovers and Animal Rights,” in Animal Lovers: an Exhibition. Berlin: nGbK Gallery.
- Macdonald, Helen. 2014. H is for Hawk. London: Jonathan Cape, p 222.