APRIL 13, 2019
AND the fire that breaks from thee then, a billion
Times told lovelier, more dangerous, O my chevalier!
— Gerard Manley Hopkins, “The Windhover”
WHEN FIRST I SAW the kestrel, I thought it a figment of drunkenness, of fever, of hunger and thirst — a figment threshing its wings, hanging against the lurid dusk over the sea. So long had it been since I’d last seen a bird, I was unsure the thing was real. I still am, for all that it’s followed me on my long slog inland from the coast and nests now in a crook of the dead tree that stands stark beside the ramshackle farm outpost I’ve made my home. It has fed a little while from my hand, and its shrill warbling cheers my daily trudge across sere fields to the spring in the woods from which I fetch water, which, though dun and brackish, is at least drinkable, unlike water from the old river, which is now a channel of sludge running through a lurid chemical slough. Before the kestrel, I’d not seen a bird for many years. The kestrel has been with me a while now. It came to me the day after I found the book.
I used to live with many others in the cliffs above a flooded seaside resort. I found the book by chance when exploring an attic above the waterline. I’ve been poring over it since: Lost Objects, a collection of stories by Marian Womack. The book has changed me. What intrigues me so much about it is the way that, though it was written very early in the drawn-out throes of the planet (I write now from the depredated future, unsure for whom I am writing or why), it seems uncannily prescient. Lost Objects differs from other fictions of ecological collapse from those early days in its subtlety. In these stories, climatic change is not figured as dramatic upheaval, but slow creep.
You see, the problem with climate change literature was that it was difficult to shape potent fiction from what was an incremental process, with none of the inherent drama of nuclear holocaust, virulent disease, plagues of sores, giant hailstones, or seas of blood. Things deteriorated so slowly. Of course, there were warnings, but too few heeded them. To overcome the flat narrative trajectory of climatological disaster, writers addressing it tended to give their ecological crises an unlikely urgency and violence, to conform to human expectations of plot, or to set their fictions in compelling and alien aftermaths. They were also generally tied to an anthropocentric perspective, more interested in the psychological metamorphoses of human beings under apocalyptic pressure — reducing the catastrophe to a catalyst for human change — rather than change on a universal scale.
The anthropocentrism inherent in these common ways of approaching environmental catastrophe in narrative was exacerbated by a key issue with speculative fiction more generally: worldbuilding. The act of constructing a coherent world in fiction, which most SF readers demanded of their texts, was founded on two spurious premises. The first was the belief, drawn from the old phenomenological arrogance, that humankind sits like a spider at the center of the web of things, spinning them out. The second was the faith in language to offer a clear, unmediated picture of things. As the writer M. John Harrison noted: “The whole idea of worldbuilding is a bad idea about the world as much as it is a bad idea about fiction […] it flatters everyone further into the illusions of anthropocentric demiurgy which have already brought the real world to the edge of ecological disaster.”
What this “anthropocentric demiurgy” obscures is the fact that the world exceeds our sensory experience of it. Weird fiction, rejecting worldbuilding and obsessed with pushing past the phenomenal realm of the senses, attempts to explore the obscured and unfathomable. And this is why Marian Womack used the strange, elusive genre of the weird for her fictions. This is why they cut so close to the truth.
The story that forms Lost Objects’s centrepiece is called “Kingfisher.” In it, ecological catastrophe is a powerful-but-oblique backdrop to a poignant tale of daily hardship, creative struggles, miscarriages, and the breakdown of a marriage. It’s a world in which much animal life — especially birdlife — has been wiped out, and the most precious thing owned by the married couple at the heart of the story are their bird guides. Fish have somehow thrived, but life by the sea doesn’t suit the unnamed narrator: “I could not write in the South, all those beaches and that white light everywhere. It was all too placid, too easy.” The narrator thinks she needs a bit of hardship as a spur to her creativity. And the fish are full of pesticides that provoke murderous rage. Desperate to see a kingfisher, the narrator scans the sky with binoculars looking for one. The world of the story is familiar to me; in many ways it shows the world as it has become in my time, with poignant, odd rituals carried out to keep people safe from disaster — cars and planes are things of the past, infertility and mass extinction things of a hideous present — yet, in many other important ways, much in the story reflects the way things were back before everything changed.
The narrator secures a job in a library. Her marriage sours, she gives up writing, and she begins to have strange dreams. Then it becomes clear that while she believes she lives on a dying Earth, her husband Jonas thinks he lives in the world from before things began to go wrong. She’s convinced he’s mad, but it’s unclear what’s actually happening. Finally, the narrator sees a kingfisher, her husband dissolves into downy feathers of many hues, and she becomes miraculously pregnant. None of the abstractions or enigmas of the story are resolved. Is the narrator’s perspective reliable, or is it Jonas who sees things as they are? Is the narrator’s obsession with avian life idiotic, as Jonas’s father, a well-known ornithologist, thinks? Or does it give her access to some more fundamental truth? It is as if the world of long ago, the world of my parents’ childhoods, the world before it all changed, when the sense that there was something wrong was only just starting to be felt, could still be found under this one, or, perhaps better, that that long-ago world was gravid with this, which of course it was.
Yesterday, I reread Lost Objects and sat reflecting about what it all could mean. Staring out through the grimy pane of the window by my desk, my gaze lit on the kestrel, perched on a limb of the dead tree, preening its flight feathers. Why birds? There are other stories in the collection in which birds play a crucial part. The plot of “Black Isle” revolves around genetically engineered ospreys, and “The Ravisher, The Thief” depicts a world of the future in which people are bonded with raptors who act as spirit animals. Pondering my own condition and the comfort the kestrel has brought me, I realized I had an answer: the slow dying of life on Earth has been a terrible thing, but it’s definitely the loss of the birds I’ve felt most keenly. From the dearth of song, raucous or honeyed, to tell of the march of the days or sweeten an idle moment, to the lack of pinions spread against the canopy overhead to soften its immensity.
Other stories in Lost Objects tell of mutants, both man-made and resulting from environmental changes, of lost love, witchcraft, and a predator of the worst kind, of doomed attempts to flee this place for the stars. The collection as a whole addresses humankind’s senseless despoliation of its home in subtle, profoundly affecting ways. If only there had been more fiction like this back then. But at least I have the kestrel and its broad-spread pinions to shield me from the searing heat of the sun. And at least I have the book as a kind of comfort, a connection to someone in the past who saw clearly how bad things would get.