For thirty years, I shared my home and life with a bird, a rook brought to me as a fledgling. She was called Chicken. During our years together, I had time and opportunity to think about the lives of humans and other species and to wonder what we are and how we should, as humans, act towards those of other species than our own.
It was living with and observing Chicken’s qualities and capabilities which inspired all my thoughts and work on the natural world. In my latest book, Between Light and Storm, I explore some of the questions I’ve been reflecting on for a long time, concerning human exceptionalism and a philosophy of rights, moral status and personhood. What is a person? Should the term be extended to other species? Might a concept by which we regard other species in a radically different way alter the historically damaging treatment which has led to our present crisis of species loss and environmental damage?
Everything is different. Lights which burned continuously for years so that she wouldn’t waken to darkness are extinguished. Doors always open can now be closed. Even when she was very old and no longer as quick to come to find me wherever I was, I left the doors between us open so that we could call out to one another, know exactly where the other was.
Now, she lies in a flowerbed under a granite wall topped by a handsome trellis painted pale green and laced with jasmine and clematis. Her grave is as perfect, neat and deep as I could dig it, lined with roots, teeming with the disparate creatures who will be her companions now. A grave suitable for an old rook. It’s just outside my study, her study, the room where her house, now dismantled, stood for all the years of her life. She lies next to Spike the magpie, a choice, given her suspicion of him, she might not have made herself. We’re still within distance of the other’s calling.
One morning, a raining morning in November not quite a year after she died, I came downstairs and saw my black boots standing at the foot of the stairs and for a moment, thought that they were her.
I’ve accustomed myself to silences where there were none, at times when there would have been her voice, in the early mornings, at that last moment of evening when ceremonially, we’d bid each other goodnight, the soft murmurings, whisperings, clicks and peremptory calls which were the sounds I heard most often for decades. Now, only the sparrows, jackdaws and magpies call to me from the garden as I work. In her later years, she had begun to intone the word, ‘he-llo’, gently in greeting, ‘he-llo!’
I was busy preparing a book for publication when she died. While I added notes, checked, corrected, I was already feeling distanced and distracted although I didn’t yet know by what. By the future perhaps, Chicken’s death only days before a sub-microscopic entity began to steal across the world like a miasma, a vapour of death.
I didn’t know anything about it that early winter, but when the nature of it became evident, it seemed more fulfilment of a threat than an unexpected event. Everything that had occupied my thoughts during the years of writing the book seemed forewarning, not from any percipience on my part but as a consequence of following trails from the topic of one academic paper to another, gathering words – ‘pathogens with zoonotic potential’, ‘land use change’, ‘natural resource over-exploitation’ – as a shadow over everything I was writing about industrial farming, fur farming, the illegal wildlife trade, the pet trade, hunting, a summation of the scale of human disregard for others’ lives.
She’d been with me all during that long and often difficult process and now, as the first spring without her progressed, completing it was my task alone. The lawyer in Madrid with whom I’d been negotiating the increasingly complicated matter of obtaining permission to quote from Federico Garcia Lorca disappeared into the bitter tragedy of Spain’s early pandemic. I’d been warned against dealing too lightly with the Lorca estate and so I paraphrased the quotations instead. I regretted that I couldn’t use the lines from the poem he wrote in 1929: ‘New York—Office and Denunciation’, an angry exposition of cruelty towards man and beast, a lament for the daily animal slaughter in that city; of ducks, pigs, lambs, the two million chickens ‘smashing the sky’, the sound of terrified cows which filled the Hudson valley.
The quotations from Lorca weren’t the only ones I altered. I couldn’t do anything else because the moment for haggling, even in the most discreet and literary way, had passed. Prolonged email conversations ended abruptly, dissolved into panic and flight, threads of delicate pecuniary settlement drifting airborne, discussions of rights holders, word counts and ISBNs scattering the floors of empty offices, blowing invisibly along miles of abandoned corridor.
As Chicken aged, she began to develop a few silvery grey feathers. I picked them up when she moulted or when she discarded them after preening. The most beautiful, I photographed and kept. I wrapped them carefully but when recently I took them out of the drawer where they were kept, they’d been eaten by moths. Only bare feather shafts remained, frail structures on which to build a universe of profound and eloquent metaphor.
I wouldn’t have wanted her to live any longer. For years, I hoped every day she’d live on but now, it was time. I had tried to prepare for her death, not anticipating her extraordinary longevity. For years, friends would ask with care, What will you do…?, as if I might never have thought about the prospect of her death.
In fact, I planned to travel which I hadn’t been able to do for a long time. As she grew older, I became reluctant to leave her, even with her birdsitter who she welcomed every time with apparent joy. Apart from necessary journeys for work, I travelled very little. I went on holiday twice in fifteen years and then only for three nights each time. And now, in a world closed down, I couldn’t travel and no longer wanted to.
In the book, I wrote about the relationship between the creatures we love and time, the rueful knowledge we carry of the asymmetrical lives of man and bird or beast and here it was, that yardstick, now my own. A question I’ve often asked myself is if there is a difference between the death of a human and that of a member of another species. I’ve never been able to answer it. I could as usefully ask, what is the size of grief?
I don’t know if she saw herself as different from me. In one way, our lives now seem an unequal sort of contract – I’m sure she didn’t learn anything from me while I learned everything from her. After a long time together, the boundaries between us, bird or human, seemed to dissolve into an abstraction, one from which she was free from the start. I learned that words of separation may lose their power to separate.
And now, as one does after a death, I evaluate, re-evaluate, question, but one thing only seems important and that is to know that as I am, she was – a person.
Aberdeen (May 2021)
Esther Woolfson is the author of Corvus – a memoir of her life with Chicken and other birds – and Between Light and Storm: How We Live With Other Species. Her acclaimed short stories have appeared in many anthologies and have been read on BBC Radio 4.
Birds of Firle is a single edition book by Tanya Shadrick being posted sequentially to 100 collaborators around the world, inviting responses to the idea of Grief and Hope as the things with feathers. Each recipient spends a few days with the book, before returning it with a hand-written letter and other small artefacts.