Pushkin Press, London, UK, 2021
256 pp. Paper, $8.99
The American novelist William Maxwell was fond of saying that he could never get enough of other people’s lives. There is a strong sense of that healthy curiosity in Eva Meijer’s brilliant novelization of Gwendolen (Len) Howard’s life story. Howard was the Jane Goodall of birds before Jane. In 1938 Howard opened her cottage in Ditchling, England to study the local birds. She has been forgotten except for esoteric circles, so Meijer is right to breathe life into her biography after so many years. An implied question in Meijer’s book seems to be about what makes a person. What elements from Howard’s early life contributed to her separation from the human world and immersion in a natural aviary? In line with philosopher José Ortega y Gasset, how does one arise from the circumstances of life to create her true character? The book juxtaposes and combines differing realms: inside/outside; human/animal; music/silence. In graceful writing the novel advocates for the acknowledgment of other species. Humans have overtaken through development the habitats of many “animals” and yet are obligated to recognize the sovereignty of evolutionary kin. How? Simply, spaces by humans and other beings can be shared, as Howard’s life of cohabitation and Meijer’s thoughtful novel demonstrate.
The book chronicles Howard’s life, reconstructing in meditative prose and striking imagery an extraordinary person. The book is hybrid, consisting of small chapters imagining Howard’s relationship with her favorite Great Tit, Star, and longer chapters detailing her own development. Bits of time, memories, and learning experiences are woven together from filaments that make a textured tapestry. Howard’s father, a retired accountant, was also an accomplished poet. He loved birds and would rescue wounded fledglings. Howard was part of this caring routine and had a crow, Charles, who would come into her room and exchange musings or play. In her small house years later, her favorite birds were the Great Tits, curious and clever, who roosted in various nooks, crannies, and boxes she set up in the cottage. This intimacy with the birds, each one with individual needs and desires, afforded her the ideal situation for examination of their behaviors in a natural setting.
This is a novel about ethical character and environmental consciousness. Similar to Charles Darwin, Howard did not spring up at birth as a naturalist but grew into that role over decades. By 1937 Howard read about behavioral training on birds, turning them into machines via electric shocks. She called that experimentation bad science and immoral. Howard learned, going against established science, that individual intelligence of birds determined action more than instinct. She was opposed to behaviorist trialing that locked birds into research biased by human assumptions. She accepted that “friendship” is more important than “experiment” with the birds. Like many other species, Great Tits are sensitive to their environment, observant, and very communicative with chirps, dances, eye movements, and body postures. Likewise, the birds intuited Howard’s intentions by her tone or gestures. Some of the Tits were very tame and would perch or rest on Howard. Outside, they’d follow her, and if she outstretched her arms like a cross, people would see birds resting on or fluttering about her arms or head. There was real understanding between this trailblazing woman and the birds. Howard says she was privileged to know them, especially Star who was mathematically inclined and learned how to tap out numbers based on vocal commands.
Seeming fragments of the book fit like a giant puzzle. No life comes out as a finished whole but is assembled from pieces over time, and then changes again. Birds are everywhere in the story, and music, too. Howard was musically inclined and played violin for years in a London orchestra. Reflecting this melodious development, in the early years we have Mozart and Haydn, moving to colorful and ardent music of Tchaikovsky, Elgar, Rachmaninoff, and then Bartok. Nearly half of the first part of the book narrates this moody segment of her life. Mostly, Howard was in tune with birds, making an ongoing study of avian voices. Her severance from family and her eventual isolation is sad, but not Kafkaesque. She is in control and has friends, lovers, and love interests; her character is essentially self-sufficient, with strained relationships. Nonetheless, Meijer has created a sympathetic character who is keenly in touch with her surroundings, whether other people’s emotions, voices, or the outside world. It’s hard not to like this character who has made sacrifices for her passions and beliefs. She’s willful and spunky, creative, and determined. At one point in the narrative, Howard works earnestly to fight a construction company that wants to build a trailer park on land that abuts hers, and she wins.
The novel comes from Howard’s point of view. The prose is simple and direct, lyrical in a restrained manner. The prose mimics what Howard says about birds: “Air and light and swiftness.” The interior consciousness of Howard is effectively staccato, punctuated like pecks of thought or short images. The inner life is not one of fluid struggling, as in Virginia Woolf or James Joyce, but closer to the emotionally-charged rational conflicts of later Henry James. As the eighteenth-century English poet Alexander Pope said, the sound must seem an echo of the sense. That’s true in Meijer’s book, where the seemingly loose filaments of Howard’s life begin to coalesce at the midpoint and thereafter cohere around the real theme of the novel, the bird cottage, which she purchased through an inheritance left by her father. It’s difficult to conjure the heroine of this story: is it Howard or the birds? It’s not the men, some of whom are famous, like the visit by Julian Huxley.
Is it really so odd to open one’s home to the creatures of nature’s world? We already have among us indoors mice, sometimes rats or squirrels, bats, bees and flies, spiders, ants, creepy-crawlers, etc. The problem is that we’ve sealed off, or have tried to, our houses, streets, towns, and cities from the larger ecosphere. That’s the point of the book: the bird cottage is not a human home only; rather, it’s a democratic meeting place, common ground, for interaction with the natural environment as one organism. This philosophical outlook is reminiscent of Thoreau or Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. In her words, Howard wants to “do justice to their lives and their world.” This type of reflection is implied often in the book, for the human as well as bird characters. Indeed, Meijer is an accomplished philosopher who has written about interspecies communication in works such as When Animals Speak (NYU Press, 2019). Animals make choices, like humans, or should be permitted to do so. We manufacture airports and office complexes without any consideration of their lives, pushing them aside. Instead, human constructions could surely be made to accommodate their needs.
In spite of her lack of “scientific” training, Howard was an accomplished naturalist who went on to write about birds for journals, culminating in two popular books translated into many languages: Birds as Individuals and Living with Birds. The feminist components of the narrative are strong, and Meijer is aware of the prejudices Howard encountered because of her gender. The novel is a testament to the willpower of a woman who wanted to teach the world about the dangers of ignoring nature, much like Rachel Carson. Howard was born in 1894, the late Victorian age with its clinging social and moral strictures. The characters move from thriving in peaceful Edwardian England to the privations of two world wars, continuities and discontinuities elegantly limned by Meijer. Howard wanted to make her own decisions about the direction of her life, just as she recognized that “animals” from insects and mammals to birds are agents of their own lives. By the time she died in 1973, the world was literally a different place. While the bird cottage was left to a trust, with Howard buried on the property, they eventually sold off the property and trees were cut down.