To go from Ray Kurzweil’s The Age of Spiritual Machines to the Dark Mountain Manifesto is to take a 180° turn — a turn downward. If Kurzweil reached up towards the stars, the authors of the Manifesto tell us to walk down that dark mountain to re-enter the world of “nature” which we had thought to have conquered, to have risen above, to have mastered, to have become capable of disregarding. “We believe it is time to look down.” But what might it mean to “look down”?
In my class we try to get at that question by reading Helen McDonald’s magnificent book H Is For Hawk. Because, partly intentionally and partly unintentionally, this is the story of how a woman looked down into the world that we call “nature” — and became a hawk.
For years I’d scoffed at [T. H.] White’s notion of hawk-training as a rite of passage. Overblown, I’d thought. Loopy. Because it wasn’t like that. I knew it wasn’t. I’d flown scores of hawks, and every step of their training was familiar to me. But while the steps were familiar, the person taking them was not. I was in ruins. Some deep part of me was trying to rebuild itself, and its model was right there on my fist. The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life. I was turning into a hawk.
The really fascinating thing here is that the same thing prompts McDonald’s immersion in the training of her goshawk Mabel as prompts Ray Kurzweil’s frantic experiments with life extension and ultimately immortality: the loss of a father. It is the death of Ray Kurzweil’s father that he continually grieves, it is the hope of somehow being reunited with his father which drives much of his work. And so too, in a strange inverted sort of correspondence, Helen McDonald deals with the death of her beloved father by turning to the world of nature. To learn to think as a hawk thinks — or, rather, and more to the point, to not think as a hawk doesn’t think. (“Goshawks are nervous because they live life ten times faster than we do, and they react to stimuli literally without thinking.”)
Perhaps the ocsillations I have been describing between a quest for an enchanted world and the acceptance of a disenchanted one are motivated by the same fundamental experience: Death, and grief.