Dear World Outside the United States
Maybe everyone’s used to this but me: a hawk on your own front lawn, standing there where you weren’t expecting a hawk.
I don’t want to overstate things, though. It wasn’t that dramatic. The hawk just flapped a couple times and perched on a branch beside the sidewalk, facing away, like the street was less bothersome.
The only action was coming from a different bird. It kept repeating its two-note question: You there? You there? You there? – the same six notes. Finally a second one made a sound like Now, and they flew off fast, and the hawk didn’t move. It might have tipped its head, but I wasn’t sure. What I’m sure of is the squirrel’s gone missing.
It was a black squirrel. They’re rare, but they’re real –something to do with chromosomes, percentages, and brown and grey squirrels sometimes inter-breeding. I’d never seen one before, so I looked it up. What it said was they’re squirrels. They eat birdseed. They climb trees. They bark-yip, cartwheel, and tailspin like every other squirrel. Their fur – their pigment – changes nothing. It’s only some humans who don’t know that.
America is full of that kind.
The world is right to face away.
But the hawk: I figure it was there to eat the squirrel though I don’t have proof—no torn up parts left behind. Still, it seems like a pretty simple plot line. In Act 1: A rare black squirrel appears. Act 2: It’s back again the next day to eat more birdseed. Act 3: On the third day, I step out the door and see a hawk about 20 inches tall, about seven feet away, strong enough probably to haul away a dog, and I wish that it would right now because the two next door take turns at never shutting up.
At least they don’t lie, though. Lying is a human thing. So are slurs, and hate from the podium, and laws that pretend it’s just the way we’ve always done things because ‘uppity’, because ‘lazy’, because ‘those people don’t belong here’, because whatever nonsense-mantra fills in the blank.
No, dogs are honest. And they aren’t the only ones either. So are cows and crows and cuttlefish. Sure, cuttlefish use camouflage – they put on borealis light shows – but that’s not a lie like art’s not a lie. Matisse and Miró aren’t lying. ‘Better Git It In Your Soul’ by Charles Mingus isn’t lying. Federer’s kick-serve and drop shot are hard to believe, but they’re absolutely true.
And even our yard’s kind of true: more weedy grass than turf sod, browner from leaf miner larvae than perfectly green. Sometimes a hawk will land here, as if this isn’t really a city, as if buildings and plans are just stories that we like to tell ourselves, hoping that we’re permanent.
I’m writing to you from the United States to say it’s hard to think so anymore.
Watching the Water
In Orkney, my home is surrounded by water. To one side is a freshwater loch, to the other, a fast-flowing burn which gushes through a fish ladder and on to meet the North Atlantic, visible a mile or so to the west.
Not long before the lockdown I was in London, sitting at a table in a high-gloss, steel-and-glass restaurant beside the Thames, drinking coffee with two well-groomed and dynamic young women: my publisher and publicist. For the next two months my diary was full of readings, talks, radio interviews, launch events, book festival appearances, trips booked for me by others, flights and hotels paid for. It felt like something big was about to happen. My first book had just been published that morning.
But by the time I got home to Orkney a few days later, it was already starting to unravel. For the next week each morning I opened my emails and wrote CANCELLED across another page in my diary.
Until, one morning, it was empty.
After the bookshops all closed, and then the book distributors too, and my publicist was put on furlough, and my publisher said “I’m so sorry”, after my burst of self-pitying petulance was out of the way, I settled in for the long haul. From under the disappointment and the sheer, disorienting enormity of what was happening, there emerged a small but growing sense of relief.
Because I’m not so big on travelling these days anyway. I like it here. I like the small routines of everydayness. I like getting up and pulling wellies and waterproofs on over my pyjamas and going to let the hens out at first light, to hear their sleepy crooning when I peer into the coop and say good morning. I like picking a handful of salad leaves from the polytunnel and sitting with Andrew at the table while we eat lunch and chat about our day. I like setting the kitchen things in order before I go back to work for the afternoon, tending to my vegetables in the evenings, and waving to the neighbours as I pass on my regular walks. I like a small, quiet, orderly life. I can think about things. I can take my time. When I stay still, I can watch as everything else moves around me. I like this.
But the idea of writing another book, the one I had discussed excitedly with my agent in a buzzy Soho tapas bar on that same London trip, feels like something from a previous life. Unfeasable. Ridiculous. Irrelevant.
So I stay here. Ambition and hurry fall away. They are not needed now. I feed the hens. I water the polytunnel. I wash the dishes. I walk the daily round from loch to seashore and back, rain on my right cheek, then on my left.
The loch is the centre of my small world. Every day, I watch the water. I try to see it properly, to understand it. The strangeness of it. Its ancientness, each molecule cycling through billions of years. Its freshness every moment. Sameness and change. Its lightness. Mists, fogs and rain. Its massive weight, gathering everything down into itself. Its patience, dissolving mountains to dust, percolating bedrock. Its particularity. The Romans knew this. They kept different aqueducts for different water sources, each one distinct with its own properties and uses. Each one named.
All spring and on into summer, the numbers of the dead are announced daily. They are not named.
Every day, I watch the water. This water.
I’ll try to learn its many names. And then I’ll write them down.
– Samantha Clark