A person, being of cosmic origin, can become one with a star.
— Mei-Mei Berssenbrugge, A Treatise on Stars

Every day I see a hawk. Except recently I learned that some of these birds aren’t hawks after all. I live, like all of us, in an ecotone. In mine, red-shouldered hawks perch on pine branches and lamp posts, vigilant as cats. Or, they wheel above palm trees, wings lit with crescents and half-moons. What I thought were tiny hawks on telephone wires are actually kestrels, keeping watch over a field and its shadows. From the ground looking up, they appear the size and shape of songbirds but sharper, the difference between a spoon and a knife. So, I should amend my beginning, because sometimes I see hawks; sometimes kestrels; sometimes black vultures, tattered as pirate sails; sometimes ospreys, pulling fish from ponds; and sometimes swallow-tailed kites, though only from afar, delicate as fabric scissors trimming blue cotton. Sometimes I don’t see but hear the barred owls’ ghostly chatter from the thick, tropical woods behind someone else’s home.

Every day I sense a bird of prey.

This summer I re-read H is for Hawk, the 2016 book by British naturalist and historian Helen Macdonald. It’s a resplendent, sad, and genre-bending book about training a goshawk, about another writer who wrote a doomed book about training a goshawk, about grief and love. But mostly, it’s about wonder. Macdonald’s prose is burnished, as though written in scrolls. I see colors in her words, hidden and layered; in gray there is slate, raincloud, smoke, pepper, flint, chalk, pewter, ash, colors within colors, refracting cathedrals of gray. She writes about light in a house, how it’s solid as glass. She writes about a goshawk’s startled eyes, “the colour of sun on white paper,” how they stare “because the whole world had fallen into them at once.” I needed this book again to help me write my own.

I am not writing about training goshawks, though I am writing about taking flight. I am writing a book about Star Wars, and it is taking me a very long time. It’s a book about Star Wars but not about Star Wars; it’s about storytelling, spirals, maps, hearts, islands, secrets, real and lyrical stars. The book is taking me a long time to write because it’s about ways of thinking, and my process of thinking through everything as a writer takes me a long time. That’s okay. I want to slow down. The job of the writer is to slow down time.

I needed the smolder and reverence of Macdonald’s words, their smell of iron and wood smoke. Yet, it wasn’t until I read her essay collection Vesper Flights, published last year — the book I actually want to talk about here, because it’s another kind of fire — that I figured out why.

In one essay in Vesper Flights, Macdonald speaks to her own craft challenges while writing H is for Hawk, especially in regards to moments that could only be evoked as transcendent or otherworldly. “I kept trying to find the right words to describe certain experiences and failing,” she explains. “My secular lexicon didn’t capture what they were like.” So she turned to religious literature: “I’m drawn to think about this stuff, to try to shape it, with all its burn and glow and texture.” Like Annie Dillard before her—another writer I’ve returned to for similar reasons—Macdonald had no choice but to employ the language of the divine. It’s evident in the way her mind works on the page: plumbing the depths, asking insoluble questions, seeking comfort in complexity, rejoicing in difference, nuance, and splendor. What I appreciate most about Macdonald’s writing is simply that—it insists on beauty, the evidence of care. “The whole forest looked as if it were made of torn paper,” she describes, and of the bird she seeks within the forest, its legendary song: “like the curl of the cut of a gilded banner furling over the page of an illuminated manuscript.” The world in a book, a book of the world—her language illuminates it all.

Macdonald envisions the architecture of Vesper Flights as a wunderkammer, which translates from German as “cabinet of wonders.” Originally depicting rooms rather than pieces of furniture, wunderkammers were most popular in Victorian times as enclosed spaces that held collections of rare or unexpected finds. Instead of functioning as museums, “It was expected that people should pick up and handle the objects in these cases; feel their textures, their weights, their particular strangenesses.” You could touch and hold mollusk shells and chinaware, pressed feathers and butterfly wings, beaded stones and the fragile candelabras of fish bones, things both natural and forged. “Nothing was kept behind glass,” Macdonald notes. “The wonder these collections kindled came in part from the ways in which their disparate contents spoke to one another.” The connection is clear: Vesper Flights and wunderkammers are both cabinets full of curiosities that bump up next to each other, texture flaking off into our outstretched palms. They are both “concerned with the quality of wonder.”

Wonder—it’s what first strikes us when we hear that opening brass note in Star Wars, then lurch with the Millennium Falcon as it outruns TIE-fighters and slices through an asteroid field, hold our breath as Luke and Darth Vader ignite their lightsabers, hooded faces alight in prophesied color. My mother, my touchstone for Star Wars, the one who first sat me down with excitement and veneration to watch it, still gushes about seeing A New Hope in theaters at age twenty-one. “We had never seen anything like it,” she remarks every time. “We could NOT believe it.”

It isn’t just the technology. Star Wars means the characters we intersect with and become—in this case, my sister, my cousin, and me, three young girls with wild imaginations, introduced to this world by our mothers. Leaping onto couch cushion X-wings, army crawling through a Death Star maze of interlocked chair legs, and brandishing lightsabers constructed from taped paper towel rolls, we transported ourselves from a suburban basement in mid-nineties Cincinnati to a galaxy far, far away where my cousin Sara was Princess Leia, my sister Kristy was Han Solo, and I was Luke Skywalker, always.

Decades have passed since we played as children, but these characters still populate my mind before sleep; their interior lives, I dream. I know a lot about Star Wars because I know how to love a world. And Star Wars is a world of many worlds. Each planet, a wunderkammer: the sun-blasted dunes and drowning sands of Jakku, its graveyard of old war machines; the craggy, emerald isle on Ahch-To, swirling with water and wind; the mineral planet Crait, riven like a geode, its lacerated earth bleeding red under a glittering layer of salt.

I spent my life waiting for Rey, a girl wielding a lightsaber of her own. Now all I want to do is think about the texture of her world, of her life and my own, the layers, the complexity, the burn and the glow—a girl running in the desert, a girl breathing on an island, a girl awash in wonder, surrounded by a blue map of the stars.

* * *

In Spring 2020, I teamed up with my friend Aly to co-teach a course on Star Wars at our university. Aly and I had initially bonded over our obsessions with the sequel trilogy, feminism, and ecological anxiety (and anxiety writ large). Over the past few years, our idea had transformed from pipe dream to course design to, at long last, reality. For our course concept, we decided to combine our fields of study—her, literary theory, specifically postcolonialism, feminist theory, and ecocriticism; me, creative writing—to consider Star Wars from more nuanced angles. Despite mythologist Joseph Campbell’s direct influence on the early Star Wars drafts, we had no plans to chart the Hero’s Journey in our class. So we diverted: rather than studying The Hero with a Thousand Faces, we’d watch a documentary series called Looking for Leia, which spotlights diverse female and nonbinary fans. No more monomyths. No more archetypal heroes and Atonement of the Father. We’d barely utter George Lucas’s name.

What we wanted, alternately, was to take flight by prioritizing and appreciating wonder: in world-building, in music and language, in curiosity and not always knowing the right answer. In questions over answers. Who owns and defines the answers, after all?

At the same time, Aly and I felt enormous pressure to know a lot about Star Wars before launching our course. We spent every single day over that winter break reading books and articles; listening to podcasts; watching movies, series, and documentaries; drafting pages of notes. We weren’t naïve. We’d seen the recent male blowback to The Last Jedi, the Star Wars film we’d felt like had been missing all our lives, like it’d been written precisely with us in mind. We knew what could happen to women and girls who dared to belong to this world. For as much as we longed to embrace a wonder- and curiosity-based pedagogy, Aly and I accepted that the only way we could hope to steel ourselves against derision was with a shield of definitive, fact-based knowledge.

And so, we were unsurprised but still distressed when our approach did not always go over well with some of our students. As we’d anticipated, a highly vocalized minority of male super-fans in our class did not like to think about Star Wars in any other way than what they were used to. For them, there were right and wrong answers. Light and dark. Beyond that, in their view, certain people were allowed to talk about Star Wars, and others were not. You can guess the distinction. They quizzed us, corrected us, grew angry at what we asked them to consider. This group was visibly testy on days we discussed queer theory and postcolonialsm. We tried our best to sympathize with them: They were excited and awkward; they must have suffered before and felt ostracized; they wanted a space to call their own; they didn’t mean any harm. But it became harder and harder to excuse their behavior.

For our scheduled debate, “Is Star Wars feminist?” they boycotted class en masse. As the semester continued, other students approached us, women and students of color, regarding their own trepidation to speak up in class: “If they ‘well-actually’ the professors,” they reasoned, referring to these male super-fans, “then what will they do to us?”

When we assigned a paper inviting students to narrate their personal relationship to Star Wars, a shy, intelligent young woman cracked open this very problem in her essay. As someone brand new to the fandom, she did not fear the people who would make fun of Star Wars fans, but rather the Star Wars fans themselves, the ones who hoard knowledge and serve as self-appointed gate-keepers, who bully those they deem unworthy and wouldn’t welcome a curious, excited fan like her—female, non-white, queer. This disembodied refrain became her introduction to the fandom: Star Wars is mine. Luke Skywalker is mine. The Force is mine alone. Not yours.

Who owns and defines a wunderkammer, its parts natural, breakable, synthetic, manmade? Who owns the boundaries of wind and water, the margins of salt and sand? Who defines the creation of any world, and who is allowed to reside there?

This sense of rightful ownership of Star Wars—and, hence, the ways to think about Star Wars—extended beyond our young male students. One day, before class began, Aly was passing back papers as students filtered into the room, and I was pulling up film clips on the computer.

“Is this the Star Wars class?”

A male faculty member from a different department, who taught in the same room right before us, often hung around as Aly and I set up our lessons. That day, he wanted to talk. When I answered distractedly that this was indeed the Star Wars class, he laughed.

“I didn’t believe my students when they said that was a real class.” Without missing a beat, he turned to Aly and me: “So, I have a question for you.” I groaned internally. “Do you know where the Force comes from?”

I did not want to get into it; the computer was giving me trouble, and class began in two minutes. I knew how this was going to go. “That’s something we’re going to talk about today, so we’ll see what the students think,” I said in that fake-chipper-trying-to-deflect-a-man tone.

“No, but do you know where the Force comes from?” he responded, this time more insistent. I answered again with something similar. He would not give up.

“Where do you think the Force comes from?” Aly asked him then. He launched into what would’ve been a long-winded monologue about Joseph Campbell—if Aly had not cut him off.

“That’s a common misperception,” she said, smiling. “I’ve been doing a lot of reading lately, and what I’ve discovered is that, even before Campbell’s influence, it seems like the origins of the Force come from a combination of Christian and mainly Buddhist teachings.”

He stood gaping. It was quite satisfying. Here was a man who, at once, degraded our course for not being serious enough for his standards and then, in the same breath, interrogated us about our fundamental knowledge in said course. It was the way he phrased the question, too, like lightning before thunder, that signified an impending lecture—not, “Isn’t it interesting where the Force comes from?” but “Do you know where the Force comes from?” with a heavy emphasis on you. Star Wars belonged to him, and it was up to him to decide what information to impart to us, the you, the ignorant and unaware. As he walked out of the room, a female student caught my eye. I think it was important that she saw.

Later, we asked students to come up with words and phrases to define the Force. In blue dry erase marker, we wrote them on the board: balance, universe, felt, God, faith, cosmic, living, connection, energy field, moves, belongs to everything, doesn’t belong to anyone. We covered the board with their words, drew arrows and stars. Some of the definitions contradicted each other. Some were fragments; others, questions. It didn’t provide a quick and easy answer. It didn’t rely on facts or knowledge. But it was layered, complex, and beautiful. Our students had taken the time to wonder together, to see what they didn’t know and possibly never would. What blue filled the once-empty board.

Star Wars belongs to me, too. It was passed on to me by my mother, who taught me how to build a world, word by word by word.

A world that belongs to everything.

Or, a world that doesn’t belong to anyone.

* * *

“I wonder,” Macdonald says over and over. “I wonder.” I love Helen Macdonald’s language in Vesper Flights precisely because it reflects, down to the word level, this slower, deeper way of thinking. She writes, “my mind turns to…” She writes, “I marvel at how…” She considers new ways of understanding. She delights and explores. She takes her time.

Vesper Flights may be a wunderkammer, but it is not a bestiary. Macdonald rejects the idea that animals and plants exist merely to teach humans lessons of morality. Nature endures in its own right, she insists, entirely separate from us. To this end, Macdonald muses in her essay about mushrooms, “Fungi forces us to consider the limits of our understanding: not everything fits easily into our systems of classification. The world might be, it turns out, too complicated for us to know.”

Indeed, wondering comes at a price. As Macdonald reminds us, “Increasingly, knowing your surroundings, recognising the species of animals and plants around you, means opening yourself to constant grief.” This is the sobering reversal of slowing down and rejoicing in complexity and nuance, beauty and depth. The more you slow down, the more you will find. The more you find, the more you will connect. The more you connect, the more you will love. The more you love, the more you will lose—maybe not today, but one day, one day soon.

In one sense, Macdonald is right; increasingly, caring for natural and human lives presents more of a risk than ever before, at least in our recent history, given the rising crises of pandemics, fascism, late-stage capitalism, and climate change. But, in another sense, this has always been the way. It’s the great trade-off of living: nurturing friendships, bonding with pets, falling in love, giving birth, caretaking for relatives, devoting yourself to a study, passion, or cause—all of these endeavors are risks. They all expose us to not just the potential but to the guarantee of challenge and heartbreak. So, we make a choice: we can wall ourselves off from the world, or we can break our own hearts by joining.

How can we reconcile it, think through it, even wonder at its paradox and spectacle—everywhere around us, concurrent and never-ending, all the world’s loss and love?

It’s why I want to write about Star Wars. It’s why I want to write about Rey. Here is a girl who’s lost everything, who’s been overlooked, orphaned, and abandoned, who begins her journey entirely alone, foraging for rusted parts in the desert, scratching daily marks on the walls of her scavenged AT-AT home. And still, she opens herself up to the possibility of friendship, belonging, and love. She wonders, and she wonders. I see myself in her: what I like about myself, what I don’t like, what I’m still trying to understand. I want to talk about how I’m learning to open up, too, how it scares me, but how I think it’s worth it. I hope that it is.

On hope and resilience, Macdonald says, “I wonder. I think of the meadow. Those clouds of butterflies have met with local extinction, but held in that soil is a bank of seeds that will hang on. They will hang on for a very long time.”

But they won’t hang on for me. That’s Macdonald’s definitive point in Vesper Flights: we are connected and not connected. There are questions we can never answer. There are worlds we can never know.

The vanished butterflies are not for me; nor are their disappearing meadows; nor the tropical woods where I live and the birds of prey that call from them; nor my cat curled in my lap; nor my mother, my father, my sister; nor her child, who is just beginning to taste new words on her tongue. Not even my partner, my great love, who sits beside me as I write this, who I can reach out to, touch, and hold but never fully know. Nor the seeds—they are not for me. And I am not for them. They cannot know me. I am as inscrutable as a hawk in flight, distant as a galaxy’s spiral.

That’s okay. At least, I want that to be okay. I want to find room for new meaning. I want to find a new way to talk about our world and the worlds beyond it, the burn and glow and texture of what remains. Not birds, but stars. Or both.

Anne Barngrover

Anne Barngrover is the author of Brazen Creature, Yell Hound Blues, and co-author, with poet Avni Vyas, of the chapbook Candy in Our Brains. Her poems have been featured in North American Review, Copper Nickel, The Los Angeles Review, Ecotone, Third Coast, Crazyhorse, Boulevard, Verse Daily, The Slowdown podcast, among other places, and her nonfiction has appeared or is forthcoming in River Teeth, Grimoire, and Bellingham Review. She is an assistant professor of English and creative writing at Saint Leo University, where she is on faculty in the low-residency MA program in creative writing. She lives in Tampa, Florida.

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