NOT FAR FROM THE END of Helen MacDonald’s H Is for Hawk comes a chapter titled “The new world.”
“Mum and I are spending Christmas in America,” writes the author. It’s there, in December in Maine, hawking with her friend Scott, that she’s confronted — as she has been again and again — with the mysteries of the wild: What is it? Where is it? When is it with us or not?
What happens is that Scott’s bird kills a squirrel.
“Blood has already melted a thin line through the snow and the hawk’s feet and feathers are powdered with a crumbly paste of snow and blood that resembles decorative sugar,” observes MacDonald. And then:
The hawk looks up and about at his surroundings. A back yard, garages, a low fence. A barbecue heaped deep with snow. An inflatable Santa riding an inflatable Harley Davidson. Icicles hang from the Christmas eaves. Somewhere I can hear a television, and beyond that someone is singing ‘Happy Birthday.’ I have never seen anything so fiercely wild and familiar. How can it be here? How can the wild be here in this back-lot in the middle of a town, in the midst of home and community?
Much earlier in the book she’d asked: “Have you ever seen a hawk catch a bird in your back garden?” She hadn’t, she says, but
I know it’s happened. I’ve found evidence. Out on the patio flagstones, sometimes, tiny fragments: a little insect-like songbird leg, with a foot clenched tight where the sinews have pulled it; or — even more gruesomely — a disarticulated beak, a house-sparrow beak top, or bottom, a little conical bead of a blushed gunmetal, slightly translucent, with a few faint maxillary feathers adhering to it. But maybe you have: maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, or a blackbird, or a magpie, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you’ve ever seen, like someone’s tipped a snow leopard into your kitchen and you find it eating the cat.
MacDonald is a scholar and naturalist, an experienced falconer, and the author of two previous books (Falcon, 2006, and, in 2001, a volume of poems, Shaler’s Fish). She goes on to describe the difference between a sparrowhawk and a goshawk, and later she’ll explain the history of her fascination with falconry, with the English countryside, and with literature and language: not only the vocabulary of the sport (tiercels, eyasses, passagers, feaking, muting, bating), but with other words, too — for example, bereavement.
Since last winter — since opening MacDonald’s book for the first time — I cannot stop seeing just the sort of thing she’s described. Such as: I’m hiking with a friend not far from Dodger Stadium, when a hawk — an enormous hawk — just happens to swoop down at an impossible angle (I thought it would crash) then back up without pause, slicing the air with those great speckled wings, and on the ascent something dangles from her beak: a mole, we decide, having sprinted to the spot only yards away to find a hole in the ground where the bird never even touched down.
And, another time, just before dinner, as I’m tearing romaine for the salad, my husband calls to me from the deck. Look at this hawk, it’s huge, come see. And I do: I race to the deck (I know about hawks! I’m reading H Is for Hawk! Again! For the second time!). Sure enough, there it is: a great hawk, wings and tail spread wide, slowly circling and circling. It lands in a palm in the neighbor’s yard to great drama and commotion; little birds rising out of the fronds, madly chirping and bouncing on the air as little birds do — until finally, the hawk, invisible for long minutes, rises and glides across the valley to rob another cradle, no doubt.
Afterward, it’s up to me to return to personhood, as if being a person — in socks and a cardigan, earthbound and setting the table with forks and knives (eating with forks and knives, who thought this stuff up?) — makes any kind of sense.
The poet Fleda Brown and I are team-teaching a workshop together this summer. We’ve assigned H Is for Hawk.
We chose the book (as noted in our workshop description) for its balance of narration and reflection; also for its structure; also for the prose itself. It’s the confluence of these qualities (so we wrote), as is true of the work of those it brings to mind (E.B. White, Wendell Berry, Mary Oliver, Edward Hoagland, as well as the author’s compatriots: Ali Smith, Geoff Dyer, Rachel Cusk, Jenny Diski, Zadie Smith), that promises to reward the reader on multiple levels.
MacDonald’s memoir — an account of reckoning with grief in the wake her father’s death; also a close reading of T.H. White’s The Goshawk — is unusually layered and rich. A couple of hours (the length of a workshop), we’ve warned our students, won’t do this book justice; however, we’ve told them, we aim to try.
And so we drafted a study guide. That is, Fleda drafted the guide, and sent it to me. “Tweak as you like,” she wrote (or something like that) and number 11 caught my eye:
11. Defend the following statement: This book is about attention.
I tweaked —
11. Defend any one (or several) of the following statements:
This book is about attention.
This book is about humanity.
This book is about control.
This book is about class.
This book is about place.
This book is about death.
This book is about grief.
This book is about history, family, legacy, reading, writing —
(I’m wanting to add still more: Gender, solitude, friendship. And love. And loneliness. And the loss of a father.)
Last night, at a party in Paris (Paris, France) I met a Brit who had recently built a house in Africa. “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” she burbled, in a delicious accent (no, really, I’d chew on her words if I could): “You come out at night,” (that round “ah” for “i”) “and you might see a leopard.” I gasped. “A leopard!” I said. “Do you have to be careful?” I asked, sounding simple-minded, I suppose (that hard “r” times two) — sounding, anyway, like the suburban American I am, cover blown, so much for having been invited to a party in Paris. She started to shake her head “no,” then, in an instant, changed tack. “Well, you have to know what you’re doing,” she said. And then more to herself than to me: “Do you have to be careful … Well, yes, I guess you do.” She excused herself then, to fill her glass — to find a less enthusiastically ingenuous audience, I suspect. I never did find out what she meant, what it means to be careful in the wilds of Africa — what it means to be careful when you actually know what you’re doing there.
Only minutes before that exchange I’d made a rueful confession: I’m not likely, not ever, to live far from a city for any length of time. Having spent the first half of my life within minutes of the Bronx, and the second (just a bit more, actually) in Los Angeles, the upshot is this: as much as I’d like to think of myself as the sort who might thrive on vistas and silence — who might throw up a tent, make a fire, find dinner in the woods — as much as I’d like to be a person at home in the natural world, what I love, what I really do love is electricity! Thermostats! Hot water! Appliances small and large! Air-conditioning and a good internet connection. Also theater, movies, restaurants, diners, bookstores, buses, cars, trains. What I know how to complain about? Traffic, smog, delays; inconsiderate neighbors; public bathrooms; city noise — actually, I’m good with city noise: tuning it in, tuning it out, gunfire, even, which, I should tell you, naïve as I am (as naïve about the one kind of jungle as the other) I’m likely to take for fireworks —
Speaking of which, back to last night: a Bastille Day celebration with a view of the Tour Eiffel and there we were, a bunch of us standing on a balcony amid the roar and the hoopla — the crackling so great, the display so gorgeous we almost didn’t hear or see the gulls until they were just overhead, flying fast away from the Tower; lit up like a fountain, cascading and spritzing and spraying light in all directions (red, purple, green, gold) — meanwhile, those gulls, madly cawing and flapping, escaping to the east, shadowy against the sapphire sky.
“They’re freaking,” said someone.
“They’re out of here,” said someone else.
Exactly. So. So what do they make of us, those gulls? Nothing, right? The gulls, pigeons, sparrows, swallows — les hirondelles, I mean to say (I’m in Paris!) — urban as they seem, they have no use for us at all, right?
They may pick through our garbage, or nest in our gutters, but they do what they do more in spite of than because of us — after all, they are wild.
It’s not just that I’m in Paris. I’m in Paris again. Two summers in a row in the City of Lights — I’m as impressed as you, probably more so. Before last summer I hadn’t crossed the ocean in 25 years. To get offered a gig in Paris, as I was two winters ago, is to immediately begin making exuberant plans; except, two years ago, my stepfather — my dad (he raised me, he did) — was at the end of his life, dying slowly, painfully. By the time we flew to Paris he’d been dead just over a month; and I was relieved, relieved that he was dead, relieved to be in Paris. But I’d forgotten how grief works; how lost we can get there — in grief, I mean — in grief as rough and treacherous as terrain; and how hard it is to find our way back to where we usually live.
Under the circumstances, what do I remember of that summer? I’ll tell you, not much. The birds, mostly. Les hirondelles. Each night and morning they raced around the rooftops like shrieking kids. I couldn’t get enough, couldn’t stop tracking them, watching them carry on among us — or just above us, anyway — as if we humans had built our eaves, our wires, our gargoyles for their convenience alone.
In grief, what I found: birds reassure. Birds as representatives of a universe that will go on with or without us. I don’t mean to oversimplify. I don’t mean to underestimate our disastrous impact on the planet; our injuries to the wilderness; I don’t mean that birds don’t die, too — they do, of course. I don’t mean, I don’t mean — so what do I mean? Only that if we forget for one moment how unfathomable, how indifferent (if not impervious), how wild and miraculous is this world, we only have to look up and there they are. And they can fly.
“The problem is,” writes MacDonald, “I can’t get away fast enough.”
She’s talking to her friend Christina, in “The line,” chapter 14, which comes very close to the end of Part I of II. MacDonald has found herself in a predicament familiar to anyone who ever tried to train an obstreperous puppy. The pet, in this case (though to call her a “pet” feels misleading) is Mabel, a goshawk, and, notwithstanding the distinguished history and tradition of falconry as art and sport, the bird, herself, has more in common with a wolf than a dog. MacDonald, however, a long-time trainer of birds of prey, is determined to get Mabel to stay. “In a burst of inspiration,” she recruits a friend, Christina, to help:
She flies after me as soon as I start walking away. But she has to come longer distances before I can fly her loose. Can you hold her for me out on the pitch, so I can call her from your fist?
Christina, though evidently nervous, agrees. “’Make sure you turn the right way,’ instructs Helen. ‘You don’t want to get the creance caught round your legs.’”
By now the reader knows what a creance is; what jesses are; how a hood is made; and what sorts of things people keep in their freezers (“sad, fluffy corpses”) when they live with a hawk.
Christina knows, too: “She holds the hawk with cautious concentration, as if it were a pitcher full of some caustic agent.” She’s a generous friend, Christina is: the author reminds us that Christina had “borne my grief-spurred strangenesses with great good grace over the last few months.”
The experiment works — in fact, it’s an exhilarating success. The next day it rains, so they practice inside, Helen and Christina flying Mabel between them “over the rug, past the mirror, under the light, wings sending up draughts that leave the lampshade swinging wildly.” “By the fourth day,” MacDonald exults, “the hawk […] will come without hesitation from the ground, from Christina’s fist, from tree branches,” and, she writes:
There was nothing that was such a salve to my grieving heart as the hawk returning. But it was hard, now, to distinguish between my heart and the hawk at all […] I felt incomplete unless the hawk was sitting on my hand: we were parts of each other. Grief and the hawk had conspired to this strangeness.
Yes, thinks the reader (this reader, anyway), this is all pretty strange; I’m relieved, at this point, to know MacDonald thinks so, too; in this way, her timing is consistently impeccable. At just this moment, when I’m almost (not quite) hoping her hawk will escape; thinking this would be the right and just outcome for the hawk (it’s a hawk! Not a Labrador retriever!); she, MacDonald, clever narrator that she is, is out in front of me, not only allowing Christina to queasily stand in for me and my misgivings, not only anticipating my objections, but enlisting my sympathy in the bargain. Then, too, from the start, she has been telling another story, contextualizing her relationship with the hawk not only in the wake of terrible loss — her father’s untimely death — but in an account as similar as it is different. For though H Is for Hawk is definitively memoir, it is also biography, and history, and science, and literary criticism (a seamless weave), in which MacDonald tells the story of T.H. White’s The Goshawk perhaps better than he told it himself, not only in gorgeous language, but with the benefit of perspective and empathy for both man and bird. At the end of Part I of her book (and White’s, too), his hawk, Gos — misunderstood and misused — has finally snapped his creance and flown off for good. Whereas Mabel (whose name means “dear” or “lovable,” so explains the author) — in the sense that she is finally “tame” — is ready to fly free.
“Are you going to write about dad?” asked my sister not so long ago.
And as soon as the words were out of her mouth, I was on my guard: I equivocated — I left room for the possibility —
“I don’t want you to take this wrong,” she said. “But I hope you’ll wait. I hope you will wait a while, please, to write about him. Because once you write about something …” Her voice trailed off.
I wanted to object. I wanted to tell her I’m entitled to write about whatever I like, he was my father, too —
It took me some days to realize my defensiveness was wrong-headed; that I was projecting; my sister doesn’t question my memory or my bond or my ongoing sorrow (as if I need to prove my right to grieve) — she only wants to protect her own.
MacDonald took nearly a decade to publish a book about her father’s death. By the time she did she understood some things.
From H Is for Hawk:
History collapses when you hold a hawk.
Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.
The gap between the hawk and me is something I feel like a wound.
Turning into an animal can imperil the human soul.
I know that some of my friends see my keeping a hawk as morally suspect, but I couldn’t love or understand hawks as much as I do if I’d only ever seen them on screens. I’ve made a hawk part of a human life, and a human life part of a hawk’s, and it has made the hawk a million times more complicated and full of wonder to me.
His death had been so sudden […] He could only be lost. He was out there, still, somewhere out there in that tangled wood with all the rest of the lost and dead. […] I’d wanted to fly with the hawk to find my father; find him and bring him home.
I’m reading H Is for Hawk for the third time when my stepfather’s yarzheit — the one-year anniversary of his death — comes round. Nothing left, writes my sister on the day, nothing, she adds, but a footstone and a memorial candle. Which is how it still feels, a year after his death — where did he go? How could he have left us? No solace to be found in his belongings, not yet, though we have them: a couple of his bathrobes (striped and plaid), pajamas (ditto), handkerchiefs, hats, canes, books, letters. And we have photographs — many of him — many more that he took: he was an amateur shooter, loved taking them, drove my mother crazy catching us off-guard or otherwise compromised, if not by his angles than by our own moods. But to look through the photographs — to imagine him seeing, composing — is a way to bring him close, if not to life. On this day my sister sends me an image (I carry it with me everywhere I go, she writes). Of course she does, look: look at this photo, found in a box or a drawer after he died: She’s in the bathtub, visible from the shoulders up (it must be summer, those bathing suit lines) — she’s maybe seven or eight, judging by her height and her grin, which is toothy, her face not yet grown into her permanent teeth; and they’re both in the photograph. Dad is shooting into the mirror, focused on her, and she’s looking at his reflection as he captures her there — captures both of them, there they are, the man and his daughter — his younger daughter — their images, precious, beloved, once, twice, three times removed.
Of her own father’s pictures — he was a well-respected press photographer — Helen MacDonald writes:
Each one a record, a testament, a bulwark against forgetting, against nothingness, against death. Look, this happened. A thing happened, and now it will never unhappen […] All these things had happened and my father had committed them to a memory that wasn’t just his own, but the world’s. My father’s life wasn’t about disappearance. His was a life that worked against it.
And yet. One evening he disappeared. That is, he died on assignment, suddenly, unexpectedly, of a heart attack. “[His] last photograph I saw only once,” writes MacDonald.
I never want to see it again. But I can never stop seeing it. Blurred, taken from a low angle, far too low; an empty London street. Sodium lights, dusk, a wall tipped sideways from the vertical and running into the distance; a vanishing point of sally, stormy sky.
This book is about seeing.
This book is about perception.
This book is about perspective.
These, too, are among MacDonald’s preoccupations.
Consider a description like this one from a chapter called “Leaving Home,” which is ostensibly about simply getting out of the house:
Night air moves in the spaces between the trees. Moths make dusty circles about the lamps. I look down and see each pale blade of grass casts two separate shadow from the two nearest lamps, and so do I, and in the distance comes the collapsing echo of a moving train and somewhere closer a dog barks twice and there’s broken glass by the path and next to it a feather from the breast of a woodpigeon judging by its size and curl. It lies upon the grass as if held just above it, gleaming softly in the darkness.
“Bloody hell, Mabel,” I whisper. “Who spiked my tea with acid?” Night has never looked like this before.
So says the author and we believe her — she is grieving after all and grief is a drug like no other.
Then, too, as noted, MacDonald is the photographer’s daughter. She knows how to look, and she gives him much credit for that facility and gift.
Although: what H Is for Hawk is not about? MacDonald’s father. She’s explained as much in an interview:
My dad was quite a private person. He saw the world through a camera lens and he wanted his photographs to stand for him and I wanted to talk about him in a way that respected that. I didn’t want the book to be a biography of my father.
She is respectful, too, of the rest of her family: “In my mum’s and my brother’s case, they’re alive and they have their own stories to tell.” Therefore she sticks to her own tale of grief, terrible and raw, though she cannot be accused, as memoirists now and then are, of navel-gazing. Fleda was right: H Is for Hawk is about attention: about seeing, hearing, touching, smelling, crying, screaming, raging, shaking, and losing your shit as if it were happening all of it, now — it is, in short, quite deliberately about reckoning with the wild within as well as without, as each informs, mimics, and illuminates the other.
In “The Love of My Life,” an essay about losing her mother (harbinger of her best-selling memoir), Cheryl Strayed wrote, “Healing is a small and ordinary and very burnt thing.” Stands to reason, doesn’t it? Grief is a weather system, a season unto itself; like wildfire, it resists containment. It unaccountably smolders, blisters, blazes; transforms the atmosphere and the landscape; makes us strange to each other and ourselves.
Still, as if it weren’t wild enough, many a writer has turned, in grief, to the natural world — for solitude, for solace, for answers. As if time doesn’t turn out to be the only answer — however unsatisfactory — to be had. “There’s no such thing as recovery, only integration,” I once heard a writer say.
This, MacDonald knows. She has titled her very first chapter “Patience,” for a lesson she learned from her father when she was a child. He told her “that when you wanted to see something very badly, sometimes you had to stay still, stay in the same place, remember how much you wanted to see it.” Also in this chapter she explains how “the wild can be human work.” Goshawks, for instance persecuted to the point of extinction in the late 19th century, only exist today because falconers in the ’60s and ’70s “started a quiet, unofficial scheme to bring them back […] Buy one, set one free.”
“The wild can be human work.” If we are wild in grief, if we burn with it until we are nothing but ash — well, then? Well, then, not to worry, we’re human, we’re mortal, we’ll grieve again, to be reminded that what makes us really human is the capacity to love and lose; to integrate sorrow into our lives — to live with knowledge of death — even, perhaps, to make art.
To wit, H Is for Hawk. The wild can be human work in more ways than one.