Wednesday, May 20, 2015

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald

When her father dies, Helen Macdonald retreats from the world into her childhood passion for falconry. She gets a young goshawk and her grief is subsumed in the long hours spent training it. H is for Hawk is a masterpiece of nature writing and literary memoir. It's a book I want to hug. It also makes me want to feel the weight of a raptor on my fist, something I'd never imagined would interest me.

Some of the reasons I loved this book:

  • Macdonald, who doesn't like to kill, showed me something new: an appreciation for hunting, seen from a hawk's perspective.  
  • Macdonald's thoughtful re-examination of a book she had found infuriating when she was a child: T.H. White's The Goshawk
  • The specialized vocabulary of falconry, which Macdonald describes as one of the aspects that attracted her to this sport from the start. 
  • Macdonald's struggle through grief and mental illness into healing.
  • Beautiful, beautiful prose.

Not a falcon, but still.
Photo taken at Bojnice
Castle in Slovakia.
"Hunting with the hawk took me to the very edge of being a human. Then it took me past that place to somewhere I wasn't human at all. The hawk in flight, me running after her, the land and the air a pattern of deep and curving detail, sufficient to block out anything like the past or the future, so that the only thing that mattered were the next thirty seconds. [...] I looked. I saw more than I'd ever the seen. The world gathered about me. It made absolute sense. But the only things I knew were hawkish things, and the lines that drew me across the landscape were the lines that drew the hawk: hunger, desire, fascination, the need to find and fly and kill."

Macdonald writes that the "ability of hawks to cross borders that humans cannot is a thing far older than Celtic myth, older than Orpheus - for in ancient shamanic traditions right across Eurasia, hawks and falcons were seen as messengers between this world and the next."

There's a time when Macdonald was writing her father's eulogy and wanted to check a fact and so she reached for the phone to call him... "and for a moment the world went very black."

Siobhan, one of the other
wwoofers I worked with,
 whitewashing in Spain.
My own father had been dead for 10 years when I had a similar experience. After a disorienting couple of weeks spent uprooting brambles from a mountain slope while wwoofing* on a rustic farm in Spain, I was given an easy job: whitewashing a plaster wall. My father would do things like spend an afternoon while on a Hawaiian holiday helping a crew install tile on a roof simply because he had never done that before. I planned to write to him, describing the fat round brush and the paint mixed from a powder... and then came a sudden remembering that I would never write to him again. A sorrow that I thought was long finished. If only a falcon could have carried a message on my behalf.

Falconry is described as "a balancing act between wild and tame - not just in the hawk, but inside the heart and mind of the falconer." In time, Macdonald finds her equilibrium.

H is for Hawk is one of my favourite books so far this year.

Readalikes (with links to my reviews): The best I can do for comparison is to combine the meditative nature writing and memoir in Robert MacFarlane's The Old Ways with Cheryl Strayed's grief process in Wild and the intimacy of living with a wild bird in Stacey O'Brien's Wesley the Owl, (mouse carcasses and all).

*Wwoofing is a verb formed from WWOOF = World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms, an organization that links volunteers with organic growers.

NOTE added May 24, 2015: Today I listened to Mary Oliver in conversation with Krista Tippett on the On Being podcast episode "Mary Oliver - Listening to the World" from February 5, 2015. I was struck by a similarity in one aspect of Macdonald's and Oliver's experiences. Both had found themselves too much captivated by the natural world and eventually had to learn to fully embrace the human world. It's a great interview, by the way.

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