Lessons on Love and Loss, Beauty and Terror, Control and Surrender from a Bird of Prey
“The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might be alive to see them.”
By Maria Popova
Every once in a while — perhaps thrice a lifetime, if one is lucky — a book comes along so immensely and intricately insightful, so overwhelming in beauty, that it renders one incapable of articulating what it’s about without contracting its expansive complexity, flattening its dimensional richness, and stripping it of its splendor. Because it is, of course, about everything — it might take a specific something as its subject, but its object is nothing less than the whole of the human spirit, mirrored back to itself.
H Is for Hawk (public library) by Helen Macdonald is one such book — the kind one devours voraciously, then picks up and puts down repeatedly, unsure how to channel its aboutness in a way that isn’t woefully inadequate.
For a necessary starting point, here’s an inadequate summation: After her father’s sudden and soul-splitting death, Macdonald, a seasoned falconer, decides to wade through the devastation by learning to train a goshawk — the fiercest of raptors, “things of death and difficulty: spooky, pale-eyed psychopaths,” capable of inflicting absolute gore with absolute grace. Over the course of that trying experience — which she chronicles by weaving together personal memory, natural history (the memory of our planet), and literary history (the memory of our culture) — she learns about love and loss, beauty and terror, control and surrender, and the myriad other dualities reconciling which is the game of life.
Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob.’ Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try.
Out of that aloneness a singular and paradoxical madness is born:
I knew I wasn’t mad mad because I’d seen people in the grip of psychosis before, and that was madness as obvious as the taste of blood in the mouth. The kind of madness I had was different. It was quiet, and very, very dangerous. It was a madness designed to keep me sane. My mind struggled to build across the gap, make a new and inhabitable world… Time didn’t run forwards any more. It was a solid thing you could press yourself against and feel it push back; a thick fluid, half-air, half-glass, that flowed both ways and sent ripples of recollection forwards and new events backwards so that new things I encountered, then, seemed souvenirs from the distant past.
Rippling through Macdonald’s fluid, mesmerizingly immersive prose are piercing, short, perfectly placed deliverances, in both senses of the word: there is the dark (“What happens to the mind after bereavement makes no sense until later.”), the luminous (“I’d halfway forgotten how kind and warm the world could be.”), the immediate (“Time passed. The wavelength of the light around me shortened. The day built itself.”), the timeless (“Those old ghostly intuitions that have tied sinew and soul together for millennia.”), and the irrepressibly sublime (“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace: it comes, but not often, and you don’t get to say when or how.”).
Choosing a goshawk, a creature notoriously difficult to tame, became Macdonald’s way of learning to let grace come unbidden, a letting that demanded a letting go — of compulsive problem-solving, of the various control strategies by which we try to bend life to our will, of the countless self-contortion and self-flagellation techniques driving the machinery of our striving. Recounting the frustration of failing to get her goshawk, Mabel, to obey her commands — frustration familiar to anyone who has ever anguished over any form of unrequited intentionality — Macdonald writes:
I flew her later in the day. I flew her earlier. I fed her rabbit with fur and rabbit without. I fed her chicks that I’d gutted and skinned and rinsed in water. I reduced her weight. I raised it. I reduced it again. I wore different clothes. I tried everything to fix the problem, certain that the problem couldn’t be fixed because the problem was me. Sometimes she flew straight to my fist, sometimes straight over it, and there was no way of knowing which it would be. Every flight was a monstrous game of chance, a coin-toss, and what was at stake felt something very like my soul. I began to think that what made the hawk flinch from me was the same thing that had driven away the man I’d fallen for after my father’s death. Think that there was something deeply wrong about me, something vile that only he and the hawk could see.
Macdonald peers directly into the black hole of fury, a familiar rage directed as much at the rebuffer as at the rebuffed self:
The anger was vast and it came out of nowhere. It was the rage of something not fitting; the frustration of trying to put something in a box that is slightly too small. You try moving the shape around in the hope that some angle will make it fit in the box. Slowly comes an apprehension that this might not, after all, be possible. And finally you know it won’t fit, know there is no way it can fit, but this doesn’t stop you using brute force to try to crush it in, punishing the bloody thing for not fitting properly. That was what it was like: but I was the box, I was the thing that didn’t fit, and I was the person smashing it, over and over again, with bruised and bleeding hands.
And yet somehow, Macdonald unboxes herself as she trains Mabel into control and Mabel trains her into the grace of surrender, of resting into life exactly as it is rather than striving for some continually unsatisfying and anguishing version of how it ought to be. She captures this beautifully in the closing vignette — an earthquake, quite an uncommon occurrence in England, rattles her house and sends her panic-stricken into Mabel’s quarters, terrified at the thought that earthquakes alarm wildlife and often cause animals to flee. Macdonald writes:
I race downstairs, three steps at a time, burst through the door and turn on the light in her room. She is asleep. She wakes, pulls her head from her mantle-feathers and looks at me with clear eyes. She’s surprised to see me. She yawns, showing her pink mouth like a cat’s and its arrowhead tongue with its black tip. Her creamy underparts are draped right down over her feet, so only one lemony toe and one carbon-black talon are exposed. Her other foot is drawn high up at her chest. She felt the tremors. And then she went back to sleep, entirely unmoved by the moving earth. The quake brought no panic, no fear, no sense of wrongness to her at all. She’s at home in the world. She’s here. She ducks her head upside down, pleased to see me, shakes her feathers into a fluffy mop of contentment, and then, as I sit with her, she slowly closes her eyes, tucks her head back into her feathers, and sleeps. She is not a duke, a cardinal, a hieroglyph or a mythological beast, but right now Mabel is more than a hawk. She feels like a protecting spirit. My little household god. Some things happen only once, twice in a lifetime. The world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might be alive to see them. I had thought the world was ending, but my hawk had saved me again, and all the terror was gone.
H Is for Hawk is an unsummarizably spectacular read in its totality, the kind that lodges itself in your mind, heart, and spirit with equal gravity and grace. Complement it with these gorgeous 19th-century drawings of raptors, then revisit Sy Montgomery on how an octopus illuminates the wonders of consciousness and Maira Kalman on what a dog taught her about the meaning of human life.
Published December 16, 2015