Grief exists; it’s a boulder, a stumbling block, but the metaphors don’t do it justice. A wave of pain can stop you in your tracks years after you’ve assimilated a loss; when grief is new all the world looks different. When the news came of her father’s sudden and unexpected death, something in Helen Macdonald, a writer and academic, was lost. “My dad was my dad,” she writes, “but also my friend, and a partner in crime when it came to quests like this.” By ‘quests like this’ she means an almost-quixotic, but in fact finished, weekend project to photograph every bridge over the Thames, more than 200 of them. Her grief was wild, beyond normal, beyond what Macdonald refers to as the narcissism of the recently bereaved. You don’t cure grief, you recognize that is has become part of you.
It was a hawk, a goshawk to be exact, that brought Macdonald back to herself. Her grief was a wild ride, emotionally, and training a hawk forced her out of herself and into what Macdonald describes, in many different and entrancing ways, as an uncivilized, or perhaps pre-civilized is a better description, place. Macdonald says, about hunting with a hawk,
I was in the grip of very old and emotional ways of moving through a landscape, experiencing forms of attention and deportment beyond conscious control. Something inside me ordered me how and where to step without me knowing much about it. It might be a million years of evolution, it might be intuition, but on my goshawk hunt I feel tense when I’m walking or standing in sunlight, find myself unconsciously edging towards broken light. . ,”
Falconry is an ancient sport, and Macdonald outlines the culture that has grown up around the different raptors: falcons are noble and aristocratic, “sharp-winged, bullet-heavy birds with dark eyes and an extraordinary verve in the air.” Goshawks, by contrast, are bloodthirsty murderers. (You can watch some fascinating video of a goshawk flying here.) Macdonald has interleaved her memoir with a study of T.H.White’s “The Goshawk,” his memoir of his inept attempts to train and hunt a goshawk, and its relation to his life, and hers. Macdonald describes long, delicate, harrowing nights and days, preparing the hawk for human company, for hunger, for hunting, and for returning to the human. Macdonald is an uncommonly talented writer and even readers unfamiliar with falconry will be completely engaged. Here she is on an outing with the hawk:
I felt the curt lift of autumn breeze over the hill’s round brow, and the need to take left, to fall over the leeward slope to where the rabbits were. I crept and walked and ran. I crouched. I looked, I saw more than I’d ever 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.
It’s not that Macdonald became one with the hawk. Rather, she writes, “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.” Of course, things go wrong, and when they go wrong, Macdonald copes, despite herself. Grief is a wild place, untamed, and different things help each of us survive there. What Helen Macdonald needed was a hawk, and it’s our good fortune that she’s chosen to write about it.
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