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Sunday, August 28, 2016

What I'm reading (#19)

Everyone handles loss and grief differently.  Some turn inward; some weep; some become angry.  When Helen Macdonald's beloved father died, suddenly and unexpectedly, her world seemed to crumble around her.  She'd lost her touchstone, one of the small number of people in her life that anchored it, made it make sense.

She tumbled headlong into a depression that severed her from contact with friends and the rest of her family.  There was only one thing in her life that still felt real to her.

Helen was a falconer.  It'd been her driving passion since childhood, since discovering T. H. White's book The Goshawk and realizing, "I want to do this."

She tells the story of her ride upwards out of her grief and despondency on the tail of a goshawk named Mabel in her book H is for Hawk.  It is a brilliant, occasionally funny, deeply moving tale of how one woman dealt with the horrible ache of losing someone dear -- and is a gripping, thought-provoking read.


Goshawks are notoriously difficult to train.  They are nervous, stubborn, aggressive, and aloof.  Her choice of this species was deliberate -- she needed something to sink herself into, to distract her from her despair.  Along the way, she parallels her story with the one White told about his own similar experience in his book The Goshawk.  White (the author of The Once and Future King) was a deeply unhappy man, who never recovered from abuse he received as a child at the hands of his insane father and various sadistic schoolmasters.  He, too, was dealing with despair, albeit of a different sort, and looked to the wildness and freedom of a hawk to teach him how to live.

Macdonald's path was not an easy one, but what she learns along the way was worth the pain, and what she learned had to come from experience.  On the other hand, White in the end lost focus, and also lost his hawk, Gos; afterwards he compares Gos with symbols of violence, with bloodthirsty men from the pages of human history, and his own failed attempts to train him as a war.  Macdonald writes:
I swear to myself, standing there with [White's] book open in my hand, that I will not ever reduce my hawk to a hieroglyph, an historical figure or a misremembered villain.  Of course I won't.  I can't.  Because she is not human.  Of all the lessons I've learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there -- rocks and trees and stones and grass and all the things that crawl and run and fly.  They are all things in themselves, but we make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world.  In my time with Mabel I've learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.  And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it.  Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities.  Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.
H is for Hawk is a fantastic book, one that you will remember for a long time after you turn the last page.  Macdonald's trek through the valley of the shadow of death is one we all take, for all of us lose people dear to us, all of us have to come to terms with that most difficult part of what it means to be human.  In her book, we learn along with her that such grief can be endured, and the lessons it has to teach are truly worth learning, however much they cost us in pain and anguish.

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