H is for Hawk – Helen Macdonald, 2014

The November book for the Nature and Environment¬†book group, and one I’d been looking forward to since its release because of my T. H. White obsession. I also read The Goshawk at a young age, but it didn’t give me any desire to train hawks myself. One of the main critiques the discussion brought up was how little we ended up understanding the attraction of falconry, to people who clearly love hawks, when it’s also clearly a kind of slavery for the birds.The best explanation for me was “The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent.” Macdonald’s vivid description of falling into depression/mental illness after the death of her father was hard to experience, but also helps clarify: “The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past or future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge.”

I identified strongly with Macdonald’s early life, especially reading so much from the 19th century:

Being in the company of these authors was like being dropped into an exclusive public school… What I was doing wasn’t just educating myself in the nuts and bolts of hawk-training: I was unconsciously soaking up the assumptions of an imperial elite. I lived in a world where English peregrines always outflew foreign hawks, whose landscapes were grouse moors and manor houses, where women didn’t exist. These men were kindred spirits. I felt I was one of them, one of the elect.

Her initial reaction to The Goshawk is priceless:

I’d reached the bit about the sparrowhawks and I was too upset to read any more. I’d jumped from my bed and gone looking for reassurance.
“Is this the Goshawk book you’ve been telling me about?”
“Yes! He’s got his hawk ready to fly free but then he starts making traps to try and catch some sparrowhawks and goes off and leaves the hawk behind and it’s stupid.”
A long pause.
“Maybe he was tired of his hawk,” [my mother] said, the hand with the cloth in it now pressed to the sink.
This made no sense at all.
“But how could he be tired of a hawk?”

Her material on White seems to come fairly straight from the Sylvia Townsend Warner biography, but with some interesting observations about his context:

… the countryside wasn’t just something that was safe for White to love: it was a love that was safe to write about. It took me a long time to realize how many of our classic books on animals were by gay writers who wrote of their relationship with animals in lieu of human loves of which they could not speak.

She mentions Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell (I think I read it a long time ago, but due for a re-read), and a new one to me, A Cuckoo in the House by Maxwell Knight. My Dog Tulip (J. R. Ackerly)  is another that jumps to mind.

I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing—not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. Eventually rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction. There’s little else to is now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?

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