"The archeology of grief is not ordered."Helen Macdonald’s book-length nonfiction is so many things at once: a eulogy, an elegy, a biography, a memoir, a training manual, a journey. It is a conversation about death, and community. It is so filled with passion and pain that one reads, breath bated, to see which will crush the other. This book is only partly about a hawk, despite the title. It records the author’s journey of a few years, starting with the unexpected death of her father, through the purchase and training of a hawk, to a new place of understanding about what and who humans are and what we need to live well.
The author looks closely at the life and writings of another vulnerable person, T.H. White, to express sorrow and a kind of sympathy with his derangements. She learns the origins of his extraordinary flights of fancy in literature, tracing over the sores of his upbringing until we see clearly the agonies of his confused psychopathy. White was a hawker, but a hawker one might quote to show how not to train a hawk. Macdonald loathed his book The Goshawk as a child. When she gets her own hawk after the death of her father, she reads it again. This time she discovers White’s pain--seeing, feeling, tracing it until it is as clear as her own.
Macdonald shares one of the best descriptions of bereavement that I have ever encountered (italics are hers):
"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. 'Imagine,' I said, back then, to some friends, in an earnest attempt to explain, 'imagine your whole family is in a room. Yes, all of them, All the people you love. So then what happens is someone comes into the room and punches you all in the stomach. Each one of you. Really hard. So you’re all on the floor. Right? So the thing is, you all share the same kind of pain, exactly the same, but you’re too busy experiencing total agony to feel anything other than completely alone. That’s what it’s like.' I finished my little speech in triumph, convinced that I’d hit upon the perfect way to explain how it felt. I was puzzled by the pitying, horrified faces, because it didn’t strike me at all that an example that put my friends’ families in rooms and had them beaten might carry the tang of total lunacy…Hawks apparently have a shamanic tradition of being able to cross borders that humans cannot and "were seen as messengers between this world and the next."
...I’d dreamed of hawks again. I started dreaming of hawks all the time. Here’s another word: raptor, meaning 'bird of prey'. From the Latin raptor, meaning 'robber,' from rapere, meaning 'seize.' Rob. Seize."
The author trains a bird of prey, a hawk called Mabel. Mabel is a predator; she is all about death, violent death. The wildness of the bird seeps into the author’s consciousness, and her perceptions become acute. Macdonald is recovering from a loss, and her bond with the reptilian raptor Mabel underscores her warm-blooded need for love and her bond with the human community. This book is the author working through grief and terror and want and coming out naked and vulnerable on the other side.
The language Macdonald employs in this memoir is as extraordinary and ingenious as her laying out such diverse topics as death, hawking, T.H. White, and history as interlocking pieces. She holds us rapt as she defines her grief. The words she chooses make us hypersensitive to differences in shade, angle, meaning: "Goshawks in the air are a complicated grey colour. Not slate grey, nor pigeon grey. But a kind of raincloud grey…" Or this: "I was…grey, loose-spun wool on an aching set of bones." Or this: "I felt like I was holding the bastard offspring of a flaming torch and an assault rifle." Her meanings are exquisitely clear.
Macdonald was born a hawker. We are all born with something innate but dormant until awakened by opportunity. Fortunately Macdonald was able to find and exercise her passion because she liked to read. It reminds me of teachers we may have had that spark an interest in something that feels as natural to us as breathing, and as necessary. Macdonald discusses six books that formed her consciousness about nature, makes us realize once again that a seed spilled on tilled ground can yield the most amazing things. It breaks my heart a little to think that every child probably has some thing in them that would burst into flame with the right tinder. Not all of us find it, early or ever.
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