I began reading Helen Macdonald’s heartfelt memoir, H Is for Hawk in early June. Based on the author’s family history and intertwined with reflections on T.H. White and the history of falconry, Macdonald’s book won the Samuel Johnson Prize and the Costa Book of the Year Award in 2014. Her compelling take on “the archaeology of grief” and her decision to train a goshawk as a form of solace and redemption transform the concept of a memoir into something more than words on a page. It unfolds as a study on ways to move through the landscape of time and space.
“We are very bad at scale,” writes Macdonald. “The things that live in the soil are too small to care about; climate change too large to imagine. We are bad at time, too. We cannot remember what lived here before we did; we cannot love what is not. Nor can we imagine what will be different when we are dead. We live out our three score and ten, and tie our knots and lines only to ourselves. We take solace in pictures, and we wipe the hills of history.”
“It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion;” she continues, “that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them – that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me.”
In the past, I’ve written numerous articles blending fact and fiction in essays linking nature and myth. Macdonald takes this one step further with first-person accounts reflecting on concepts of loss and the experience of communing with nature as she trains a goshawk she names Mabel. As part of the process, Macdonald folds the narrative into shared experiences with T.H. White: “The lines between the man and landscape blur,” writes Macdonald. “When White writes of his love for the countryside, at heart he is writing about a hope that he might be able to love himself.”
“Like White I wanted to cut loose from the world,” she continues, “and I shared, too, his desire to escape to the wild, a desire that can rip away all human softness and leave you stranded in a world of savage, courteous despair.”
This was something I could relate to. But her grief at the loss of her father was foreign to me. It wasn’t until I was in a traumatic bicycle accident a few days later that I began to connect with the rawness of her sorrow.
“Here’s a word. Bereavement. Or, Bereaved. Bereft,” Macdonald writes. “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.”
I did not lose a member of my family or one of my friends. I lost myself. And I had no way to grapple with the devastation wreaked upon my body and soul until I once again picked up H Is for Hawk. This time, the text took on a new meaning.
My accident occurred when I was about halfway through the book, just as I had started Chapter 13, “Alice, Falling.” It seemed appropriate. “And me? I do not know,” Macdonald writes. “I feel hollow and unhoused, an airy, empty wasps’ nest, a thing made of chewed paper after the frosts have murdered the life within.” The author’s grief mirrored my own.
“The archaeology of grief is not ordered,” reflects Macdonald. “It is more like earth under a spade, turning up things you had forgotten. Surprising things come to light: not simply memories, but states of mind, emotions, older ways of seeing the world.”
And this proved true. Like Macdonald, I worked through the loss of who I had been. It was a slow process, one that still presents challenges as I continue the transformation. There are times when I want to run away, times I am overwhelmed with the desire to escape the realities presented by loss, but these impulses are coming further and further apart. And one day, I hope to find resolution in the way I see myself and the world I live in.
“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all,” Macdonald writes. “You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”
And that’s what it’s all about, growth through loss—“a reckoning…of all the lives we have lost (Macdonald)”—and the lives we have yet to discover.
Artwork: Green Voices, Night Hawk, and Horus-Spirit of the Hawk by Susan Seddon-Boulet. All Rights Reserved by the artist.