Monday, 27 March 2017

Book Review, "H is for Hawk" by Dr Helen Macdonald, Part #3

As the book progresses with the trials and tribulations of training Mabel, eventually Macdonald is able to remove the leash or 'creance' from the raptor's Jessies and allow the free flight to commence.
This idea of freedom and its association with flight is one of the most powerful images that we have; equally, the sense of liberty is essential in considering the mutual respect that a falconer must have for their Falcon. A falconer is not, therefore, a 'keeper' of Falcons, but merely a guide.
Our own human yearning for freedom, which is almost universal, is of peculiar interest here as Macdonald describes her visit to an art gallery and her encounter with a full-size copy of a bird hide. The construction is rebuilt within the museum, an identical copy of real structure in California. The exhibition itself shows a recording video through the windows of the hide of the flight of a wild Californian condor.  The intent was to bring attention to the fate of not just that particular bird and its close encounter with extinction, but a more general observation of wildness and freedom and the complicated relationship that humans have with it.  Macdonald interprets the piece perfectly in my opinion. She states
"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 have. Eventually, rarity is all that they are made of.… There is a vast difference between my visceral, bloodied life with Mabel and the reserved, distanced view of modern nature appreciation." (Page 181)

Dr Macdonald is still dealing with her deep sense of grief, and through her hawk Mabel, she finds a new kind of escape and freedom from the enduring emptiness she is experiencing. She talks about her distress and numbness of mind and the mundane activities of day-to-day life. Macdonald hints at the escape from it while out flying with her hawk. She states "I stayed out longer with Mabel, found it harder and harder to return, because out with the hawk I didn't need a home. Out there I would forget I was human at all. Everything the hawk saw was raw and real and drawn hair fine, and everything else was dampened to nothing." (p186).  
Again the use of language to describe the hawk's perceived images is being drawn, 'hair fine', and is very resonant with my own thoughts about how I could speculatively represent an alternative view of their world.
That alternative perspective of the world through the hawk's contemplation has been written about before and again I'm glad to see it.  Macdonald talks about a time when her mother calls while she is with the Raptor and half in conversation, she notices;
"Hawk on my fist, tail fanned, shoulders dropped, staring through me and the phone, and her attention catching on everything serially. Field-fence-fieldfare-wing flick-pheasant-feather-on--some-on-wire-12-wood pigeons-half-a-mile-distant-tick-tick-tick".(p187).

I love the way that Macdonald thinks about the hawk's brain processing things serially. Does it do this? Or is the hawk's mind much more capable of processing data in a parallel way? The idea of digital drawing and the serial processes of engagement come to light here.

Later, in the same vein, Macdonald recalls an incident when a huge flying fortress aircraft flies overhead and brings terror to the wild animals beneath it. Except for Mabel, who virtually ignores this huge, yet perhaps perceived as a similar, a 'harbinger' of death. While Macdonald is mesmerised, her mind draws an example from the poet WH Auden who stated "consider this, and in our time as the hawk sees it, or the helmeted airmen:" (Auden, W.H.,1930), (Macdonald, H. (2104) p188).

This comparison of hawk and aircraft as bringers of death, or is it that, rather than 'bringers' of death, they have an ability to decide? Macdonald goes on to say on page 189 "the hawk is on my fist. 30 ounces of death in a feathered jacket; a being whose world is drawn in plots and vectors that pulls her towards lives ends." The idea that the choices of life and death can be made in an instant often haunts us, not through our own desire to carry out dreadful acts, but more the simple fragility of life and death itself. (Page 189). Macdonald articulates her own sense of clarity, and she quotes the remainder of WH Auden's poem with the lines "the clouds rift suddenly look there".

She feels "the insistent pull to the heart that the hawk brings, that very old longing of mine to possess the hawk's eye. To live the safe and solitary life; to look down on the world from height and keep it there. To be watcher; invulnerable, detached, complete. My eyes fill with water. Here I am, I think. And I do not think that I am safe." (Page 189).

It is interesting that in this turmoil of seclusion and isolation, in this total loneliness, it keeps coming through in Macdonald's writings and in an earlier passage she even quotes a piece of poetry by Marianne Moore: "the cure for loneliness is solitude" (page 32).

That sense of isolation and loneliness is another trait of a slightly different writer, Rebecca Solnit of whom I have read one of her books "A Field Guide to Getting Lost" (2006) Canongate Books Ltd, Edinburgh, UK. The sense of walking alone to is further explored by Solnit in a book that I have just acquired called "Wanderlust: a history of walking" (2001) published by Verso Books, London. - Something I need to read and create a critical evaluation of in the next few months no doubt.


Auden, WH (1930) "Consider This" (first published 1930) in the English Auden, edited by Mendelssohn, E.Faber and Faber (1978), p 46.
Macdonald, H. (2014) "H is for Hawk" Jonathan Cape Publishers, London.
Morris, D. (1967) "The Naked Ape" (2nd Ed. 2005), Vantage Books, London.
Solnit, R. (2006) "A Field Guide to Getting Lost" Canongate Books Ltd, Edinburgh, UK.
Solnit, R. (2001) "Wanderlust: a history of walking" published by Verso Books, London.
White, T.H. (1951), "The Goshawk", Jonathan Cape, London.

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