Thursday, 30 March 2017

Book Review, "H is for Hawk" by Dr Helen Macdonald (2014), Part #4.

As the book begins to unfold and McDonald's ideas of fear and anxiety become more evident and present, I was delighted to find a reference that she made to something that she found on one of her friends bookshelves: "the new edition of J.A. Bakers the Peregrine, the story of a man obsessively watching wintering wild peregrines in the Essex countryside of the late 1960's" whilst I think she was correct to say that it was published in the 1960's, in is within the text notes of "The Peregrine" (Baker, J.A. 1967), which suggests it was his observations through the 1950's that were then translated and condensed into effectively a single year. The book was published in 1967. Perhaps my own observational pedantry is coming through even here? !

Nevertheless, my pedantry aside... The fact that Helen MacDonald remembers reading this book on a previous occasion, where she is able to explain, not only the obsessive observations of "The Peregrine" that Baker is entwined with but also his sense of mortality, and in her words "an awful desire for death and annihilation"(MacDonald, H. 2104, p199).  I was both a little shocked, but also heartened, that while I recognised his sorrowful and saturnine approach to his writing, with a melancholic reference throughout, I must say I couldn't read the yearning for annihilation as such? This nihilism is much more akin to the writing of Frederick William Nietzsche, (another favourite philosopher of mine).

McDonald compares the writing of Baker and her intentions, with's the writings of TH White, in that inspired of his [White's] dreadfully failed attempts of training his goshawk, the struggle that White was having was in fact, against his own death, although in "The Goshawk" (White T.H. 1951), he recognised that there were beautiful things going on, in the outside world, and there is a sense of hope. However, when MacDonald compares this to J.A. Bakers "the Peregrine" she explains that his 'worldview' showed mostly death and dying, and this mirrored the Hawks (Falcons) as "Icons of extinction: ours, their's and his own". According to MacDonald, to Baker, his death was inevitable, and any hope was utterly dashed; hence she writes "there are no place names, though people in his book. They'd fallen away.… (Bakers) Hawks were made of death." (Page 200).

While other commentators of JA Baker's "The Peregrine" (1967) do underline his sense of mortality, I think McDonald's reading of it is particularly dark.  I did not feel the same way about the outcomes of the book that clearly had such an effect on MacDonald.  In my case, on first reading the Peregrine some six months ago, the book apparently inspired me to think from a different viewpoint altogether.
I'm pleased to stay that this position remains and my continued desire to use Baker's book remains fast and genuine.

Nevertheless, in the analysis of MacDonald's grief and despair, it is not surprising that "the conversation of death" (MacDonald, H., 2014, p210) remains close to the surface. The anxiety and depression she seems to be suffering this point caused her to withdraw even deeper within that grief. She "jumped in panic when the postman knocked on the door: recoiled from the ringing phone. I stopped seeing people. Too, cancelled my gallery talk. Deadlocked at the front door. Out on the hill by fled from walkers, dodged behind hedges when farm vehicles drove up… Some days I lay in bed in so much mysterious pain and began to believe the only explanation was a terminal disease." (p210, p211). Her depression was taking hold of her. I have lived through similar bouts myself and can speak first hand of the wretched fear and darkness that it brings.

In her sorrow, she thinks only of Mabel, the goshawk, and again draws parallels through her own reading of relationships formed between animals and humans, particularly in research conducted in anthropology. For example, she quotes the work of Rane Willerlev, who lived with the hunters in the extreme environment of Siberia in the north-east of Russia for a year. He wrote how the hunters "believed that animals and humans can turn into each other by temporarily taking on one another's bodies" (Macdonald, H., 2104, p211). Macdonald goes on to say that such notions can be very dangerous and continues to explain that Willerslev suggested that by taking on such transformations of mind it can "make you lose sight of your original species identity and undergo an invisible metamorphosis" (p211). This idea of transforming a human soul, our very inner being, as the way we think and see the world about us, by viewing it through an animal's eyes can indeed "imperil the human soul" (p211).

Perhaps this is a warning for me?

Indeed this idea of taking on a spiritual and otherworldly extension is explained further by Macdonald who states "the ability of Hawks to cross borders that humans cannot is a thing far older than Celtic myth, older than Orpheus-four in ancient chauvinistic traditions right across Eurasia, hawks and falcons were seen as messengers between this world and the next."(p226).  I have already articulated in previous blogs the relationship that Egyptians had with hawks and peregrines in particular. For example, the principal deity ancient Egyptian God, Horus, and his father Osiris are both depicted as gods in the form of a man, - with a man's arms, legs and body; but crucially, illustrated with the Peregrine or falcon's head.

But there is hope, and as Helen Macdonald is beginning the journey on the road to recovery from her despair and depression she sees something more than "not just winter moving onwards to spring:… But a land filling slowly with spots and lines of beauty." (p238). She is starting to see a kind of new birth, through her own individual contact with nature, and a special place that she begins to call home. Indeed she tells of the hill becoming her home.  She says;

"I know it intimately. Every hedgerow, every track through dry grass where the hares cut across field -boundaries, each discarded piece of rusted machinery, every earth and warren and tree… ...Yellowhammers chirping and hedges. Cumulus rubble. The maritime light of this island, set as it is under a sky mirrored and uplit by sea." (Page 239).

This particular paragraph is so much like the style that JA Baker writes of when he is reflecting upon his place, his special place, within the Essex marshes in his book "The Peregrine" (1967).

 Macdonald goes on to say "I don't own this land. I've only got permission to fly in here. But in walking it over and over again and paying in great greatest attention, I've made mine." (Macdonald, H. p239). It is clear that a sense of hope is growing in Macdonald's mind. The latter part of the book is much more uplifting, and again in her own words "there is a sense of creation about it: when the hare leapt up from our feet today, it was as if it had been made by the field ex nihilo." (p241). The sense of wonderment is almost palpable. The reattachment of her own soul to her place in the world and her appreciation of each and every stone or blade of grass begins to take significance again. She writes "it's a child's world, full of separate places. Give me a paper and pencil now and ask me to draw a map of the fields I roamed about when I was small, and I cannot do it. But change the question, and asked me to list what was there and I can then fill the pages. The wood ants' nest. The newt pond. The oak tree covered in marble galls."(p241). I find this particularly interesting because it is clear that Macdonald's 'first' language, that is, her first method of communication, is linguistic.

Whereas I believe my own sense of communication, while deeply rooted in the linguistic, has the benefit of imagery and imagination through drawing. Macdonald's explanations provide an insight into another person's perception of the wonderment of nature and the world around us. But I can't help myself creating mental images, which are far more 'tactile and tangible' than merely linguistic prose.

This gives me great heart and confidence again to continue with my intended drawing as a mediation of understandings between Baker and his Peregrines, and vice versa.

But then again, am I giving Macdonald a disservice in suggesting that her first language is linguistically recalled rather than imagistic?

As her recovery from the dreadful grief begins to return, further excursions into the countryside with her hawk Mabel helps her to see!

A passage that is particularly engaging is an encounter that she and Mabel have while out hunting, where they see a herd of deer some half a mile away. It seems that she recalls how her hawk, having already located a hare as potential prey, turns its' attention to the deer, 'some 30 Fallow Deer' near to a river. She says "The deer in procession resemble charcoal cave paintings rendered manifest. Art's magic working backwards." (Macdonald, H., p262). This imagistic reference of cave art provides more resonance to her identification as an illustrator; it gives more of a graphic meaning behind this primal notion of drawing as a form of recorded expression. It is clear that she recognises such importance as an artist herself, for not only the linguistic medium but clearly the graphic articulation as well. It is further expanded upon and again, has resonance with J.A. Baker, as she quotes "Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings." (p265). This imaginary place, this notion of something out there that perhaps no longer exists, this idea, maybe again, of a liminal place can equally be brought to bear in the sketches and images that I'm making too.

A sense of contentment begins to emerge towards the end of the book. It seems that Macdonald is re-finding her own feelings of happiness. She comments on her emotional state of mind in a short reflection of TH White's book "The Goshawk", and states "I have not thought of White for a while. As I grew happier his presence receded, his world more and more distant from mine." (p274).

This sense of happiness is also transmitted to Mabel, the goshawk too. "I know she is content: the half closed, happy I, the rattling of her feathers: these are signs of raw good humour. I cannot know what she's thinking, but she's very alive."(p275) The sensation of 'being alive' within herself provides an outlet of joy and happiness in Macdonald at last, it seems. It is evident again, now that her transference of soul into the hawk, while still tenuously present, has become more healthy. She thinks about how T.H. White has gone through such despair and sadness and goes on to say;

"I swear to myself, standing there with the book open in my hand ['s goshawk] is, that I will not ever reduce my hawk to hieroglyph, and historical figure or misremembered villain.… I can't. Because she is not human. Overall 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 in the 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." (Page 275)

This last selected paragraph, while not ultimately the  ending of her book, is a fitting conclusion of both a recognition of the incredible majesty of hawks (and Falcons), but also a tribute to the writer that she has been able to detach herself from an intense relationship with Mabel, and return to 'human-ness', with a continued and open sense of wonderment of the world(s) we inhabit.

Final Conclusions;


  • In final summary, the intertwining of Helen Macdonald's experiences of distress and grief, as she goes through the awful mourning of her late father, entwined with the agent of T.H. White's book "The Goshawk"(1951), provides an excellent setting and anchor points, for not only emotions to be explored and compared with, but also the psychological exploration of the relationship with a goshawk. In both cases, the relationship helps both writers to overcome their anguish and drive forward towards new beginnings. 
  • I thoroughly loved reading Helen Macdonald's book, it is a worthy prize-winner of the Samuel Johnson Prize for non-fiction (2014) and her intellectual and articulate style is incredibly appealing. So much so, that I have already ordered her earlier book entitled "Falcon"(2006) which will give me further reference material from a very credible and validated academic source, to continue with my theme.
  • In the meantime, my reading of Rebecca Solnit may have to be temporarily postponed while I read another book from a student of an associate of Solnit, that is, Professor Donna Haraway, and her student anthropologist Thom van Dooren, with his book "Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction" (2016) published by Columbia University Press, Chichester, West Sussex. 
  • There is a busy time in front of me!

Full References (inc. Previous blogs of this book review);

Auden, WH (1930) "Consider This" (first published 1930) in "The English Auden", edited by Mendelssohn, E.Faber and Faber (1978), p 46.
Baker, J.A. (1967) "The Peregrine", (2105 edition) HarperCollins Publishing, London.  
Blain, G. (1936), "She is Noble in her Nature"(pp229-230) from "Falconry",(1936), Phillip Allen, London.
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. (2002) "Wanderlust", Verso Books, London.
Solnit, R. (2006), " A Field Guide to Getting Lost", Canongate, Edinburgh. 
Van Dooren, T., (2016) "Flight Ways: Life and Loss at the Edge of Extinction" (2016) published by Columbia University press, Chichester, West Sussex. 
White, T.H. (1951), "The Goshawk", Jonathan Cape, London.

No comments:

Post a comment