Reaction: H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald
No memoir has ever hit as close to home as this one for me. I share with the author a love of animals, natural places, history, science, and literature. But reading the book, it felt as though we shared something even more fundamental.
I see my childhood mirrored in Helen’s: driven by a need for communion with animals, we both looked to established traditions that brought wild animals into our homes, to live alongside us. While she immersed herself in falconry and I opted for aquariums, the parallels are striking. Unfortunately both practices — especially when approached naively — have some element of subjugation of those animals. However, it also became clear that the daily exercise of stepping into the mind of a creature that is alien, yet somehow familiar (be it a fish or a bird) can eventually strengthen one’s capacity for empathy and can be an incredible salve for the burdens and absurdities of our human society.
The book is all environments and emotions. Events and people pepper the story with appearances, but (as is a common experience for most introverts, I’d think), these form more of a backdrop, while the inner workings her mind and raw experiences of nature form the center of her world. As for her hawk, for Helen every smell, breeze, and flash of light is eventful:
After lunch I take Mabel up to the hill. Fractious gusts of wind rattle the hedgerows, blowing voluminous shoals of leaves over us as we walk up the track. There’s sticky mud, and pheasant prints in it. Flocks of fieldfares chak chak and dodge in the hawthorns by the cow field, breaking low when we get too near, bouncing over the hedge and away in thrushy strobes of black and white. … Mabel is fizzing with happiness, wagging her tail in barely suppressed excitement, tummy feathers fluffed over her grippy toes, eyes gleaming in the silver sun. If this hawk could speak, she’d be singing under her breath. Something has changed inside me. Today it’s hard to slip into the exquisite, wordless sharpness of being a hawk. Or rather, the hawk seems more human today.
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