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Delicious descriptions: Helen Macdonald on nature

March 4, 2016

Before I share the couple of quotes I saved for this post, from my review of Helen Macdonald’s H is for hawk, I want to mention one more idea that I considered including in my ever-lengthening review, and that’s the idea of a journey. I’m mentioning it now because Claire (of Word by Word) mentioned it in her comment on my post and because it was also mentioned in my reading group discussion. I sort of covered it when I said that the book could also be seen as a quest story, but I had planned to point to a specific reference Macdonald makes: “for years,” she says, “I’d scoffed at White’s notion of hawk training as a rite of passage”. She realises that there’s truth in his statement and that she too was trying to rebuild something. This, this “passage” from one mode of being to another is, in effect, a journey – and it is, in the end, the fundamental thing that the book chronicles.

(This is a good point to note the value of rereading! Macdonald, in the light of her current experience, reads White’s Goshawk very differently from the way she’d read it when she was a child with a child’s view of the world. I love it.)

Northern Goshawk

Northern Goshawk (Photo: Norbert Kenntner, Berlin, via Wikipedia using CC-BY-SA 3.0)

But now, Macdonald’s nature writing. The book abounds with descriptions of the nature – of the landscape, of the creatures within it. It’s intensely evocative, and sometimes confrontingly visceral. The first chapter, as well as the title itself, tells us that nature will be a significant aspect of the book. “Forty-five minutes northeast of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed” is the opening sentence. The last line (the postscript), too, is a natural description, albeit a more symbolic one worthy of the last line of a grief memoir! Nature, in other words, plays a complicated role in the book. It has a literal role, that is, it exists for its own sake. She clearly loves the natural world around her, has her “magical places”. But it has other roles too: complex, psychological ones, political ones*, as well as the more expected symbolic ones (like, you know, “the world itself started to grieve. The skies broke and it rained and rained”).

I touched on the psychology in my review when I referred to her starting to think and see like a hawk, seeing this as a way to escape her grief. But that’s just one aspect of her exploration of the relationship between psychology and nature. There’s TH White and what she calls his “moral magic trick”. It relates to his determination not to give in to his cruel urges – he never beat his students at Stowe school, for example. She says that animals played a “curious role” in his keeping this goal:

For White it was a moral magic trick, a way out of his conundrum. By skilfully training a hunting animal, by closely associating with it, by identifying with it, you might be allowed to experience all your vital, sincere desires, even your most bloodthirsty ones, in total innocence. You could be true to yourself.

In other words, you could shed, perhaps, your “perpetual disguise”.

Often though, she describes nature for its own sake – how it looks, how it feels, her experience of it. It’s a lived and earthy beauty:

It’s turned cold: cold so that saucers of ice lie in the mud, blank and crazed as antique porcelain. Cold so the hedges are alive with Baltic blackbirds; so cold that each breath hangs like parcelled seafog in the air. The blue sky rings with it, and the bell on Mabel’s tail leg is dimmed with condensation. Cold, cold, cold. My feet cracks the ice in the mud as I trudge uphill. And because the squeaks and grinding harmonics of fracturing ice sound to Mabel like a wounded animal, every step I take is met with a convulsive clench of her toes. Where the world isn’t white with frost, it’s striped green and brown in strong sunlight, so the land is parti-coloured and snapping backwards to dawn and forwards to dusk. The days, now, are a bare six hours long.

And here is Mabel in this season:

… Mabel has eaten nothing but quail for a week, and it’s made her a hot-tempered, choleric, Hotspur-on-coke, revenge-tragedy-protagonist goshawk. She is full of giddy nowhere-to-go desire. She foots her perch. She gets cross. She jumps in the bath and out again, and then in again. She glares …

So evocative, so drawn from experience – and such an inspiring command of language.

Macdonald’s England is pretty wild – full of brambles and thorns, of predators and prey – something I didn’t quite expect given my image of green pastures and tamed hedgerows! Towards the end she shares the lesson of her experience, which stems from the idea that we should not imbue nature with meanings from our human experience of the world, and then use that to “shore up our own views of the world”:

And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing for the wildness that animates it. Goshawks are things of death and blood and gore, but they are not excuses for atrocities. Their inhumanity is to be treasured because what they do has nothing to do with us at all.

Nature is to be valued, respected – and preserved – for itself.

You won’t be surprised to hear that Helen Macdonald is “a writer, poet, illustrator, historian and affiliate at the Department of History and Philosophy of Science at the University of Cambridge”.

* I may address this one in another post – if I can maintain the energy!

14 Comments leave one →
  1. March 5, 2016 1:56 am

    This is the part of the book I enjoyed most. So easy, it was, to immerse myself in that beautiful countryside. And then the hawking would intervene . . .

    • March 5, 2016 8:04 am

      I understand what you mean Diane … Yet the hawking was fascinating because I knew almost nothing about it. But I was not inspired to take it up!

  2. March 5, 2016 6:11 am

    Such a gorgeous bird and wonderful quotes! Thanks for sharing them 🙂

  3. March 5, 2016 12:13 pm

    Those quotes are heavenly. I’d resisted buying this book, but from these quotes, it sounds like every writer should own it, and underline and sticky note it. Oh, to be able to write like that!

    • March 5, 2016 12:27 pm

      Her writing is so evocative Louise – you can’t miss feeling what she’s saying can you.

  4. March 5, 2016 4:19 pm

    (I’m writing this before reading your whole post, because I suddenly was thinking…-> ) The part about Helen’s different readings of White at different stages of her life reminds me that I’ve been meaning to talk to you about how I read Girl of the Limberlost with a different eye this time around. I’m not sure whether I’d love it the way I do if I’d read it for the first time now (we should discuss why in person 🙂 ), for one, but also it was funny that I’ve always thought of Elnora as “so old and grown up” (and that is so much her characterisation as this impeccably, untarnishable, perfectly good creature) but she’s actually 16 at the beginning! She’s teeny!

    • March 5, 2016 4:38 pm

      Oh yes, Hannah, rereading can improve or not a book. Some books do belong to a time in one’s life and are best left there I think, while others bear reading and reading and reading.

  5. March 5, 2016 6:52 pm

    Thank you for writing this, Sue. And about the *, I hope you will write that too. 🙂

    My copy of the book arrived last week. I am planning to read it in April. It sounds like a wonderful book.

    • March 5, 2016 7:23 pm

      Thanks Deepika for the encouragement. I fear I’m going on too much, but I think I will because there is something else that is important to say.

      So glad you have to book. I hope you like it. There are some who don’t but somehow I think you will.

  6. ian darling permalink
    March 5, 2016 8:19 pm

    Wonderful excerpts, the saucers of ice image is just brilliant. In this wretchedly sodden winter we’ve just endured I could have done with a bit more of that cold weather so marvellously evoked here!

    • March 5, 2016 8:22 pm

      Ah Ian, I’m glad you liked the excerpts but I’m sorry you’ve had a wretched winter. Here’s to a better summer.

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