Helen Macdonald, The human flock (Commentary)

I know, I know, I sound like I’m obsessed with Helen Macdonald. I’m not, but I am interested in nature and landscape, and she has thought and researched at length about the topic. I’ve called this post a commentary, because it’s not a review. Rather, I’m going to draw on both an On Nature column she wrote for The New York Times Magazine and her book H is for hawk (my review) – and look at a political issue she raised in both writings.

I’ll start with a comment that occurs near the beginning of H is for hawk. Early in her hawk training sessions, she takes Mabel out walking in the streets of her town, but almost no-one speaks to her. They all saw her, she says, how could they not, but “they just pretended they hadn’t”. Except for those who did. A man from Kazakhstan saw her. They discuss Kazakh falconers, and he tells her “I miss my country”. A Mexican cyclist “skids to a halt” and admires Mabel, saying he’s never seen a hawk so close, only high in the sky where they are “free”. And then she realises

that in all my days of walking with Mabel the only people who have come up and spoken to us have been outsiders: children, teenage goths, homeless people, overseas students, travellers, drunks, people on holiday … I feel ashamed of my nation’s reticence. Its desire to keep walking, to move on, not to comment, not to interrogate, not to take any interest in something peculiar, unusual, in anything that isn’t entirely normal.

I thought, interesting, but moved on, with her, to the next part of her story.

Then, late in the book, she’s out walking with Mabel again, and runs into a retired couple she knows. They exchange pleasantries, including discussing the beauty of a herd of deer they’d all seen. Their conversation concludes with:

“Doesn’t it give you hope?” he says suddenly.
“Yes,” he says. “Isn’t it a relief that there’re things still like that, a real bit of Old England still left, despite all these immigrants coming in.”

Helen is horrified, but says nothing. However, as she walks home she thinks

… I should have said something. But embarrassment had stopped my tongue. Stomping along, I start pulling on the thread of darkness they’d handed me.

She thinks of why and how people and creatures move between countries, of Göring’s desire to move Jews from Germany, of Finnish goshawks in England, of a Lithuanian mushroom gatherer in England who couldn’t understand why English people didn’t know which mushrooms in their woods were and weren’t edible. She says:

I think of all the complicated histories that landscapes have, and how easy it is to wipe them away, put easier, safer histories in their place.

Today’s “Old England”, for example, is not, actually, the England of 100 years ago, let alone 400 hundred years ago, given the impact of settlement and agriculture on the land and its “natural” inhabitants. And those deer? Well, they and the hare are “legacies of trade and invasion”, albeit back to Roman times. Immigrants in their day, in fact. She suggests that instead of fighting “for landscapes that remind us of who we think we are”, we should “fight, instead, for landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness”.

Starling murmuration

Starling murmuration, by Walter Baxter, using CC BY-SA 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

This brings me to the article, “Human flock”, she wrote for The New York Times Magazine. It’s about waiting and watching at a lake in Hungary for a flock of Eurasian cranes on their southward migration. Are you catching my (her) drift now? She talks of various migrating birds, sandhill cranes, snow geese, and starlings. She describes a murmuration, the collective noun for a flock of starlings. She discusses why these birds flock. The reasons include for protection (out of fear), to signpost where they are to other starlings, and for warmth. These flocks, though, are also made up of “thousands of beating hearts and eyes”, of individual birds in other words..

As she watches and thinks, her mind turns to “more human matters”, to the “razor-wire fence” built by the Hungarian government to keep Syrian refugees out. She writes:

Watching the flock has brought home to me how easy it is to react to the idea of masses of refugees with the same visceral apprehension with which we greet a cloud of moving starlings or tumbling geese, to view it as a singular entity, strange and uncontrol­lable and chaotic. But the crowds coming over the border are people just like us — perhaps too much like us.

The flock made her realise that “in the face of fear, we are all starlings, a group, a flock made of a million souls seeking safety”. But flocks can also be transformed into “individuals and small family groups wanting the simplest things: freedom from fear, food, a place to safely sleep”. It’s a powerful statement for humanity. And I like the way it picks up ideas she touched on but didn’t explore at depth in H is for hawk.

Nature, or, more accurately, exploring its meaning for us and our relationship to it, is clearly an ongoing project for her. I’ll be interested to see how her ideas develop – but for now, you may be pleased to know, I’m moving on to other books and ideas!

PS Helen Macdonald gave the closing address at the 2015 Sydney Writers’ Festival on “On looking at nature”. She gets into nature, history, culture and diversity. It runs for around 38 minutes, and makes for great listening.

Helen Macdonald
“On Nature: The human flock” in The New York Times Magazine, December 6, 2015.
Available: Online

Delicious descriptions: Helen Macdonald on nature

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!

Helen Macdonald, H is for hawk (Review)

Helen Macdonald, H is for hawkMy reading really has been rather odd lately. I’ve read a memoir about horse-racing (Gerald Murnane’s Something for the pain), a novel about hedge-funds and investment banking (Kate Jenning’s Moral hazard), and now a grief memoir focused on falconry (Helen Macdonald’s H is for hawk). None of these are topics I would naturally pick up, but in each case I’ve enjoyed being presented these very different worlds. H is for hawk, this post’s subject, is additionally interesting because it combines three different forms of writing – memoir, biography and nature writing.

T. H. White lecturing on his Arthurian fiction (Courtesy John J. Burns Library, Boston College, via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0).

TH White (Courtesy John J. Burns Library, Boston College, via Wikipedia CC BY 2.0).

As I don’t read reviews before I read books, I really didn’t know what I was getting in for, except that I understood it was about a woman managing her grief through raising a hawk. It is about this, but it is about so much more too, including being a sort of mini-biography of novelist TH White. You probably know White through his most famous works, The once and future king and The sword in the stone, but you may not know that he also wrote a book called Goshawk about the training of his goshawk called Gos. Imaginative name that! Macdonald was far more creative. She named hers Mabel! (She does explain this surprising tame-sounding name).

Many people have written about falconry over the years so why does Macdonald light on TH White? Well, it’s complicated. She had read Goshawk when she was a young girl, and hadn’t much liked it. However, she read it again and

saw more in it than bad falconry … White made it a metaphysical battle. Like Moby-Dick or The old man and the sea, The goshawk was a literary encounter between animal and man that reached back to Puritan traditions of spiritual contest …

White, you see, wrote it after he’d left his teaching post in 1936 to live in a workman’s cottage. He was fleeing a world in which he, a homosexual, didn’t fit, a world in which he had to live “in perpetual disguise”. Macdonald suddenly recognises a fellow-feeling, writing that

I felt, for the first time, that my urge to train a hawk was for reasons that weren’t entirely my own. Partly they were his.

Because MacDonald was training her hawk to escape her grief following the sudden death of her beloved father. She was, she writes, “running” like White. Both, we gradually learn, experience a sort of madness that they need to resolve and recover from.

And so the book progresses in fits and starts, but chronologically so, as Macdonald parallels the awful and sad story of White and Gos with hers and Mabel’s. It makes fascinating reading.

Now, this book has been out for well over a year. It won the Samuel Johnson Prize for Non-fiction (which our very own Anna Funder won for Stasiland) among other awards and shortlistings. It’s been comprehensively reviewed, I believe, so I fear reiterating what others have said before. Consequently, I’m just going to give a broad brush overview of my response to it (and follow up with a Delicious Descriptions post of some of its truly gorgeous nature writing).

To start with, I enjoyed it immensely. It fits into what we call literary or creative non-fiction. That is, it uses some novelistic techniques such as dialogue, poetic imagery and a narrative arc, but it is very definitely non-fiction. It contains a lot of fact about her life, and much research about falconry and TH White. And there are several pages of end-notes identifying sources of quotes, though these notes are not flagged in the text.

I was fascinated by her stories of falconry – her own and from the past – and I am always interested in the lives of writers. Macdonald is an historian by profession, and weaves history through the telling of her own experiences. Although as a child she had agreed with the general censure of White’s training of Gos, as an adult she is more sympathetic, empathising with White’s loneliness and understanding his lack of knowledge and experience. I must say that while I was intellectually interested in the falconry, I would be among those of her friends who find the idea “morally suspect”. It seems a cruel activity to me – and, in fact, cruelty is one of the many threads running through the book. White, who had been physically and emotionally abused as a child, was, apparently, a “sadomasochist”, though Macdonald argues that he consciously worked to keep that part of himself at bay.

This brings me to another aspect of the book I enjoyed – the way she weaves multiple ideas or themes through it. Freedom is one. Macdonald seeks it through her hawk:

The hawk was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self-possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life.

Hawks seek it too, sometimes. Macdonald describes “bating”, in which a bird tries to fly from a fist or perch while still attached, as a “wild bid for freedom”. And White definitely seeks freedom. Macdonald frequently refers to his desire for it. She quotes his own writing:

A longing came to my mind, then, that I should be able to do this also. The word ‘feral’ had a kind of magical potency which allied itself with two other words, ‘ferocious’ and ‘free’ … To revert to a feral state I took a farm-labourer’s cottage …

Feral. This word conjures another theme, that of wildness. Both White and Macdonald revert to wildness in their own way – by training wild birds, and by withdrawing from society. Macdonald describes how she becomes, essentially, one with her hawk. She starts to think and see like a hawk, and is taken, she writes, “to the very edge of being human”. Eventually though, sense returns. She comes to understand that falconry is “a balancing act between wild and tame” – and not just for the hawk! She rejects American naturalist John Muir’s “earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal”, arguing instead that “the wild is not a panacea for the human soul.” All this makes me think that there’s a fourth form of writing that this book could fit into – the quest story – because it is, fundamentally, a quest for sanity and peace, for both Macdonald and White.

There are other ideas and themes, but I fear that my broad brush is starting to become a fine pen. I will write a little about nature and the environment in my Delicious Descriptions post, so will end my main analysis here.

I read this with my reading group. Some found Macdonald a little too self-obsessed for their liking. Why did the death of her father create such a schism in her soul? Why was she not able to see that her mother’s need, as the bereaved spouse, was surely greater? I wondered a little about this too, though it didn’t affect my appreciation of the book. The answer is, I suppose, that we are all different. For whatever reason – timing, perhaps, the quality of the father-daughter relationship, definitely – Macdonald’s father’s death knocked her for a six. Having accepted that as a given, I found H is for hawk a thoughtful, complex book that engaged me from the start.

This is a long post, I know, but I want to share one more thing. It occurs two-thirds of the way through the book, and, to me at least, shares one of life’s important lessons:

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. 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.

Helen Macdonald
H is for hawk
London: Vintage Books, 2014
300 pp.
ISBN: 9780099575450