BY CHRISTINE EMMETT
Arguably, Helen Macdonald has written the most popular grief memoir since C.S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed. It’s a small genre, really, approached by those for whom loss is already a formidable part of life. And as with any genre, it has its classics – Lewis, Joan Didion, Julian Barnes – authors that have in many respects sealed their reputations by documenting what Barnes himself calls “that banal, unique thing.”
But Macdonald’s book, H is for Hawk, has been hugely more popular than most of its predecessors, and part of the reason for this is that her narration of grief is enmeshed in an account of her training a goshawk. Goshawks are notably tricky and irritable companions, and the sub-plot for Macdonald’s own story revolves around the author T.H.. White’s disastrous attempt at falconry, illustrating how relationships between humans and animals can become unbalanced and destructive.
So as readers measure Macdonald’s grief at the sudden loss of her father, the reader tracks the fragile partnership of Helen and the hawk. Much emphasis is given to the discipline of falconry, a mutual respect and restraint shared between the falconer and hawk, involving a slew of falconry terms and language: jesses, sails, pounces, trains, creances, crines, bating, muting, hooding. A striking aspect of the novel is this quite obscure jargon – rendered accessible through Macdonald’s writerly style.
“I made a few decisions while I was writing,” Macdonald tells me, “and one of those decisions was to not explain everything, particularly specialist falconry terms, various species and various ‘natural history’ type terminologies.” She tells me how the impulse to avoid cluttering the text with explanations comes from her reading of military techno-thrillers (think Tom Clancy), in which readers are treated as though they’re experts in the field:
“[Those books], they’re always full of military jargon, but they never explain what those things mean. I think it’s a generous act – one of the problems with nature writing is that quite often you get the feeling that the author is basically too happy to explain; like aren’t you lucky to have me to explain this to you! I didn’t want to go that route, so I just decided to put it all down and hope that people would find the context meaningful.”
It’s an effective strategy, and it’s one of the aspects of the book that immerses you in that space forged between animals and humans. Too often in everyday life, this space of compromise is understood as the responsibility of the ‘tamed’ or ‘domesticated’ animal. So we’re left with feelings of suburban uncanniness when the loveable family dog kills the neighbour’s toy-pom, or when, as in Macdonald’s narrative, the hawk unknowingly flies into the neighbour’s plot, hunting animals that belong to someone else.
“I think what’s interesting to me about it,” I tell Macdonald, “is the extent to which you can share a kinship with animals and feel that you have domesticated them, but there is always a level of wildness which remains. They don’t have the same feelings about death and life, and because we’ve brought animals into our spaces we somehow expect them to abide by our social contracts.”
This antagonism is interestingly represented in Jonathan Franzen’s novel, Freedom. One of Franzen’s characters, Walter, passionately advocates curbing human population growth which, he believes will inevitably result in environmental destruction, suffering and death (the campaign bizarrely only gains momentum, when Walter’s adherents mistakenly adopt the proto-fascist slogan “cancer-on-the-earth”). Similarly, Walter later canvases his suburban neighbours to stop their pet cats from hunting wild birds. Both campaigns seem to be doomed from the outset, reflecting something about Walter himself, but also the contradictory ways in which we understand ourselves, animals and the natural environment.
“Cats are fascinating in this regard,” Macdonald tells me, “because they do kill billions and billions of birds, mammals and reptiles every year. And yet in many places this is just seen as ‘natural behaviour’. Now this is interesting, because obviously it is a natural instinct [for cats to hunt], but people claim it’s acceptable because it is ‘natural’. And of course it’s not natural in the sense that [in developed countries] the cats are all well-fed, and so the population of cats in an area is often much greater than the natural prey can support. So cats can have a devastating effect on local ecosystems.”
“But if you look carefully at any of the cultures surrounding animals in today’s human world, there are all sorts of contradictions,” she explains. “We give things our own meanings, we give things human meanings, and yet underneath they’re not us – they’re never us. And the same goes for the hawk: hawks aren’t domesticated, so they come to stand for these remote symbols of wildness, ferocity and rarity, but if you get to know them, they are really complicated and bewitchingly idiosyncratic creatures. And as I say at the end of the book, we should value them because they’re not us – they’re nothing like us.”
It is perhaps this radical difference that both Macdonald appears to cleave towards in the book. Macdonald’s training of the hawk allows her to remove herself from society in the midst of her grief. “It was an imaginative immersion” she accedes, “in the book she [the hawk] was everything that I wanted to be: solitary, independent, slightly murderous – and she didn’t experience human emotions. I wanted to be more like her than a person.”
This awareness that the natural world could serve as a mechanism for radical isolation, rather than a fluffy return to essential humanity, is one ways in which H is for Hawk breaks the mould of generic nature/animal memoirs. “People have asked me before, what did the hawk do? Sometimes people pick up the book and expect it to be a heart-warming story about how I was very very sad, and then somehow a hawk made me feel better. Obviously that’s not what happened.
“The hawk was a kind of vehicle for radical dislocation and escape. I think that if there hadn’t been a hawk, I would have found some other way to run away. I needed that time to become a different person. And I think anyone who’s suffered a loss knows it: you never get over losses. This nonsense that you’ll get over it someday – I think that’s dangerous. You have to grow and become a new person – a person who incorporates that grief and loss within you. And that was what the time with the hawk was about.”
In a sense, then, what Macdonald manages in her book is to contextualise our contradictory relationship towards animals and nature in terms of the contradictions surrounding discourses of death and grief.
“We do have a weird relationship to death” she notes. “We don’t see it ever, unless it’s very personal. People die in other places, animals die behind walls in slaughter houses. We very rarely witness death anymore. And I think that’s a very interesting phenomenon. One of the things that happened with Mabel [the hawk] of course is that because she was hunting – as I say in the book, when goshawks catch animals they don’t kill them cleanly they just start eating and at some point the animal dies. So I had to run along and put these animals out of their misery.”
“So, I was seeing death daily, which would seem a very ironic thing to do. You know, to run away from death and yet somehow put yourself in its way. But it was a great mystery and it was a sense that… As I say in the book, I felt very accountable and responsible for those deaths; it was a very sobering experience. But also it gave me this incredibly strong realisation that, you know, none of us are here very long.”
I ask Macdonald whether part of hunting with the hawk wasn’t about putting herself in a position where, rather than grieving, being on the receiving side of death, she could elicit it, control it. But the word control is anathema, so she jumps in: “A lot of people seem to think that falconry is about control, that it’s about subduing the wild fierceness of the raptor. That kind of understanding is utterly alien to me. Rather, it’s about a partnership with a creature that at any point could just fly away. So to me, it’s quite an enlightened relationship.”
Similarly, when I suggest that she may have been hoping to exert a semblance of control over the general chaos and arbitrariness of death, she quite urgently denies it. “That’s a kind of beat death by becoming a killer – the old thing from all detective stories. No, that’s not what happened. I didn’t think about death in those terms. The hawk represented life to me. It was this very vibrant, living creature without a grieving past, without any human qualities, and that was an incredible escape.”
This is a fascinating claim, because to my mind, death is tangled up in life – what appear as contradictory motivations are precisely those aspects of death that are difficult to integrate in our self-understandings. And so I push this question: “How much do you think ascribing that kind of life-giving quality to the hawk has to do with the fact that the hawk is able to mete out death in a way that is not human?”
“Ya, I guess” she temporarily concedes. “I mean, what other animals work like that? I guess being caught up in grief is always about a little part of you that wants to exert revenge upon the world, but I don’t think that’s what it was –”
“But perhaps this is more about mastery? As though, if one could master –”
“No. I wanted to disappear. I didn’t want mastery. I wanted to not be me anymore.” She points me to a book review which offers a reading that’s more palatable. But I am trying to nudge her towards something perhaps more perverse about death: its capacity to wipe away our sense of order and control, and what I perceive as the integrally human desire to regain it.
But beyond my heavy-handing of this issue, this seems to me to be a patent issue about discussions on grief. At any point, as with any relationship, there are aspects and impulses that we exhibit that we can’t bear to acknowledge. And it is the myth of “pure” grief (as sorrow, as suffering) that seems to exclude a number of less honourable feelings.
One aspect we do agree on, though, is the absurdity of “healing in the wild”. “I got very cross recently,” she tells me. “Quite often, now, I come across arguments for saving the natural world because it’s good for our mental health. For instance: it’s been proven that depression can be helped by going out into the green for 20 minutes a day. It [this argument] reduces everything to a question of how well the environment makes people feel. And I think that’s incredibly dangerous. Unconsciously, I bought into that nature-writing chestnut: that if you are miserable, nature will heal you. That’s the structure of so many books on nature; that it’s this kind of Arcadian infinite source of solace and renewal…. No, I bought into that slightly with the hawk and I went too far. I just went way too far.”
Timothy Treadwell, documented in Werner Herzog’s film Grizzly Man, provides one example of “going too far”. Treadwell, an environmentalist and somewhat crazed bear enthusiast (“I’m in love with my animal friends. I’m in love with my animal friends!”), spent months living amongst grizzly bears, in an attempt to heal and escape. Yet, Herzog highlights how fundamentally he mistakes his relation to the bear colony; eventually he is attacked and eaten by the animals he so loves. Herzog summarizes this misinterpretation pithily:
What haunts me, is that in all the faces of all the bears that Treadwell ever filmed, I discover no kinship, no understanding, no mercy. I see only the overwhelming indifference of nature. To me, there is no such thing as a secret world of the bears. And this blank stare speaks only of a half-bored interest in food. But for Timothy Treadwell, this bear was a friend, a saviour.
“Exactly,” Macdonald assents, when I bring up Herzog’s film. “But you know what? That film is very interesting, because when I watched it I thought clearly Treadwell hadn’t a clue about what nature might be or what bears are… But then neither has Herzog! Herzog is exactly as invested in a narrative of nature. For him it’s all death, disorder and horror. And I think both of those are lamentably flat readings of what the natural world is… And that’s what makes that film so fascinating: these two completely bizarre poles of natural history.”
Similarly, she points out another mythology implicit in our understanding of what the natural world is. “In the 70s and 80s, ancient forests [i.e. forests that had always been there] became hugely fetishised as historically and ecologically important areas… But it’s more complicated than that actually. The longer a forest has been there, the more complex its ecosystem will be, because it’s had longer to develop those communities. But it’s not that people were obsessed with ancient forests because of the life that was there now. [They were obsessed] because [the forests] reached back to a time – ancient Britain. It was this kind of romantic sense of the past still existing. And I think this romantic sense of virtual time-travel is really caught up in a lot of the cultures around nature.”
Similarly, cultures around hunting seem to produce their own array of interpretations. One of the impressive features of the book is that though it does not present a glamourous image of what is effectively hunting with the hawk, it does not hesitate in its portrayal. “How do you feel about hunting then?” I ask.
“So the cultures of hunting in Europe are extraordinarily varied and cause enormous amounts of invective, upset and concern,” she points out. “Obviously, I hunted with Mabel [the hawk]. I think, ecologically, it had almost no impact at all. But I have great problems with some of the cultures of hunting. I think trophy hunting is problematic, even if the money is used for conservation. That’s a personal view of mine, and I think it has to do with the animal being reduced to a measure of someone’s prestige and understanding of themselves; I think that’s kind of grim.”
I point out to her that these ideas about prestige, power and masculinity have a particular purchase in South Africa, where, as with any colony, narratives of the landscape often had to do with subduing, cultivating and conquering it.
“All those dreadful imperialist narratives that depend on you fighting the wild and carving out your place in it,” she notes. “I think that’s partly why trophy hunting rankles so much with people today. You have these visual images (and these ‘trophy shots’ are what the outrage always collects around) of people grinning by dead things. And I think it’s very clear to most people that we’re living in an age where that antagonistic relationship to nature, where nature needs to be controlled and cut down and to be kind of made ‘human’, this fight of civilisation – we know that it’s bogus now. It doesn’t make sense anymore, and that’s part of what supports the outrage. That relationship to nature just seems incredibly out of date to many people.”
But as we invariably turn towards the furore surrounding the killing of Cecil the lion and consider the dubiousness of the media attention granted to this one animal because it happened to have been given a name, she cautions that ecological thinking also can’t be delineated purely along pragmatic terms.
“The problem with pragmatic thinking is that it doesn’t attach you deeply to things, so we could talk about ecosystem services and how much a tree is worth… But ultimately, with people, that’s not as strong a grounding for trying to protect the tree as someone loving it. So when protestors started climbing up trees to prevent them from getting knocked down because roads were being built in the ’80s; that wasn’t because they thought that trees were worth money and could help them build the economy, that was because they loved the trees.”
In closing the interview, I ask her to comment on these various quandaries surrounding death and nature. “That’s a life’s work rather than an answer!” she smiles. “The scientist within me thinks, well, we should think about the health of ecosystems, rather than individual animals. And I certainly think there should be a sense of scale, but it is the case that as soon as you individually know a particular animal, it becomes very important to you, and I don’t think we should discount that.”
“So” she says, “I think one should always understand your own personal attachments to various parts of nature, and where they come from. And then you can try to see past them and try to work out, maybe, a dynamic balance.”
Macdonald is bubbly and talkative, and the interview races by. But our discussion doesn’t end optimistically. There’s a sense of impending loss, starkly in keeping with our subject matter. “It’s really dark times.” She tells me. “We’re screwing the natural world so fast right now. It’s deeply, deeply concerning.”
H is for Hawk is published by Vintage (UK) and Grove/Atlantic.
Photograph: Marzena Pogorzaly