“I am the hawk, and there’s blood on my feathers, but time is still turning, they soon will be dry.” —John Denver, “The Eagle and the Hawk”
Stop the eye-rolling and haughty, hipster harrumphs. It’s been established that I’m not too proud to drop a little John Denver. And don’t try to tell me you don’t know all the words to “Take Me Home, Country Roads” or “Rocky Mountain High.” Stay with me; I’ll bring it full-circle.
About a year ago, a reader and fellow blogger (check her out at: Isobel and Cat) recommended Helen Macdonald’s H Is for Hawk in response to a post in which I referenced T.H. White’s The Goshawk, both books about—in the very broadest sense—falconry. Macdonald’s marvelous memoir, which I only recently got around to, finds the British naturalist and writer grieving the loss of her father and reconnecting with a childhood passion for falconry by raising and training a goshawk, an intimate endeavor that also provided a troubling retreat from life. White, a British author best known for The Sword in the Stone and The Once and Future King, also sought sanctuary from society when he took to an isolated cabin in the 1930s to write and to train his raptor, Gos (The Goshawk, incidentally, was not published until 1951 after White’s editor discovered a draft by accident).
While Macdonald acquired her skills through rigorous study and hands-on experience, White set forth on his falconry effort with only a few books, the most referenced one having been written in the early 1600s. White’s darkly comic account is filled with anger and self-loathing, largely due to his own incompetence, and though he rages at his hawk, he also feels deep affection for it. When Gos refuses to return to him, White goes through pitiable efforts to recover the bird; Gos eventually vanishes into the woods.
In H Is for Hawk, Macdonald recalls reading The Goshawk as a child and being unmoved by White’s plight. But after her father died prematurely and unexpectedly, Macdonald stumbled across White’s book and gave it another chance; this time, the subtext resonated.
As most homosexuals of his day, White was closeted. Abused as a child and void of affection as an adult, and with the escalation toward World War II rumbling in the background (“I did not disapprove of war,” he states in The Goshawk, “but feared it much”), White at age 30 resigned from a teaching position and retreated from humanity. In the process, however, he took a creature whose feral nature he admired and whose freedom he envied (“The word ‘feral’ has a kind of magic potency which allied itself to two other words, ‘ferocious’ and ‘free,’” he writes), and made it captive to the very things he had been a victim of and was trying to escape.
Though a more thoughtful falconer than White, Macdonald was also waging her own internal battles, which often manifested themselves through her relationship with her goshawk, Mabel. Less prone to anthropomorphizing than White, Macdonald in her withdrawal rather found herself taking on hawk-like traits: “I was nervous, highly strung, paranoid, prone to fits of terror and rage…”
In sorting through her emotions and actions, Macdonald disparages the notion of “escaping to the wild” in response to turmoil. She trashes John Muir’s sentiment that “Earth hath no sorrows that earth cannot heal” as “a beguiling but dangerous lie.” She writes often that “hands are for other human hands to hold.”
Yet she acknowledges the leading role Mabel played in her self-realization, and she bemoans mankind’s increasing disconnect from the natural world:
“I think of what wild animals are in our imaginations. And how they are disappearing — not just from the wild, but from people’s everyday lives, replaced by images of themselves in print and on screen. The rarer they get, the fewer meanings animals can have. …I couldn’t love or understand hawks as much as I do if I’d only ever seen them on screens. I’ve made a hawk part of a human life and a human life part of a hawk’s, and it has made the hawk a million times more complicated and full of wonder to me.”
Nature inarguably has therapeutic value, but Macdonald’s message in part is that we shouldn’t seek it out only in times of distress, and we can’t rely on it to repair despair. White’s disastrous experience with Gos illustrates her point.
In her foreword to a new edition of The Goshawk, Macdonald notes “humanity’s lamentable inability to see nature as anything other than a mirror of ourselves.” This limited perspective, and this tendency to use the natural world to fill a void, also applies to many pet owners (both White and Macdonald make clear a hawk is not prone to domestication); when his beloved Irish setter died, White responded with a series of heart-wrenching letters to a friend in which he admits the dog was a “reservoir for my love.”
But our pets are also ambassadors to the animal kingdom. They offer glimpses of the wolf, the tiger, and encourage us to look at a world bigger than ourselves. On my first hike with Reese 15 years ago, he came to a sudden halt in a wooded corridor along northern Montana’s Swan River, his attention directed upward. Perched in a towering bare tree were two bald eagles; a third glided in figure-eights overhead.
John Denver, from “The Eagle and the Hawk:” “And all those who see me, and all who believe in me, share in the freedom I feel when I fly.”