Tuesday, August 11, 2015

A House Filled with Wildness

H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald (Penguin-Random House, 2015) 300 pages

I would not have thought that as a frightened as I am of animal violence (and birds) that I would grow to love Helen MacDonald's descriptions of the fierce goshawk named Mabel that she trains in this memoir. She recounts her acquiring and training this particularly fierce bird in the aftermath of her father's death as a way of coping with the grief.

Something unravels in Helen when her beloved father dies - a photographer and as avid a lover of nature and birds as Helen - she has lost a soul mate. She sinks into a depression that, oddly, only the purchase of a goshawk seems to alleviate. Does she require the taming of something wild, might that tame her tumultuous heart?

Her love of fierce birds comes early to her. One day, as a young girl, her father brings her to a group of men who practice falconry. She describes her first encounter with goshawks and the quiet, stolid men who own and train them. The birds were described in historical texts that Macdonald pores over as "ruffians, murderous, difficult to tame, sulky, fractious and foreign". They perched in trees above the men at times, refusing to return to their owners.

These men did not seem annoyed, fatalistic merely. They shrugged their waxed cotton shoulders ... we trudged on into the gloom. There was something of the doomed polar expedition about it all, a kind of chivalric Edwardian vibe.
Her first goshawk, imported from another country, is so intimidating that she requests a smaller one. In the process of reacquainting herself with goshawks she re-reads T.H. White's The Goshawk - the T.H. White of the Arthurian novels including The Once and Future King. White was a brilliant but troubled man who harbored sadistic fantasies and repressed his homosexuality. The violence of the goshawk becomes a conduit for all his violent and unruly feelings and, consciously or unconsciously, the same may be true for MacDonald. 

White's early life was harrowing, volatile. His parents fought viciously and violently with each other and the boy often feared that he might be murdered (one night he woke to find both parents struggling with a pistol over his bed - he presumed that one of them meant o to shoot the boy). 

When his father built a child-size castle and installed a real pistol into the brick work, he told his son that he would fire the gun on White's birthday. The boy became convinced that his father had planned to kill him on that day. Hi childhood was filled with "dictators and madmen", vicious corporal punishment from school masters, marital turmoil - no wonder that his thoughts were filled with senseless violence. Perhaps MacDonald sought some of this violence too ...  She notes:
The hawk had filled the house with wildness as a bowl of lilies fills a house with scent. 
MacDonald ponders why goshawks have such an intense reputation amongst falconers. She surmises, after a thoughtless comment from a friend's husband, that " ... unlike other animals that have lived in such close proximity to man, they have never been domesticated. It's made them a powerful symbol in myriad cultures, and a symbol, too, of things that need to be mastered and tamed". Like women, she adds wryly.
If she is not mad, she is very close to it at the time. Bills go unpaid. She is unkempt and does not eat well. She lives alone and sees hardly no one. When she sees a woman scraping a decal of a skylark off a window in a business in town she is apoplectic. Mabel's sometime lack of response drives her to misery and insecurity.

I'd turned myself into hawk …  I was nervous, high strung, paranoid, prone to fits of terror and rage; I ate greedily or didn't eat at all; I fled from society, hid from everything, found myself drifting into strange states where I wasn't certain who was or what I was ... I had assumed [Mabel's] alien perspective.

Eventually Macdonald pulls herself out of her depression long enough to seek professional help - but it is a long and tortuous process and she is largely alone during it.

I must admit that I had to read the book in short passages - its melancholy was too fierce and I felt myself being pulled into its emotional trough at times. I was exhilarated to find her resist the pull of madness, of violence, and to thrive again amongst the goshawks in us all.

Helen and Mabel

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