At the opening of H Is for Hawk (Grove Press, 2014), the author enters a strange and mottled landscape. She is there to see goshawks—it’s a desire that anticipates grief. The ability to watch, to wait—these are skills learned from her father. He dies three weeks after this outing. The mourning that begins at that moment slowly unravels throughout the remaining pages. It is brutally, unavoidably present, but also hidden in every aspect of the author’s life. Her training of Mabel, a goshawk, her encounter with T.H. White, her struggles with family and friends (and academia)—mourning finds its way into each of these.
But this landscape—how does it fit into mourning and death? The Brecklands are, Macdonald explains, a bizarre and contingent place. Just north of Cambridge, they emerged from a history which runs between economics, nature, agriculture, war, and violence. American air force bases represent perhaps the most obvious instance of these intersections. But these narratives touch in subtler ways as well: as Macdonald walks deeper into this curious world, she notes a pond, once a bomb crater left from WWII, and flint, remnants of Neolithic industry, strewn about the hard ground. Later, she finds sand and dunes. Hundreds of years ago, famers destroyed otherwise rich soil with continuous grazing of rabbits and sheep. Today, the landscape is alien, the product of an “alternative countryside history.”
This is standard fare for a historian of science. Nature is not pre-existent or pure. It is always, and has always been, a construction, a hodge-podge, often built with pieces shaped by inequality, conflict, and power. To speak of nature is not to reference some true, eternal environment, but to engage in a type of truth-making, one which can serve both to dismantle established regimes and solidify the status quo. It’s a joy to read H Is for Hawk for this reason: Macdonald, affiliated with the History and Philosophy of Science faculty at Cambridge, brings a historian’s eye and a literary mind to nature, to England, and to falconry. To train a goshawk is to build a relationship with a formidable creature, but also to enter a history marked by class and hierarchy. Elites flew falcons, as they require greater space and resources; others, lacking the luxuries of an estate, flew goshawks. These austringers acquired a reputation. It was as indebted to the temperament of their birds as to their economic circumstances.
But Macdonald does not talk about falconry with the aim of demythologizing the sport, or of exposing some horrific past. And this is what makes H Is for Hawk more valuable than the most detailed historical study. It moves past contextualization to something else. It explores the knotty history (and present) of falcons, goshawks, and landscapes to ask another set of questions. Macdonald ends her visit to the Brecklands with an affirmation: “I love it because of all the places I know in England, it feels to me the wildest. It’s not an untouched wilderness like a mountaintop, but a ramshackle wildness in which people and the land have conspired to strangeness.” You don’t find wild in some unspoiled vision of nature. You find it in a messy one, one compromised by humans and machines and work.
This is the connection between land and mourning: both are embedded in history, in the present, and yet both give way to something visceral and clear. Both point us back to context, while sublimating our own encounter with it. How is this possible? Phrased only slightly differently, and translated into the language of a field closer to my own, this question reads: how can we experience the sacred in the secular, when we know that there exists no real boundary between the two, that the two are in fact endlessly bound together, inextricable and dissolving?
“A herd of deer,” he says, beaming, then his expression folds into something I don’t recognize.
“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?”
I don’t know what to say.
Macdonald leaves in silence—the exchange is excruciating. Later, she offers a vigorous correction: “Old England is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings, picturesque engravings.” Old England is a flight from history, a retreat towards something otherworldly, unreal, simplified and complete. It neglects the gritty, human past for something pushed beyond time. It is the equivalent of some heavenly realm, or of a moment of total illumination. It’s a mirage that legitimizes power and exclusion and ignores the tangled ways which that cloud of concepts we might call the sacred appears in the everyday.
Elsewhere, Macdonald moves towards this separate beyond—she dreams of “landscapes buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness,” a call whose version of life seems to verge on the mystical. She finds the mundane tasks of arranging a funeral, selecting a casket, amusing and hopelessly trivial. These are moments of excess, or in which the material fails to approach the depth of mourning.
Yet the instances that, for me, resonate most are those in which, as with the land, meaning and material, sacred and secular, are stitched into one another, so tight the seams disappear. An emptied, urban park becomes a nighttime world of echoes and shadow. A hawk’s hood becomes an object of beauty, but also a tool of politics and war that races through history. The items of domesticity become a comfort to T.H. White, a way out of emotional and sexual turmoil. Warplanes obsess Macdonald’s father; she is fascinated by falcons; the two fliers merge to form a strange bond of watchfulness and love.
This is an alternative way of thinking about transcendence, one entirely immanent. It bridges the wild and the human: “Wild things are made from human histories.” And yet it doesn’t sacrifice wonder to the detail of history. It reimagines it within a different frame, one lived in the material and immediate. This is a book about any number of topics: falconry, death, T.H. White, sexuality, and history. But these come together to point toward something more. It is a story of objects and animals and their contexts. It is a story of everyday magic, of religion in the modern age.
Lewis West is a graduate of Columbia and Harvard, and co-editor of Cosmologics.
Image from Flickr via Timo Newton-Syms