Tiptoeing towards darkness I: A response to Helen MacDonald’s H is For Hawk

Ostensibly a meditation on grief, MacDonald recounts how training a goshawk helped her come to terms with the death of her father. But the book is so much more. In part a rather self-conscious contribution to the English nature writing tradition, H is for Hawk explores the relationship between the pastoral values of countryside and the Thoreauvian idea of wildness. But clinical observation of ecology is intertwined with equally penetrating observations on the human condition – and particularly the fraught inner life of T.H. White, the creator of the most enduring 20th century version of Arthurian mythology and tortured and incompetent trainer of a Goshawk. She also ambles thoughtfully if fleetingly into disturbing territory of ‘blud und boden’, imagined community and the paradox of liberals identifying with particular places.

MacDonald ruminates on the ‘long vein of chalk-mysticism buried in English nature-culture ‘ (260) – the partaking of which engenders feelings of guilt because loving such landscapes evokes a volkish history that ‘concerns itself with purity, a sense of deep time and blood belonging, and assumes that these solitudinous windswept landscapes are finer, better, than the landscapes below.’ Referring to the affective sway of the ancient Ridgeway path, the stone circles of Avebury, Stonehenge and the Glastonbury plain, she wonders about the powerful sense of belonging that people feel in aligning themselves with ‘deep history’. But of course any unblemished sense of alignment connecting lineage and culture with organic rootedness has darker and troubling connotations. Such myths ‘hurt…[because they] wipe away other cultures, other histories, other ways of loving, working and being in a landscape. How they tiptoe towards darkness’ (261). God I love that phrase. Are we not all, always tiptoeing towards darkness.

Later after an eternal moment of tingling and primordial mutual awareness linking the human, the hawk, a herd of fallow deer and a hare, MacDonald’s commune with landscape, ecology and a sense of deep belonging ebbs away. As the hawk returns from ‘yarak’  (the state of tense, total focus on the hunt), MacDonald begins also to recover some cognitive detachment. Her critical, academic rationality elbows aside the momentary sense of ‘original participation’. Hares, rabbits, deer, pheasants, partridges, the squirrel all ‘legacies of trade and invasion, farming, hunting, settlement’ (263), introduced at different times, by different people, in different contexts and all melding to rework the kaleidoscopic artifice of English countryside. A short while later, she meets a friendly couple who are out walking. They share small talk about the deer – and then suddenly throw her liberal sensibilities. For the middle-aged walkers, the deer are a metonymic refugia of ‘old England’ – Blighty as it was before mass-immigration and modernization. Still wincing, MacDonald lists the lost and vanishing species – corncrakes, buntings, bees, turtle doves, black shrikes, butterflies, wrynecks, snipe, ravens, black grouse and enormous flocks of lapwings – that no longer grace this simulation of countryside. ‘Old England’ she argues is always illusory. It ‘is an imaginary place, a landscape built from words, woodcuts, films, paintings …a place imagined by people and people do not live long or look hard’ (265). We are not good at scale. The microscopic life of soil is too small for us to notice, climate change too big and long term. But the timeless quality of ‘the English countryside’ obliterates conflict, power and injustice. ‘We take solace in pictures and wipe the hills of history’. Angry at herself for being lulled into a kind of reactionary nostalgia, she wishes that we would stop fighting for landscapes that remind us (erroneously) of who we think we are and fight for landscapes instead ‘buzzing and glowing with life in all its variousness.’ Using her hawk to escape history, to forget Goring’s evocation of falconry as an exemplar of the relationship between ‘blut und boden’ was wrong. She swears to fight against forgetting.

This is all so beautiful and evocative. She uses the timeless tradition of English nature writing and the familiar tropes of both pastoral and Thoreauvian wildness, only to pull the rug away. True to the cosmopolitan and liberal traditions of her university training and urban upbringing, Macdonald affirms an Enlightenment commitment to facing the truth, however disconcerting. According to this view, to be human, to live in culture, is to be denied the unity of affect and cognition, and the deadly wild purpose of both the hunting hawk and the watchful hare. To be conscious through language is to be denied this unity of purpose and belonging and forever to be jarringly out of place, to suffer a permanent dissonance between cognitive and affective perceptions. The trick is not to seek the illusory solace of false memories, to embrace diversity and cultivate an intellectual taste for dissonance.

This is an attractive liberal outlook. Under some conditions it is a benign and liberating position. Sometimes it is neither benign nor sustainable. Next time I will use Peter Kingsnorth’s The Wake to explore some paradoxes in the liberal orientation to the ‘we-identities’ associated with particular places.

Helen MacDonal( (2015) H is For Hawk (Vintage)

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