A northern goshawk. Image by Norbert Kenntner.
I gave this memoir five out of five stars on Goodreads not because I agreed with everything in it but because I found it thought provoking and well written. It’s the story of Helen Macdonald, an Englishwoman who is dealing with the death of her father.
To help her get through her grief, Macdonald decides to train one of the most difficult of hawks: the goshawk. She names hers Mabel. She contrasts her experience with that of Terence White, author of the childhood classic, “Sword in the Stone,” and an avid falconer who wrote about his experience in “The Goshawk.” I listened to the audio version of the CD, read by the author in her classic British accent.
So many things to say. Where to begin? To start, it’s ironic that Macdonald chose to deal with death by training an avian killing machine. It’s kind of like dealing with a job loss by helping other people get fired from their jobs over and over again. But this technique worked for Macdonald, who wanted solace by forming an attachment to an animal, and by coming closer to the wild.
However, by the middle of the book, I found myself thinking how unfair it was to burden the bird with the owner’s grief and mental health issues – both for Macdonald’s and White’s goshawks. I mean, they are birds, not people. They are separate beings, but both authors are so caught up in themselves they don’t see this. It’s a lesson I learned years ago from living in the wilderness, and something I suspect most people, who are used to having animals around as pets or for food, don’t have an opportunity to realize.
Macdonald’s attitude of animals being defined in the world by the meanings given to them by humans came to light in a section where she attended an art exhibit about California condors. She says, “I think about 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. Eventually, rarity is all they are made of. The condor is an icon of extinction . . . How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it if all it means is loss?”
My argument is you fight for endangered animals because they have value apart from us. It’s perhaps the ultimate hubris to think the world revolves around us and our meanings. Most wild animals don’t need us to survive. In fact, they would probably do much better if humans were out of the picture. And why did the condor nearly go extinct in the first place? From human actions (poaching lead poisoning, etc.) It seem so unfair for humans to cause these problems and then to complain that thinking about these animals is depressing. What’s really depressing is what we do to some animals.
Toward the end of the book Macdonald finally realizes that people are more fitting agents for emotional support than animals. While animals provide great solace, they are no substitute for a pair of human arms around you. And she realizes that animals have intrinsic value apart from humans.
She writes, “Of all the lessons I’ve learned in my months with Mabel this is the greatest of all: that there is a world of things out there – rocks and trees, stones and grass, all the things that crawl and run and fly – they are all things in themselves. We make them sensible to us by giving them meanings that shore up our own views of the world.”
Right on. She says she learned with Mabel how to “feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not.” She could have ended the book there and I would have been happy but she continued on with White’s story, which at times, overshadowed her own. I could have done without much of the detail of his story and the book would have been stronger for it. I also found myself getting tired near the end from hearing mini dramas about how she was always losing her hawk. But I still gave it five stars, so it these things must not have bothered me too much!
One thing I thought was funny was how, once Macdonald started using antidepressants, she described the hawk as looking much happier, too. I think this was when she was still caught up in the hawk being an extension of herself.
And I was happy to see that Macdonald delved into the “conversation of death” described in Barry Lopez’s book, “Of Wolves and Men.” This is an exchange that happens between wolves and their prey that either triggers a chase or diffuses the hunt. If you’ve read my novel “Eye of the Wolf,” you know that I delved into it, too.
As I was thinking about writing this review, I came across a quote from Henry Beston (“The Outermost House”) that sums up my philosophy and what I think Macdonald was trying to say with her memoir well:
“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals…. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours they move finished and complete, gifted with extensions of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings; they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.”
Agree? Disagree? Am I some psycho loony? (Smirk.)