I think of wild animals 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. There is little else to it now but being the last of its kind. And in this lies the diminution of the world. How can you love something, how can you fight to protect it, if all it means is loss?—Helen MacDonald, H Is for Hawk
Things start off in familiar territory: a death pushes the author to pull back into themselves and into nature. The descriptions of landscape are run through with tree names and cloud names and bird names that I don’t know and that provoke the kind of envy that the best nature writing often does. I want to know these names and to see these distinctions within “tree” and “cloud” and “bird” that I’m currently blind to. Falconry is romantic and fascinating and the fact that the author has spent her life learning and practicing it is exciting. The only distractions here are the detours into T. H. White’s efforts to train his own hawk. They feel awkward and I petulantly wish they’d stop: he is not a pleasant figure and his misery and his miserable efforts are so less interesting than MacDonald’s work training her own hawk, Mabel. I want more descriptions of hedgerows and underbrush.
But then slowly things go off the rails and I realize I am not in the book I thought I was. MacDonald is not a literary monk from the wild world of deep feelings sending the rest of us reports laden with small nuggets of wisdom to be underlined and quoted. Neither is Mabel a symbol or guide. She’s a bird, and she can’t do anything to keep MacDonald from tumbling out of control.
And MacDonald does tumble out of control, losing her job, her home. She stops talking to friends and family. Day after day after day, she runs through fields and woods with Mabel hunting and killing rabbits, killing pheasant. The text holds things together for a long time, but by the mid-point it’s clear that our guide in this story, the woman with the names of trees and birds at her fingertips, is losing herself to darkness, and she’s bringing us with her.
Miraculously, the book ends in a better place with feet unsteadily but certainly on the ground. Beauty and light are seeping back into the sky, but things aren’t the same. We’ve read an account of deep wounds closing into aching scars. There’s beauty in the history they hold, but it is an earthy, difficult beauty that smells faintly of the grave. And it’s caught under my nails.