For an urban dweller whose forays into the natural world are, more often than not, limited to irregular visits to the beach, walks in the park and working in my demanding garden, Helen Macdonald’s memoir H Is for Hawk was a revelation. A taste of the wild, like a cold keen wind from a far off place where humankind is peripheral. I found it fascinating, weird at times and somehow refreshing. I should mention that it was the Costa Book of the Year for 2014.
The book describes a period in Macdonald’s life when her father dies suddenly and she falls into a deep and disorienting grief. In an attempt to find her feet again she buys a goshawk and sets about taming it. Not as strange as it may sound! As a young girl she had spent hours watching sparrow hawks with her father and in her 20s had become an experienced falconer. The hawk “was everything I wanted to be: solitary, self possessed, free from grief, and numb to the hurts of human life”.
What follows is an absorbing, brilliantly and beautifully written account of her life submitted to the needs and habits of a tamed, but essentially wild, predator. A time which takes her to the edge of madness and back. During the training of “Mabel” – an ironically genteel name – Macdonald occasionally and frighteningly finds herself losing her sense of human self.
To train a hawk you must watch it like a hawk, and so you come to understand it’s moods. Then you gain the ability to predict what it will do next….Eventually you don’t see the hawk’s body language at all. You seem to feel what it feels. Notice what it notices. The hawk’s apprehension becomes your own… I had to put myself in the hawk’s wild mind to tame her, and as the days passed in the darkened room, my humanity was burning away.
Well, it seems that’s what she wanted in her dark time of loss. However she does come out the other side and Mabel is integral to her healing. Not a method you’ll find in the self help books. Interweaving her own story is a biographical tale of the author T H White (The Once and Future King, The Goshawk) who, also in a search for peace within himself, engaged in agonisingly unsuccessful attempts at hawk taming. And woven through all of this again are fascinating accounts, and the arcane language, of falconry history. A rich tapestry of a read.
After quaffing some rather more domestic reads the next “wild” book to catch my eye was Ocean Notorious by Christchurch writer Matt Vance. Vance is an intrepid sailor, expedition guide, photographer and fabulous writer with a long standing passion for the Southern Ocean. This is the ocean at our back doorstep, which most of us never encounter, apart from icy blasts blowing in from the south-east. It is the most feared body of water on our planet, infamous for it’s raging winds, monstrous waves and horizontal rain. But people willingly, even eagerly, go there!
Vance takes us to our neighbour islands, closer to our shores than Australia: the Auckland, Bounty, Antipodes, Campbell and Macquarie Islands then on to the wilderness that is Antarctica. He introduces us to people have gone there and sometimes never returned – ocean explorers, polar explorers, sealing gangs, Second World War coast watchers, crazy-brave sailors, wildlife enthusiasts, conservationists, research scientists, artists, writers.