By the time I was halfway through Vesper Flights, Helen Macdonald’s new book of essays, I knew I wanted to write about it. I had notes. I had ideas. I thought I could write something short, around a thousand words. I always think this and it is almost never true, which I only bring up because it is precisely the kind of self-deception Macdonald writes about in Vesper Flights, which is (among other things) a very self-aware book about the limits of our self-awareness: our ability to ignore the obvious, from small things (hints of an oncoming migraine) to large (evidence of environmental collapse). These complications were absorbing, but as I read Vesper Flights I kept thinking of H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s bestselling memoir about training a goshawk in the wake of her father's sudden death; and as I reread H is for Hawk—just for context—I accumulated more notes, and soon I was writing about that too. I thought I could compare the two books, maybe extend the comparison to genre, think about essays and memoirs, and by then any hope of writing a thousand-word piece was long gone.
The genre comparison fell by the wayside. Vesper Flights is unquestionably a book of essays, but to call H is for Hawk a memoir, you basically have to take out all the hawks. It fits the category about as well as a live raptor in a cardboard box. Besides, Macdonald’s approach to memoir is already essayistic. If memoir is conventionally defined by linear, personal narrative, and the essay by a concern with how we know and inhabit the world, then Macdonald’s approach to memoir is firmly in the second camp: exploratory, synthetic, self-questioning. It’s the synthesis that interests me most, the combination of many ways of knowing into a single, sinuous voice, and that voice is similar from one book to the next.
A passage late in Vesper Flights offers something close to an aesthetic. It's in the essay "Dispatches from the Valley." In it, Macdonald remembers a time in the 90s when she was just out of university, at loose ends, depressed, and working at a center for breeding falcons; but as the essay concludes, she reflects on how we make meaning out of animals:
We have corralled the meanings of animals so tightly these days, have shuttled them into separate epistemologies that are not supposed to touch . . . Of course we need science to comprehend the complexity of the human world, and to help decide how best to conserve what there is still left. But there is always more. Perhaps one aspect of the sixteenth century is worthy of thinking about: the last great flowering of a form of emblematic natural history in which we could think of animals as more than mere creatures, each living species at the centre of a rich fabric of associations linking everything that was known about it with everything it meant to humans: matters allegorical, scriptural, proverbial, personal.
What intrigues me about this passage is not just the seamless, metaphor-driven integration of both science and the history of science, or the effortless pivot from personal narrative to scholarship-informed reflection, or the ambitious attempt to combine “separate epistemologies” in a single place. It's the way her reflections imply an argument for literary nonfiction. A single subject “at the centre of a rich fabric of associations”: this could describe the essay. It could also describe a book: H is for Hawk or Vesper Flights, each one a fabric, a tapestry of associations.
In this essay, I want to think about two books, trying to account for the richness of each tapestry; but I also want to suggest that each tapestry contains ideas about tapestries in general, and about its own weaving in particular; and, finally, to suggest that each book can be understood as a response to loss. The essay is in two parts, and the first is about H is for Hawk.
In The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate compares the essayist to a hawk:
The essayist attempts to surround a something—a subject, a mood, a problematic irritation—by coming at it from all angles, wheeling and diving like a hawk, each seemingly digressive spiral actually taking us closer to the heart of the matter.
In H is for Hawk, Macdonald comes at goshawks from all angles. In the first nine pages alone, she offers the field guide’s description (“black and white barred front, yellow eyes and a long tail”), an imagined kill (“a half-eaten pigeon sprawled in a burst of white feathers on the forest floor”), religion-inflected metaphor (“the birdwatcher’s dark grail”) and aphorism (“Looking for goshawks is like looking for grace”), passages from a 17th century text on falconry (‘There are divers Sorts and Sizes of Goshawks’), and a subjective, exact description of goshawks in flight:
…I could see the big powder-puff of white undertail feathers, fanned out, with the thick, blunt tail behind it, and that superb bend and curve of the secondaries of a soaring goshawk that makes them utterly unlike sparrowhawks. And they were being mobbed by crows, and they just didn’t care, like, whatever.
If, like me, you’re a writer interested in splicing experience with scholarship, science with ordinary life, then your first question is: how does Macdonald pull this off? How does she establish a style where the combination of slang, scientific vocabulary, history, and spiritual leanings sounds perfectly natural? How is the “rich fabric of associations” woven? The short answer is that she uses tools associated with fiction and poetry to bind the whole together.
Of those tools, description is central. This is standard for a nature writer (however defined), and Macdonald’s landscapes and hawks are superbly drawn, but what matters is the way she inflects them. A hawk, in her hands, is more than a hawk: it absorbs and combine different ways of knowing, both experiential and scholarly, and it is—as she reminds us—not just a beautiful animal to behold, but a creature in the world that behaves and knows things, and a creature that exists apart from our flawed attempts to know it. In response to these complexities, Macdonald’s description of goshawks on the wing itself wheels and swerves, combining emotion and taxonomy (“that superb bend and curve of the secondaries,” “utterly unlike sparrowhawks”), behavioral observation and an imagined hawk-voice (“they were being mobbed by crows, and they just didn’t care, like, whatever”). That whatever reminds us that the hawk has its own, unimaginable perspective; at the same time, it dramatizes the act of imagination, the human attempt to grasp nonhuman lives. It’s a projection that questions the act of projection, an ironic act of anthropomorphism, and it subtly raises a question central to both H is for Hawk and Vesper Flights: how we imagine our way into the lives of others, both human and not.
Macdonald’s tongue-in-cheek rendering of the hawk’s point of view—call it Free Indirect Nonhuman Animal Discourse—is a typical move for her as well, a flash of interiority, a fictional device she uses to great effect. We get glimpses of her own state of mind, as when she learns of her father’s death:
I was about to leave the house when the phone rang. I picked it up. Hop-skippity, doorkeys in my hand. ‘Hello?’ A pause. My mother. She only had to say one sentence.
That sunny, childlike moment—“hop-skippity”—magnifies the shock of the news. But it also sheds light on Macdonald’s inquiry into identity, because by implication the news hits both the adult and the child she used to be. Throughout the book, she considers the place of childhood in a life: the way a childhood fascination with hawks leads to an adulthood training them; the way her memories of her father (her “partner in crime”) take on new significance, after his loss. She’s interested in “the girl who was me when I was small,” a roundabout phrasing that suggests the complexity of identity over time, the way we move on from and preserve our childhood selves. (That H is for Hawk sounds like a children’s book is not an accident.)
To these fictional approaches, Macdonald adds a poet’s approach to both sound and metaphor. Take her description of “a half-eaten pigeon sprawled in a burst of white feathers on the forest floor”—a brief, violent still life, alliterative, dense with consonants. Or her description of meeting a breeder to take possession of Mabel, her goshawk, where the description of unboxing the hawk reads like a lyrical version of Jurassic Park:
A sudden thump of feathered shoulders and the box shook as if someone had punched it, hard, from within . . . Another hinge untied. Concentration. Infinite caution. Daylight irrigating the box. Scratching talons, another thump. And another. Thump. The air turned syrupy, slow, flecked with dust. And with the last bow pulled free, he reached inside, and amidst a whirring, chaotic clatter of wings and feet and talons and a high-pitched twittering and it’s all happening at once, the man pulls an enormous, enormous hawk out of the box and in a strange coincidence of world and deed a great flood of sunlight drenches us and everything is brilliance and fury.
This is a complex passage, and it depends on both sound and metaphor for its effect: the repeated thump, the shift from staccato sentence fragments to the explosive long sentence at the end, and the linked sequence of metaphors comparing light to liquid (“Daylight irrigating the box . . . The air turned syrupy...a great flood of sunlight drenches us.”)
Macdonald’s book mixes grief with hawks, science with history, childhood with adulthood. If metaphor and sound help bind this various whole together, this shouldn’t surprise us: metaphor, by definition, welds separate domains into something new, and sound—alliteration, assonance, rhyme—can magnetize unrelated words to each other. The style that results is sonically, etymologically, and associatively rich. It is essentially celebratory, a wildly varied music equal to the world’s variety. But the book’s paradox, and the source of much of its power, is that the song of celebration is also a song of loss.
Against her lovingly described landscapes and soaring goshawks, Macdonald counterposes the ideas of invisibility and disappearance. Soaring goshawks seem to vanish: "One minute my pair of goshawks was describing lines from physics textbooks in the sky, and then nothing at all. I don’t remember looking down, or away.” Macdonald describes herself as “a small, slightly fearful girl...who loved to disappear,” and writes that being “invisible” is useful for training hawks, a way to put the bird at ease. But it has its downside:
It’s a habit you can fall into, willing yourself into invisibility. And it doesn’t serve you well in life. Believe me it doesn’t. Not with people and loves and hearts and homes and work. But for the first few days with a new hawk, making yourself disappear is the greatest skill in the world.
As Mabel’s training progresses and Macdonald’s grief darkens into clinical depression, the wish to disappear becomes the wish to disappear into something, to identify with another, to dissolve her human identity in the hawk’s life: “I had 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.”
But that effort, as Macdonald makes clear, is both necessary and maladaptive. What saves Macdonald from her depression—besides meds—is her connection with other people. In that sense, H is for Hawk, though it appears to be about training a hawk, is really about the way others save us, and the restoration of something like balance, like a right relation, a connection to others—including nonhuman others—rather than submerging in them, or avoiding them altogether. It is about a choice to be visible on one’s own terms. It is, in other words, about both identity and how identity is written.
Rereading H is for Hawk, I was struck by a scene that felt like an ending, mainly because it occurs with over a hundred pages to go. On closer inspection, it shows how Macdonald departs from the conventions of memoir, reinventing it from the inside.
Mabel is devouring a pheasant, her first kill in the wild. Macdonald’s account combines cathartic grief, a memory of birdwatching with her father, and a vision of the hawk as a child:
I look at the hawk, the pheasant, the hawk. And everything changes. The hawk stops being a thing of violent death. She becomes a child. It shakes me to the core. She is a child. A baby hawk that’s just worked who she is.... Tears roll down my face. For the pheasant, for the hawk, for Dad and all his patience, for that little girl who stood by a fence and waited for the hawks to come.
It’d be a good ending for a more conventional book, but Macdonald is after something different. Her memoir questions its own terms, complicates its own epiphanies. Not long after this transcendent moment, we get another description of Mabel above her prey. It’s a remembered scene—Macdonald is in her house, deeply depressed, thinking about her life with Mabel—and its mood is so different, it reads almost like a retraction:
There’s no need, right now, to feel close to a fetch of dark northern woods, a creature with baleful eyes and death in her foot. Human hands are for holding other hands. Human arms are for holding other humans close. They’re not for breaking the necks of rabbits, pulling loops of viscera out onto leaf-litter while the hawk dips her head to drink blood from her quarry’s chest cavity. I watch all these things going on and my heart is salt.
At this point in the book, Macdonald’s ideas about grieving and the wild have been completely upended. She’s just been to a memorial service for her father, and she is questioning her approach to loss:
All the way home on the train I thought of Dad and the terrible mistake I had made. I’d thought that to heal my great hurt, I should flee to the wild. It was what people did. The nature books I’d read told me so.... Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling and dangerous lie.
It’s a remarkable moment, because it rewrites the ground rules of the story we’ve been reading. On one level, it’s an epiphany about a “terrible mistake.” On another level, it’s a critique of existing “nature books,” and it reframes H is for Hawk as a different sort of project, one distinct from other “quests inspired by grief or sadness.” (She does not name names, but it is possible to guess: “Some sought snow geese. Others snow leopards. Others cleaved to the earth, walked trails, mountains, coasts and glens.”) A bit later in the book, Macdonald traces this loss-driven quest back to early texts—notably Sir Orfeo, a 13th century version of the Orpheus myth, in which Orfeo is a poet who loves falconry, grieving a death, who goes to the wild for solace. By invoking Sir Orfeo, Macdonald offers a schematic of her personal journey—loss, retreat to the wild, return—while deepening the connections between grief, falconry, and writing. It’s one example of the way Macdonald illuminates her own text by invoking others: other characters (fictional and real) are parallel to the autobiographical character she gives us, and other narratives illuminate aspects of her own.
She does this most extensively, of course, with T.H. White, the mid-20th century author of The Once and Future King. Macdonald braids an account of White’s life and work into her story, and her approach—part literary biography, part imaginative reconstruction, part running argument—enriches her story in turn. As with Sir Orfeo, Macdonald emphasizes the parallels: White, like Macdonald, was a writer, scholar, and falconer. Like White, she tries to disappear into training a hawk; like White, the escape leads to writing, to public self-expression. She disappears in order to reappear, and writing mediates the return from the wild.
Macdonald concentrates on two books of White’s, The Goshawk and The Sword in the Stone. Both are relevant, but the latter is central. In The Sword in the Stone, White’s hero Wart—the future King Arthur—goes through successive transformations, taking on the form of different animals. White, in other words, imagines his way into a fictional character, who himself takes on the form of a bird; Macdonald reads the book as a child, then revisits it as an adult, understanding what she could not then, imagining her way into White’s life. She returns to the book with a new understanding of the book’s undercurrents, its links to English identity, White’s thwarted sexuality, and the cruelties visited on him by an abusive father. With her skills as a literary biographer and historian, Macdonald deepens her memoir’s self-portrait. The Sword in the Stone, read as a child and again as an adult, becomes a mirror of her own transformations.
For Macdonald, writing and reading are inseparable from identity-building. Inhabiting other identities is a spur to growth; and reading and writing are both means of blurring the edges of identity, of putting on another life for a little while, of constructing a separate version of self, a character. Experiences, Macdonald suggests, are only complete once decoded, and they can only be decoded by being retold. It’s fitting, then, that Macdonald’s final reckoning with grief is expressed in aesthetic terms. After her father’s death, she finds a key to his flat taped to an index card, along with a note from him; and in the brief scene that follows, she writes, “for the first time I understood the shape of my grief.” It’s fascinating to me that this epiphany is expressed as an understanding of form, and it’s a profoundly self-reflexive moment: what is H is for Hawk but grief given a shape?
This reflection on grief and form gives way, in the book’s postscript, to a reflection on grief and the writing process. Macdonald visits the grounds near T.H. White’s house and sees a man puttering in the garden. She briefly imagines him as White, thinks about doing more research, writing a scene:
I could find out more about him, make him alive again, chase down the memories here. For a moment that old desire to cross over and bring someone back flared up as bright as flame.
But then I put that thought aside. I put it down, and the relief was immense, as if I had dragged a half-tonne weight from myself and cast it by the grassy road.
Though H is for Hawk is “about” training a hawk, by the book’s end hawk training has come to stand for both reading and writing. It’s like reading, in that it requires knowledge, close attention to the hawk’s actions, an ability to interpret them; it’s like writing in that it is solitary, difficult, and deeply personal, a discipline haunted by the fear and conviction of failure. And yet even as hawk training sheds light on other human practices—writing and reading, not to mention parenting and grieving—it throws them into sharp relief. All these involved, complex, human-specific practices are set against the book’s main nonhuman character, Mabel, who has a distinct personality but no need for these things whatever. In this way, as in so many others, H is for Hawk begins a meditation that Vesper Flights continues.
George Estreich's publications include a book of poems, Textbook Illustrations of the Human Body, which won the Gorsline Prize from Cloudbank Books; the Oregon Book Award-winning memoir The Shape of the Eye; and Fables and Futures: Biotechnology, Disability, and the Stories we Tell Ourselves, which NPR's Science Friday named a Best Science Book of 2019. Estreich has also published prose in The New York Times, Salon, The American Medical Association Journal of Ethics, Tin House, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency. He lives in Corvallis, Oregon, with his family, where he teaches in Oregon State’s MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. More: georgeestreich.com