H is for Hawk – rediscovering humanity

jpegI have only another 20-30 minutes or so until I turn the final page of “H is for Hawk”, the acclaimed prize-winning memoir by Helen Macdonald. And that thought makes me feel the way I do in the waning hours of a most rare soul-nourishing, mind-cleansing vacation. And it is not because Macdonald writes in detail about her interesting and unusual avocation of falconry and in particular, takes us on a journey as she acquires, trains and bonds with a goshawk, a fierce hunter of the forest floor. And it is not because she has such facility with words, making her prose so pleasurable to read it almost hurts.

Rather, “H is for Hawk” is so gripping and difficult to let go because in it the author shares the painful journey of healing from the depths of despair and loss after the unexpected death of her father.

“My vision blurs. We carry the lives we’ve imagined as we carry the lives we have, and sometimes a reckoning comes of the lives we have lost.”

Macdonald is certainly not the first to counterpose her personal grief and loss against the backdrop of raw nature. Cheryl Strayed wrote her memoir “Wild” about her attempt to heal her battered soul while she through-hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and that story was memorialized last year in a Hollywood movie. But while Strayed’s story was 2-dimensional, her angst and the trail, Macdonald’s writing takes the reader into four dimensions: the very painful loss of her father, the story of her experiences with her goshawk, the odd, sad and compelling story of author T.H. White (known for the children’s classics “The Sword In the Stone” and “The Once and Future King”) as detailed in his work “The Goshawk”, and the fourth dimension, time, as she takes the reader into the rich history of falconry through the ages.

Ms. Macdonald, a historian by education as well as a writer and poet, chronicles her experiences rearing and training a goshawk to hunt rabbits and pheasants, spending day after day with the bird, feeding it, weighing it, bonding with it and almost becoming it. The goshawk, affectionately dubbed Mabel, is not the first raptor that the author has trained. Fascinated by birds of prey since childhood, and with extensive experience working with and flying them, the author now decides in the wake of her father’s death to train one of the most challenging birds flown by falconers.  Goshawks have a reputation for being difficult to work with and their hunting style is different from other hawks as well; they fly low to the ground, preferring to hunt in the forest as opposed to the open field. That challenge is what she needs while she is in mourning.

But it is the loss of her father that Macdonald comes back to as she shares her feelings and her observations about losing and aloneness and temporality. And she contrasts those feelings against the inner life of the emotionally scarred T.H. White, an outsider and loner, and the life of her goshawk and its “conversation of death”, the unspoken communication between the hunter and the hunted:

“There is a time in life when you expect the world to be always full of new things. And then comes a day when you realise that is not how it will be at all. You see that life will become a thing made of holes. Absences. Losses. Things that were there and are no longer. And you realise, too, that you have to grow around and between the gaps, though you can put your hand out to where things were and feel that tense, shining dullness of the space where the memories are.”

Though her writing is often lyrical and a pleasure to read, Macdonald is so much more than a mere lyricist. She is a realist who can stomach talons in a rabbit’s head and she can snap its neck if needed to end the animal’s misery. And it is her acceptance of the brutality that exists in life in the wild that makes her more the clear-sighted naturalist than Emerson or Thoreau or John Muir. She is unapologetic about nature, which, while sublime, is, as Tennyson wrote,”red in tooth and claw.” The fog on the meadow in the early morning sun-rise and the blood and feathers among the grass and nettles after the kill. And it is all natural. Through her hawks, Macdonald eventually saw through the romanticized view of nature that casts all woods and streams and ferns and dales as a  balm for our suffering souls:

“Now I knew this for what it was: a beguiling but dangerous lie. I was furious with myself and my own unconscious certainty that this was the cure I needed. Hands are for other human hands to hold. They should not be reserved exclusively as perches for hawks. And the wild is not a panacea for the human soul; too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.”

Macdonald’s truths are difficult to hear for romantics like myself who have indeed looked to the woods as an escape. But ironically I have of late come to the same conclusion. It would be nice if the deep forest truly cared about us and could offer a consoling embrace, but a towering oak tree casting a cool shade under its leafy canopy on a steaming hot day would just as soon fall upon and crush me than shade me. Nature is implacable, reflecting back only what we bring into it, if that.

“H is for Hawk” tells a story we each are likely to confront at some point in our lives if we have not already. Without the hawk, though, leaving us to find comfort and solace and healing among our own species. A discovery and a story that Madonald tells so so well.

Howard E. Friedman

Why I Can’t Stop Thinking About Potter and Hunt

Dean Potter flying from the Eiger. Photo by Cory Rich, from deanspotter.com

Dean Potter flying from the Eiger. Photo by Cory Rich, from deanspotter.com

It is not just their unusual manner of death, flying near 100 mph headlong into a granite massif, hundreds of feet above the iconic, beautiful and serene Yosemite Valley, the two men each in a silky synthetic wing suit and a parachute folded on their backs, that keeps me thinking about Dean Potter and Graham Hunt. They died a week ago Saturday after a fatal impact with the rock during what was their final wing suit flight from Yosemite’s Taft Point.

Their manner of death is by any definition, extraordinary.

But what will not leave my mind is the fact that how they died is so entwined with how they lived. They died while trying so hard to live.Yet since our Western society places the value of life above all other values, it is difficult for me to fully embrace these men’s life choices. But at the same time I can not diminish their achievements.

Henry David Thoreau wrote about his own life that he went to the woods near Walden Pond so he would “not when I came to die discover that I had not lived”. Thoreau though, was never too far from civilization and his yearning for life was hardly a dangerous proposition. Not so Dean Potter, a pioneer not only in the rock climbing community but in the field of human powered flight, sailing off cliffs wearing a suit that made his arms and legs wing-like, then deploying his parachute to land safely. His most celebrated flight was flying off the Eiger mountain in Switzerland after climbing that mountain unaided, a feat in and of itself heavy with risk.

I am conflicted about Potter’s choice of lifestyle, activities which flirted with death and feel the need to explore his choices since for a reason that may seem irrational, his death is making me think about how best to “suck out all the marrow of life”, as Thoreau wrote.

Let’s assume that Potter felt the need to push the boundaries of the possible to satisfy his own thirst for life and let’s assume that he accepted that the risk was death. He is not the first to take this path. As a kid I remember the thrill of watching the daredevil Evel Knievel sail his motorcycle over more than a dozen cars on one jump and thirteen Greyhound buses on another, sometimes crashing in similar attempts, not dying, but breaking dozens of bones. I remember watching him try to fly his specially made one man rocket over the Snake River Canyon in Twin Falls, Idaho in 1974, crashing into the far side of the canyon, and surviving. And I watched all this on the ABC television network, one of only three major television networks of the time. A man testing himself, coming to the edge of death was public spectacle and entertainment and one that is repeated again and again in many different ways even now: race car driving, free diving, a matador facing a raging bull.

People take many roads to make peace with their lives and find success. But even the most seemingly successful men and women of our day often crash and burn despite great objective success, actors and musicians taking their own lives, successful politicians making stupid and illegal choices, ruining their careers. So, can Potter be faulted for living his life to what for him was the life he needed to feel fulfilled, even if that life carried the price tag of death? What’s a person to do if the only way he feels alive is by staring death full in the face, “to slip the surly bonds of Earth…to touch the face of God”. words written by English test pilot John Gillespie McGee Jr. after flying to 30,000 feet during a test flight in 1941. McGee died in a plane crash months later at the age of 19.

Pilot McGee was serving his country in war time. We mourn his death but accept it as the inevitable cost of war. But how do we respond to Dean Potter’s death, and similar deaths that have come before and those that will surely follow? Should we as a society openly tolerate activities that are a clear and present danger to their practitioners. Should we stand in the way of those who’s struggle to feel alive takes them so close to the edge? Should we support companies, like Red Bull and GroPro, that sponsor adventurers taking possibly fatal risks, like Jeb Corliss, another wing suit flyer, or Felix Baumgartner, who sky dived from 126,100 feet high falling faster than the speed of sound during a live-streamed event in 2014. We watch knowing they can die and they jump knowing the same and their sponsors who enable their efforts stand to profit the most. Even Corliss conceded after his successful wingsuit flight through a keyhole formation in Tianmen Cave that “my time on earth is limited but what I do with that time is not”. Like Knievel, Corliss has also returned to his sport after suffering serious injury.

We regulate other activities that are deemed injurious such as alcohol and drug use. We have an ongoing robust debate about about assisted suicide and the right to die. So, as a society, we do cherish life. Yet, we do not prohibit people from taking great risks with their lives. We do not outlaw cave diving, a notoriously dangerous activity, nor BASE jumping, although jumping off of public buildings and in National Parks is usually prohibited. Should we outlaw these activities because they have a high mortality rate? Should we ban flying in a wingsuit?

Or are these men and few women who takes these great risks really our own proxies for living life on the edge? Do their successful wing suit flights and leaps from space give us a unique moment of satiety about all that life can be, and than when they die, their death coaxes a hushed sigh of relief from deep in our throats that, “yes” we were right to avoid risk, to continue in our quotidien lives, lest we end up in pieces on the valley floor?

Unlike Dean Potter and Graham Hunt, who have now passed on, and others like them still alive (the free climber Alex Honnold comes to mind) and many others out of the public view, few among us have a passion we are willing to die for. I am envious of the person who has a passion so fierce he will follow it at all costs. But even if I had such a calling I would deem it unfair to heap that cost on family and loved ones who ultimately and for the duration of their lives will pay a big part of the price. It certainly seems unfair, selfish actually, to bequest that burden on one’s young children.  But at the same time, it is not in the purview of society to forbid people from exploring their limits as long as they are not actively doing harm to others.

But Potter’s life and death at the very least should cause us each to seek out passions in our lives, be they great or small.  And hopefully they are passions we are willing to live for and passions which ennoble the spirit and soothe the soul.

Howard E. Friedman

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