Odd Couples – Human Bonds With Animals
There are so many fascinating aspects to Helen Macdonald’s memoir H is for Hawk, I am not quite sure where to start.
At its core, this is a book about a person who endures a terrible, unexpected loss and subsumes her grief into training a goshawk, which, as Macdonald notes, is one of the hardest hawks to train. It’s about a lot of other things, too – it’s a marvelous natural history of both birds and of the English countryside, and it’s also about T.H. White, another terribly sad person and talented writer who threw himself into training a goshawk.
It’s also about people who develop relationships with animals for a variety of reasons. Often one of those reasons is that it can be very hard, at times, to be a human. Many writers have chronicled their relationships with animals, relationships that at times seem almost a yearning to become something other than a human, and perhaps not hurt so much or feel so badly for the damage that humans can do.
That brings up the first book – The Goshawk by T.H. White.
It’s interesting that White, who was best known for his series of Arthurian novels , notably The Sword in the Stone, didn’t even intend to publish The Goshawk. The story goes that his agent found the manuscript in his cottage and convinced him to publish it.
Having read what Macdonald writes about it, I can understand White’s reservations. Macdonald, an accomplished falconer, makes clear that White didn’t know what he was doing, and that his bird suffered for it.
But you do get the same sense of the consuming relationship between White and his bird that you get from reading about Helen Macdonald and Mabel. The relationship between bird and handler, especially during the training of the bird, seems like an almost total, 24-hour a day thing, which enabled both Macdonald and White to keep their sorrow and their demons at bay.
Another book about a human and his bird – a hawk, to be specific, was 1967’s The Peregrine by JA Baker. Baker, a librarian, became obsessed with a group of peregrine falcons that wintered near his home in Essex, in western England. A virtual unknown, he managed to publish what one writer for The Telegraph called “the most precise and poetic account of a bird – possibly of any non-human creature – ever written in English prose.”
Baker followed and observed these birds so obsessively that it seemed as if he almost wanted to become a bird. He hated what man had done to the natural world. He wanted to both observe the birds and, as he put it, “to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence”.
Only through his endless observations of these birds, which at the time were in sharp decline because of the pesticide DDT, did he feel that he had somehow breached the barrier between himself and the wild.
Macdonald also mentions a number of books about animals that she read as a child. She notes that “The animal always dies at the end. I knew what would happen. And it happened every time.” It’s interesting to contemplate why so many of these books do end with the death of the animal – maybe it’s that animals share mortality with us, and we are fascinated with how they bear it, because we have to bear it too. Here are some:
Ring of Bright Water by Gavin Maxwell. Maxwell was a Scottish aristocrat who was offered a place to in a Scottish lighthouse-keeper’s cottage; there he eventually lived and cared for three otters, captured from the wild and “tamed.” There is death – heartbreaking death – in this book, but Maxwell’s relationship with the otters and his vivid writing made these books must reads for millions.
It must be said that today Maxwell’s relationships with animals are looked in a somewhat different light; like White, he was a tormented soul, and he had a hard time forming relationships with humans. His attempts to domesticate wild creatures are looked at differently in an age where the attitude towards animals has evolved towards more fascination and respect and less the belief that they are there for humanity’s entertainment.
The Yearling by Marjorie Kennan Rawlings is another book that addresses the uneasy love between people and wild animals. It tells the story of Jody, a young Florida boy, the only child of parents who have experienced a lot of death – he’s the only surviving child of six. Eventually Jody adopts a fawn, and it becomes his closest companion as he grows up. When the fawn grows to adulthood it begins to eat the family’s corn crop – life is hard in the Florida woods, and Jody is told to kill his pet. The resolution of this story is heartbreaking and says a lot about the tough lessons children learn as they grow up.
Finally, I want to mention Barry Lopez’ superb Of Wolves and Men. Lopez is one of the best nature writers working today. More than a book about an individual’s relationship with animals, “Of Wolves and Men” takes a broad view, using literature, history, science and mythology to examine the uneasy relationship between humans and wolves throughout history. It argues for a more enlightened look at an animal regarded by humans with both awe and mistrust. It came out more than 25 years ago, and it made a difference in the way wolves are regarded – with more respect and less fear. An anniversary edition that came out a couple of years ago includes an afterward by Lopez that chronicles how things have changed for the wolf, including its reintroduction into areas of America’s western wilderness, since he originally published his book.