Back in December 2012, I wrote about reading Robert Macfarlane’s The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot, and commented then on how few women walkers there seemed to be; how few women seem to casually drop things and wander off to walk in the way that Macfarlane does. They seem either tied to a very small piece of ground (Nan Shepherd – walking into the landscape rather than across or out of it) or else emphasis is laid on their singleness (i.e. the implied freedom to move around) and their interactions with men as they travel (I was struck by this in the readings of Cheryl Strayed’s Wild I heard on the radio, but it is an old, old trope).
This morning, reading Kathryn Schulz’s New Yorker review of Helen Macdonald’s award-winning H Is For Hawk, it occurred to me that there is another aspect to this, and that’s illness – in particular, grief. Or, rather, in Macdonald’s case, as a falconer, she has always been able to walk the landscape on her own, with the hawk on her wrist as a spurious indicator of authority for her right to be there. But it is her father’s death and her grieving over that death, embodied in her decision to train a goshawk, that grants her ‘permission’ to write about it.
I read the book over Christmas and liked it very much. I will write about it at some point, I’m sure, but for now, I’ll say only that my reading was not framed exclusively in terms of of Macdonald’s struggling with grief to a level that seems almost irrational to anyone who hasn’t experienced it, and so far I have not (although, undeniably, this is in part what Macdonald wrote about). Instead, I saw it more in terms of the discipline of training a goshawk imposing some sort of shape to Macdonald’s life at a point when she had few other anchors. And yes, by Macdonald’s own admission, there is a point where she recognises that she has in some way gone feral, but to me it’s significant that she can see this and act upon it.
Yet Schulz frames this element of the book in terms of ‘coming home’.
Macdonald’s story has a different ending. One day, crouching over a rabbit she has just killed, feeling like “an executioner after a thousand deaths,” she comes to see that she has been travelling with her hawk not further from grief but further from life. Scared by her own numbness and darkness, she begins to seek help: from loving relatives, attentive friends, modern psychopharmacology—all the advantages she had that White did not. Slowly, her grief starts to lift. As it does, she finds that she disagrees with Merlyn and Muir. “The wild is not a panacea for the human soul,” she writes. “Too much in the air can corrode it to nothing.” All along, she had wanted to be her hawk: fierce, solitary, inhuman. Instead, she now realizes, “I was the figure standing underneath the tree at nightfall, collar upturned against the damp, waiting patiently for the hawk to return.” Her father, she knows, will never rejoin the human world. But she can. Like a figure in a myth who followed a hawk to the land of the dead, Macdonald turns around and comes home.
There is a delicate path to be traced through this, because on the one hand, Macdonald knows better than any of us what it she experienced, and I cannot and must not presume to understand her grief better than she does. On the other hand, I found myself bridling somewhat at Schulz’s ‘comes home’. Perhaps it’s because I’ve come to believe that you never can come ‘home’, because ‘home’ is always behind you. Where you arrive is not where you left, even if it looks the same, because you are not the same. Tolkien may put those famous words, ‘Well, I’m back’, into the mouth of Sam Gamgee, but ‘back’ implies that everything is precisely as he left it, whereas we know that it is anything but. Not all the restoration in the world can alter that fact.
To me it seems that to recognise that ‘The wild is not a panacea for the human soul’, as Macdonald does, is not the same as to reject it, something I don’t think she does. But home? With all the connotations that carries? I wonder.
I found myself thinking of Margery Kempe, the fourteenth-century mystic. she was an extraordinary woman, famed for her impassioned weeping. No wonder she wept. The mother of fourteen children, some of whom may have survived to adulthood, she clearly experienced at least one episode of post-natal depression, possibly more. She experienced visions, which she, being illiterate, persuaded someone to write down for her. She sought a chaste marriage with her husband, and travelled extensively on pilgrimages, and also to visit the other mystics of her times. Should we think of her as someone who sought to come home, or who carried on travelling?
Another book out recently is Katharine Norbury’s The Fish Ladder: A Journey Upstream, in which Norbury begins a walking project in order to assuage her grief after the loss of a much-wanted child because of a miscarriage. Again, the walk is framed as a project to ameliorate a feeling rather than as something that exists as a thing in and of itself. Can the walk only be justified because it has an ulterior, distracting purpose?