A review of H Is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald
My husband graduated with a Masters degree in 2007. That fall, we moved so that he could take a city planning job and I could go to graduate school. Within a month, the city froze all hiring. Within six months they were talking about layoffs, and a year later he lost his job to budget cuts. We were lucky–we had time to plan, and he got experience in his career. After almost two years of unemployment and poorly paid internships, he was able to get another good job. Again, we were lucky–people who graduated anytime after him most likely had to leave the field. There were no public agency jobs for several years. A friend who was unemployed at the time, around 2009, would stand in line with 100 other people for a job at a coffee shop.
Here in the US we’re familiar with the recession, but I don’t think culturally we’ve grasped its impacts. My husband and I constantly feel disconnected from generations just above us. Literally by a few weeks we made the cutoff into a fairly lucky generation with access to a middle class income–he got that first job. If he had graduated the next year our lives would be radically different. We saw some of our parents lose important retirement funds as stocks plummeted and banks went out of business. And we lost faith. When a relative says they can be sure of making 7% a year in the stock market, we’re baffled. Nothing seems that certain–especially a game based on corporate capitalism.
Deciding to stay home, to unschool, seems risky but not too risky when you’ve lost faith in playing the game. School, career, stock market: we’re inevitably wrapped up in these games and their social and economic consequences. But when you’ve watched the system crumble, it doesn’t feel like so much of a leap to choose to limit your involvement. It feels equally, if not less, risky to have one parent stay home and therefore have less money invested in the game and a less clear path for our child’s participation. Knowing how to make things and take care of our basic needs with the cheapest, simplest, healthiest ingredients feels more stable. Allowing our child to find and follow her passions promises a core strength that we hope can support her through radical career, economic, and personal changes. If homeschooling numbers increase in the coming years, it will be in part because of what parents have seen and experienced during the recession.
In H Is for Hawk, Helen Macdonald writes with expansive and intimate precision about surviving economic and emotional change. The book both is and very much is not about unschooling; it’s about her passion for falconry, about following that passion from childhood through adulthood, about grieving her father’s death, about disenchanted academics, and about economic change. Nearing the point of allowing her trained Goshawk, Mabel, to fly free in order to hunt, she walks by a garden ripped apart by late-night drunks, then sits in a coffee shop and watches a bank run:
I frown at the unmoving line. Something about it reminds me of Mabel mantling her wings over food. Mine. Mine mine mine. I’ve never seen a bank run before. It’s something from the Wild West or a grey, blowsy print of Weimar Berlin. When I was an undergraduate we were told that history had ended, and we all believed it. When the Berlin Wall fell, what history was made of was over. No more Cold War. No more wars. And yet here it was, and is, and all of it falling apart. Endings. Worlds dissolving. Weather systems, banking systems, the careful plans of municipal gardeners. Families, hearts, lives. Distant wars and small trees wrenched in two. I look at the people and all their fierce possessiveness and all their hidden terror at the thought that their bulwarks against death might be lost. Money. Security. Knots and lines. The ends of things. And it is sitting there with a cooling coffee that I think seriously for the first time about what I am doing. What I am going to do with the hawk. Kill things. Make death.
. . .
I sat quietly watching the line and wondered. I would hunt with this hawk. Of course I would. Training a goshawk and not letting it hunt seemed to me like raising a child and not letting it play. But that was not why I needed her. To me she was bright, vital, secure in her place in the world. Every tiny part of her was boiling with life, as if from a distance you could see a plume of steam around her, coiling and ascending and making everything around her slightly blurred, so she stood out in fierce, corporeal detail. The hawk was a fire that burned my hurts away. There could be no regret or mourning in her. No past of future. She lived in the present only, and that was my refuge. My flight from death was on her barred and beating wings. But I had forgotten that the puzzle that was death was caught up in the hawk, and I was caught up in it too. (159-60)
Investments, banks accounts, and survival depend on the dehumanizing experience of standing in line clutching papers, hoping to be one of the lucky ones to get through the door. Getting grades that qualify, performing well during an interview to get a foot in the door, making the right investments. From Macdonald’s perspective, these acts of desperation are not that far away from hunting–indeed they are caught up in the puzzle of death. They promise moments of safety but a recession brings desperation close again.
Macdonald writes elsewhere, in the midst of grief-induced depression, “It struck me then that perhaps the bareness and wrongness of the world was an illusion; that things might still be real, and right, and beautiful, even if I could not see them–that if I stood in the right place, and was lucky, this might somehow be revealed to me” (151). There is faith both here and in unschooling that the world is larger than our clinging “Mine. Mine mine mine.” Faith that getting to the line early and claiming mine, mine, mine is not what sustains us through radical change. Instead, we live for joy, play, and the unpredictable luck of seeing beauty.