I am drawn to books which weave memoir with nature writing, combining literary, social and cultural histories with personal experience. The success of Helen Macdonald’s H is for Hawk reflects what seems to be a fairly recent resurgence of texts that merge life-writing and nature. Ghost-written celebrity autobiographies often top the bestselling lists, but books which complicate aspects of life-writing and weave cultural and literary narratives alongside personal memoir are, I think, becoming an interesting antidote to generic biography.
The two books which I refer particularly to are Macdonald’s account of training a goshawk and Olivia Laing’s To The River, a travel memoir which narrates a source to sea walk of the River Ouse in Sussex. Published in 2011, Laing’s book had somehow slipped under my radar but reading it immediately prior to H is for Hawk, I was struck by the blending of autobiography, literary allusion and a socio-historical study of landscape which both authors adopt.
Macdonald and Laing are both haunted by literary predecessors, lending their texts a sense of homage to those who have gone before. In H is for Hawk, Macdonald’s personal account is woven alongside the experiences of T.H. White, a writer known for The Sword in the Stone, whose own account of raising a bird of prey is documented in his book The Goshawk. Laing’s narrative is steeped in Virginia Woolf and her last walk into the Ouse in March 1941. Here, the river is revitalising and destructive, running simultaneously through both life and death.
Both women are writing about a time of grief which led them to immerse themselves in the natural world. For Macdonald, the trauma of the death of her father causes her to retreat from human society in to the wild world of the goshawk, whilst the breakdown of Laing’s long-term relationship leads to a pilgrimage-like journey along a river that holds both personal and literary significance. As such, both texts seek solace in something older and bigger than a mere individual; the natural world that was here before and will remain after life has ended. The life of Helen’s goshawk and Olivia’s river runs far deeper than human experience and the writers lose themselves in their vast expanse. Laing writes of her pleasure at swimming in the river and ‘abandoning myself to something vastly beyond my control’. These writers turn away from the present and retreat in to the wild to cope with their trauma.
But the nature in these books is not one of Wordsworthian wonder. It isn’t a landscape that one looks out at, awestruck and inspired. It is earthly, vicious, feral, unpredictable. It is all-consuming. Despite the patterings of humans, the river pulls onwards through its winding course, the hawk beats its wings. Crucially, the worlds inhabited by these writers, and by us all, are made sensible through our experiences. At the end of H is for Hawk, Helen reflects upon her journey with the hawk: ‘In my time with Mabel I’ve learned how you feel more human once you have known, even in your imagination, what it is like to be not. And I have learned, too, the danger that comes in mistaking the wildness we give a thing to the wildness that inhabits it.’ When we slip into the wild discomfort of nature, we do so with human perceptions, human reactions and through human experience.
Virginia Woolf is known to have loved walking and wrote vociferously about its curative impact. At the end, she walked knowingly to her death and slipped quietly into a river, leaving her walking stick behind on the bank. The river continues to flow, but Woolf has gone. She lives on not through the flowing waters of the river, but through memory, through her writing, through the endurance of human emotion and sentiment, even after death. As these writers mediate their grief, they seek solace in the comfort of other writers, of other lives, of other traumas. Shadows are often cast in books by those departed and these are no exception; Helen’s father, Olivia’s former partner, Virginia Woolf and T.H. White all linger just beneath the surface.