Grief and the savagery under the surface

Grief and the savagery under the surface

I was walking my dog early in the morning a few weeks ago. It was lightening up, but the sun wasn’t above the horizon yet. Freddie heard something and stopped, riveted.

As I followed his gaze, I saw a hawk of some kind scrambling out of the middle of a bush. He was stressed and didn’t take his eyes off Freddie until he became airborne.

I wondered if a rabbit or bird had been spared because of our interruption.

Hawks are on my mind lately because I just finished reading H is for Hawk by Helen Macdonald. It is a book about a woman’s grief for her father, her training of a goshawk and about the savagery that goes on under the surface in our lives.

As Macdonald’s grief bears down on her, she slips out of the human world into the world of her goshawk, where nature’s laws rule. As she helps her gos hunt, she becomes accessory to the bloody deaths of stolen partridges and vulnerable rabbits.

She descends into a sort of madness and out of the grasp of human contact. In the savage world of her bird, Mabel, brutal, gory hunting gives Macdonald distance from the smothering blanket of her grief.

It is a powerful book, and I recommend it even though I was sometimes repelled by it. Macdonald’s grief feels out of control, dangerous and consuming. Her symbiosis with Mabel becomes frightening.

As a reader, I felt desperate for her to find human contact and human comfort, to emerge from the madness of the mind of a hawk.

The book swept me up, too. I remembered my own grief for my mother, the feeling of suffocation, the way I became untethered.

Much of what happens with grief is unseen by others. It is a lonely experience, and I suspect pretty different from one person to the next.

But, there’s a lot going on under the surface in this world. We need to learn to see it and to bear witness to it.

A week after Freddie and I watched that hawk scramble into flight, we left the house. As soon as we were outside, I heard birds screaming. There’s no other word for it. They weren’t singing. They were in distress.

I stopped to investigate and walked toward a tree where a commotion was taking place. There he was, our neighborhood hawk, gazing down with bloodlust in his eyes at our songbirds.

As Freddie and I approached, he made eye contact with me, surveyed his missed opportunity and gracefully took flight.

These life and death struggles to eat and avoid being eaten take place in my backyard every day and night. But I haven’t been looking or listening for them. I haven’t been bearing witness to them.

I wonder how much I miss in the people around me, the sights and sounds of distress. There’s pain beneath the surface. Grief rages. Fear whispers.

It’s a life and death struggle, maybe happening in the car next to me at a stop light. Inside the heart of the driver I don’t see.

I think of the world a little differently after reading H is for Hawk. I think about the savagery under the surface of my world. I think about how to make suffering a little less lonely for others.

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