We read straight H is for Hawk straight through, riveted by Helen McDonald’s tale of grappling with numbing grief by training a fierce goshawk, as gripping and unusual a tale of personal transformation as we have read. We marked many passages with post-its and find ourselves returning to McDonald’s superb writing and insights frequently, deeply heartened by their beauty and perspective.
This short section set the tone of our day, reminding us that signs and wonders are to be found in the most ordinary of circumstances if we only just look.
Now that Dad was gone I was starting to see how mortality was bound up in things like that cold, ark-lit sky. How the world is full of signs and wonders that come, and go, and if you are lucky you might see them. Once, twice. Perhaps never again. The albums on my mother’s shelves are full of family photographs. But also other things. A starling with a crooked beak. A day of hoarfrost and smoke. A cherry tree thick with blossom. Thunderclouds, lightning strikes, comets and eclipses: celestial event terrifying in their blind distances but reassuring you, too, that the world is for ever, though you are only a blink in its course.
Henri Cartier-Bresson called the taking of a good photograph a decisive moment. ‘Your eye must see a composition or an expression that life itself offers you, and you must know with intuition when to click the camera,’ he said. ‘the Moment! Once you miss it, it is gone for ever.’
I thought of one of those moments as I sat there waiting for the hawk to eat from my hand. It was a black-and-white photograph my father had taken many years ago of an elderly street-cleaner with a white goatee beard, wrinkled socks and down-at-heel shoes. Crumpled work trousers, work gloves, a wooden beret. The camera is low, on the pavement: Dad must have crouched in the road to take it. the man is bending down, his besom of birch twigs propped against his side. He has taken off one of his gloves, and between the thumb and first finger of his bare hand he is offering a crumb of bread to a sparrow on the kerbstone. The sparrow is caught mid-hop at exactly the moment it takes the crumb from his fingers. And the expression on the man’s face is suffused with joy. He is wearing the face of an angel.
…If you are lucky you might see them.
Read a fine profile of McDonald and H is for Hawk at The New Yorker; it is the source of the wonderful portrait at top.