Wednesday, July 20, 2016


Students MUST post reactions ( minimum 250 words) to the assigned reading/listening/viewing linked below. Students are encouraged (but not required) to additionally respond to other student reactions.

H is for HAWK by Helen MacDonald: "Forty-five minutes north-east of Cambridge is a landscape I’ve come to love very much indeed. It’s where wet fen gives way to parched sand. It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burnt-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs and US Air Force bases. In spring it’s a riot of noise: constant plane traffic, gas-guns over pea fields, woodlarks and jet engines. It’s called the Brecklands – the broken lands – and it’s where I ended up that morning, seven years ago, in early spring, on a trip I hadn’t planned at all." Click heading to read rest of excerpt.

Listen to an interview with Helen MacDonald HERE. Watch an interview with Helen MacDonald HERE.


  1. “Bereavement. Or, bereaved. Bereft. It’s from the Old English bereafian, meaning ‘to deprive of, take away, seize, rob’. Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone. Shocking loss isn’t to be shared, no matter how hard you try. I can’t, even now, arrange it in the right order. The memories are like heavy blocks of glass.”
    The entire section reminded me about the class activity we did on emotions. By seizing on the dreaded moment in her life, Helen Macdonald hooks the reader in by using an unusual intro. Normally, people would jump in right at the part of the family member and yet Helen uses a dictionary word in order to act as a springboard. It gives the reader a sense that Helen could not find a true way to explain her conflicting feelings and therefore by using a definition it somehow lights a path for the reader to follow.
    After seeing the interview on YouTube, there was one thing that stood out the most. The part where she says how the hawk is like the ideal version of what she wants to be (Free from grief, fierce and powerful, etc.) and how compares it to herself and sees the flaws she has. It is actually similar in sociology in terms of culture. In an ideal culture, people believe for example that beauty is in a person’s personality and character. But in real culture, people only see in beauty in looks from the outside. In sociology it is called the culture conflict (ideal vs. real culture).
    I wasn’t actually able to listen to the audio interview because for some reason it kept saying that the page could not be found.

    Comment posted by Mena

  2. H is for Hawk by Helen MacDonald

    To me this piece of writing is definitely very unique to the other pieces we have previously read yet still very beautifully written. First off she begins by thoroughly describing the Hawk using words and descriptive language that specifically embodies the Hawk in a way that helps the reader connect to it and essentially see what she sees in the Hawk. For instance, I have no connection, nor do I truly find a Hawk pertaining or significant to my life, however, the language she uses humanizes the Hawk and really brings it to life on the page and as a reader you almost begin to see what she sees in the Hawk and the reasons why she feels so strongly about it.

    Through out the piece, MacDonald soon makes a revelation that came by complete surprise by announcing the unexpected and unfortunate death of her father. As her story emerges she alludes to the pain, emptiness, grief and sorrow that she felt after her father’s passing. She points out that she isolated herself from her friends and from the world. She essentially emphasizes how her Hawk provided her with a sense of security and stability in this difficult time of coping with her father’s death.

    Furthermore, I find it rather eloquently written how she describes the Hawk in her writing, this line particularly stood out to me, “a disarticulated beak, a house-sparrow beak top, or bottom, a little conical bead of blushed gunmetal, slightly translucent, with a few faint maxillary feathers adhering to it. But maybe you have: maybe you’ve glanced out of the window and seen there, on the lawn, a bloody great hawk murdering a pigeon, and it looks the hugest, most impressive piece of wildness you’ve ever seen”, mostly because as I read it the words simply flowed and I created this exact image in my head, I created a white still sky, a day where the sun wasn’t shining, yet so peaceful and tranquil but still a sense of apprehension within me. Essentially, with her descriptions it allowed me to put myself in her shoes and see her perspective and emotions through her lens, which I feel is ultimately a writer’s goal.
    - Julissa Peralta

  3. The author starts out with a paragraph about getting out of bed and driving, guided by some unknown impulse to a destination unknown to her until she is halfway there. I can relate to this urge to get up and drive somewhere and have myself gotten up and went for walks at odd hours. But it was her impulse specifically to drive that made me think she was American. Hah! It wasn't until I got to the sentence mentioning the A14 that I recognized that this was not unfolding in the USA. The hawk for her is both symbolic and refers to significant memories. She sees something in the hawk that she recognizes as good or beautiful, and perhaps desires it for herself: the hawk can soar, it is free, it is wild and untamed yet somehow elegant when it would "slip down, fast, like a knife-cut, a smooth calligraphic scrawl..." How does she see herself, I wonder? We can speak of a spirit animal. I don't know exactly what that is but it certainly works in fiction: depict a character that has an attraction to a specific animal that represents something about the character. It's like writing about a character's relation to an object, but with more potential because the hawk is an animal rather than an inanimate object. Later the hawk is associated not only with memory but with dreams that link to the past. I would say that she may even be obsessed with hawks! I guess that is why Prof A-Dawg tells us to write about things that we are obsessed with.

    I was confused about when she says something is happening and she is 9 years old. Seems like she cut without warning from the present to the past.

    Phrases I liked: "pitchy vinegar of pine ants." "But one, set one free."

  4. After reading "H is for Hawk" I was remarkably impressed at how Helen MacDonald was able to take a technical, nonfiction subject and still be able to create descriptive, colorful sentences. She incorporated trainer terminology, bird anatomy/hawk slang along with dense settings and internal dialogue.
    MacDonald incorporates the death of her father and her own emotions into the story as well. It isn't just a hawk trainer manual: get acquainted with the hawk, train the hawk with food, understand the hawk- no. Instead, her hawk training tells a story much deeper, one about herself. It tells about the journey that she had to go through with the loss of her father, the isolation from her friends and family while training the hawk, and the symbolic release of the hawk, where MacDonald also "sets herself free." (I got as much from the interview).
    While MacDonald's writing was colorful and descriptive, I also found it deliciously raw. It wasn't as metaphoric and dense as Russell's and also not as straight and to the point as the work we read by Neil Gaiman. Instead, to me, it was a happy medium. I love the short lines and the powerful emotions she conveys. "Robbed. Seized. It happens to everyone. But you feel it alone." This is what makes the story feel so real and raw to me even amongst the descriptive and hawk language.
    I also really enjoyed how she broke up a description of the hawk into different sentences, some short, some long. It was as if I was inside her mind, hearing her thoughts as they poured into her brain--

    "The hawk’s wings, barred and beating, the sharp fingers of her dark-tipped primaries cutting the air, her feathers raised like the scattered quills of a fretful porpentine. Two enormous eyes. .... She is a conjuring trick. A reptile. A fallen angel. A griffon from the pages of an illuminated bestiary. Something bright and distant, like gold falling through water."

  5. H is for Hawks-I find that her writing picks apart everything she comes in contact with. Every other sentence is a flowery description of the preceding one. I can appreciate the poetry of the writing because in these detailed descriptions she is showing her deep love for the area, and the animal; Wet fen gives way to parched sand, or piney resin and pitchy vinegar woodants invites the reader to see and smell what she has experienced. The comparison she makes when she says goshawk resembles sparrowhawks the way leopards resemble house cats, paints a vivid picture of the differences.I loved the lines comparing looking for goshawks to looking for grace, and the wild as human work. These two lines shows the connectiveness of the divine and man in maintaining nature.
    As she came to realize her father's lesson of patience and durability through the description of the reindeer moss her father was gone. But this moss is also like her father in that for her neither die. She dissects the word bereaved as if to make it more real for her; memories like heavy blocks...
    Her description of the release of the wounded bird with it's pre-historic scented feathers, was her release of her father too.
    Her wanting the younger hawk I see as her paying homage to her father's training, her wanting to honor him by being using what he taught her. Her interaction with this bird was her relationship with her dad realized.
    Although her writing is very detailed in it's description of things, I found it to be too fussy and distracting.

  6. H is for Hawk-
    Helen Macdonald’s fascination for hawks makes her writing so much more vivid. Since she knows so much and holds so much experience with these creatures, it is easy for the reader to paint a picture of her experiences with them. I find it really impressive with how much she knows about hawks and the different types. By reading this article I feel as if I learned a lesson on hawks. When watching the Q&A video with her, instead of reading about her extreme fascination you can actually see it when she talks. When Macdonald talks about the birds it sounds as if she is in love with the species. I read the article after I watched the video (I could only watch the Q&A because whenever I clicked on the link for the other video it would tell me the page could not be found). In her article she describes the birds not only vividly, but it is almost like reading poetry for some parts. Such as “weeks passed. The season changed. The leaves came, the mornings filled with light, the swifts returned, screaming past my Cambridge house through the skies of early summer” (Macdonald). This is just one tiny portion of course. I also find it amazing that she can control an animal that is pretty large and usually they are so free.
    -Kyle Tortorelli

  7. As someone who is completely petrified by birds, I’m going to assume I read this story quite differently than most other students. I basically read with pins and needles in my arms, and shivers cascading down my spine, eagerly checking that there were no goshawks hiding in my New Brunswick apartment. At first I read this story thinking it was fiction, a fantasy, and that goshawks were a made up animal. The way Macdonald described these beasts was something of fantasy and mystery; but as I continued reading I realized that this was a true encounter with the birds and that yes, they are very real.

    Macdonald’s descriptions of the animal were fantastic; they sent shivers down my spine and made me shudder at the vivid-ness. I could imagine the animal gliding through the air, stalking prey with ease. Specifically the scenes where she meets Mabel, and where we rescues the old goshawk left a lasting impression on me. One thing I really liked and noticed was how she described the birds as “reptillian,” which I have never seen before. I really enjoyed that comparison because it allowed me to see all of the reptile-like features a bird may have.

    One thing I do have to say, is that I wish this excerpt was broken up more. Such as if this is the first chapter of the book, I wish it was actually the first three chapters of the book. Something about having many different scenes in a chapter confuse me a, and make me lose the grasp of time and place of the story. I think the scenes where she meets Mabel should differ from when she recounted the “injured” goshawk when her father passed away.

  8. Off the bat the author spends a lot of time describing the scenery and not so much time describing herself. I particularly like the image of the shotgun-peppered road signs. The specificity of the Goshawk, as a specific and special type of bird give a uniqueness to the story. I love the way she describes the Goshawk, it is almost as if she is describing a ghost.
    The language so far is very sturdy. Every sentence feels grounded to the page due to the fact that the author is not using very elaborate language. Rather, the language is very simple and accessible. “There they were. A pair, soaring above the canopy in the rapidly warming air... I smelt ice and bracken stems and pine resin. Goshawk cocktail.” Simple yet specific, powerful, and effective. Another thing I notice is that the author tells the reader what happens first, and then after goes on describing it.
    The parallels and motivations behind the story are something I feel we can all relate with. Macdonald says she started working with hawks as a way to occupy her mind after the death of her father. But more than that, she subconsciously identified with the hawk as a symbol of freedom and escape. Similarly, I believe many people choose to do the things they do because they are seeking some type of gratification. Often times we may be unaware of our reasons, but nonetheless they are there. I find Macdonald’s realization of her actions very noble.

  9. The point Helen MacDonald opens with (in the video interview) is kind of…bizarre. I mean, trying to sleep in anatomically straining positions in order to resemble a bird is weird, right? Actually, in retrospect, that sounds exactly like something I would do as a kid. Her going into how her bird (grouping?) of choice is used symbolically sort of adds to her narrative of using hawking as a method of letting go. Grieving is difficult and extremely personal; of course not everyone will choose to come to terms with death by training hawks, but it is certainly typical to return to the familiar when one feels emotionally or mentally hurt or strained. It’s a bit like a toddler regressing when a large change is introduced to their environment. Idolization is also, if I remember correctly, another defense mechanism that can be put into place during long periods of stress. MacDonald said that she idolized the goshawk for being fierce and present-minded and free from grief, implying that she recognized herself as none of these things at the time. Idolization, in this sense, would ground her in her desires to emulate as well as give her some ideal to look up to. There are many problems with idolization as a defense mechanism (most of which I won’t go into) but, of course, MacDonald could not become exactly like a hawk in the way that a sub-sentient bird is a hawk. The thing about defense mechanisms, however, is that sometimes they do what they are supposed to do– aid recovery. MacDonald could not transform into a goshawk, perhaps, but she could certainly take those qualities she had desired and take them for herself. Seeing as how she presented her idolization in the past tense, we can assume she managed to move on in time.

  10. Well in as much as I don't like birds at all, Mcdonald does show the simulation of how love between birds can also be shown in humans especially as she describs how the birds acend into the air together and the male swarms around the female as if he is protecting her from the elements that was a good analygy, but this was quite a confusing story because it went from that to the death of her father. I also liked how she talked of her father and patience, and that anything good in life is worth waiting for, (my own take on patience) which is true she had to wait to see the hawk and eventually it came. These birds are very smart in that they know what they need to do to protect. I think she used the pros of the birds in her own life, she ultimately was grieving her fathers death and she used that to train her bird. Grief is something that we all have to deal with in our own w whether we choose to do so or not, and we do it in different ways, her way was with the hawk and she put all she had into that which is what we do when we are hurt by death.

  11. I believe that this excerpt from “H is for Hawk” had a very clever title.

    It reminds me of the innocence and fascination of childhood. In my tiny little hands, I remember how I used to turn those little wooden blocks with letters carved into its each of its six sides. A is for Apple, B is for Boy, C is for Christmas and so forth.

    The only thing I liked about this piece was the gorgeous language she used. “It’s a land of twisted pine trees, burnt-out cars, shotgun-peppered road signs.” Shotgun-peppered … really gorgeous.

    But I wish she delved into the grief more. “I was on the floor. My legs broke, buckled, and I was sitting on the carpet, phone pressed against my right ear, listening to my mother and staring at that little ball of reindeer moss on the bookshelf” and “the memories are like heavy blocks of glass” were the only moments of the raw stuff that I really got; I was hoping for more.

    Instead, she essentially blocks out the grief by hanging onto a childhood obsession of birds. “Now I was a hermit with a hawk in a darkened room with books on three walls, a faded Afghan rug, and a sofa of stained yellow velvet.” She completely consumes herself with “hawking”, and clearly doesn’t care about much else.

    Quite clearly, she’s semi-permanently stuck in the denial phase of grieving for an unknown amount of time. I feel like she doesn't want to move on. And on that level, that's why I couldn't relate to this reading. We all deal with the process of grieving differently, but I felt like changing your obsession away from the fact that your father died to attempting (maybe succeeding) to train a wild, untamable creature isn't the way to deal with grief.

    I’m sure Macdonald’s book as a whole was a lot better, but it was really hard to grasp a sense of time in this excerpt.

  12. This piece really managed to capture a lot of soft spots for me. From Helen's father's sudden death, feelings of refuge deep in the woods, all the way through to keen spiritual affinity for birds of prey, though I have always considered myself a peregrine falcon of sorts. I love the way her prose flows as well. A master of telling details, the words evoke crystal clear images. Take the flashback to seeing the mature female out of the edge of England. That passage created in my mind a vivid picture of both the room and the bird, but then in her descriptions of the hawk's size, she made me adjust the dimensions of each of them until the hawk was this hulking centerpiece. I think there were only two sentences in the piece that I had to reread for clarity. All in all, this made for really exceptional storytelling. As someone else pointed out, it can be extremely difficult taking nonfiction and bringing it to life with rich imagery and excellent plot pacing.
    I also really enjoyed her manipulation of the reindeer moss throughout the text. In her initial fixation, she adorns a character too it, oak and permanent, and suddenly caps her paragraph by seamlessly flicking to her home, and the moss' home on the shelf beside the phone. The phone rings, recalling her to its immortal character and receives a contrasting reminder about the fragility and impermanence of human life. The object is now charged with this complex relationship, and she recalls the moss to the reader a handful of times following that first mention. I thought that was expertly maneuvered.

    I might have to get myself a hawk now.

  13. The interview reminded me of one had i seen of a writer many years ago. James O'barr wrote the comic book turned cult classic movie 'The Crow'. I recall him giving a similar interview where he explained that writing it for him was "one last love letter", to a girlfriend of his who had died in a car accident. Having a truly deep emotional well that's been filled up by tragedy seems to strengthen both of their writings. Also a bird symbolizing some sort of cathartic release for both authors is relevantly true from my perspective. As for the actual writing in “H is for Hawk” Macdonald is very colorful in her descriptions. Leaves are likened to pig skin giving the reader a sense of fabric-like texture, birds kite up, though admittedly I didn’t get that never having played with a kite. I also found it amusing that she spent a length of time describing the younger hawk that wasn’t even hers. But then how she described the older hawk that was hers, comparatively actually got me to chuckle. “A Victorian melodrama, a sort of madwoman on the attack”. To me this was Macdonald’s version of anthropomorphizing her hawk into a drama queen or diva of some sort. Can’t imagine why she was compelled to take the first one.